Neighborhood Councils Should Be Able To Put Measures Including Proposed Charter Amendments On The Ballot

There are currently two ways to put a proposed amendment to the Los Angeles City Charter on the ballot, both authorized by the State Election Code at §9255. The first is with a petition signed by 15% of the registered voters, a goal which is essentially impossible to achieve without a great deal of money for signature collection.

The second is for the City Council to put the proposed amendment on the ballot by majority vote. This method is much more doable but it’s necessary to have a majority of the Council behind the change, and of course, that’s essentially impossible without a lot of money for campaign contributions and the like.

Either way, as I said, takes a lot of money to pull off, so the results aren’t likely to be in the interests of the people of Los Angeles. There are good reasons to make amending the Charter a slow and deliberate process, but there are no reasons that are in the interest of Angelenos for having the process accessible only to the wealthy.

But the Charter badly needs amending. The City Council is too small to be representative. Councilmembers have too much executive power in their own districts. The California Public Records Act is universally ignored with no consequences. The Ethics and Police Commissions aren’t functional at all. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance and no good way to fix it. We could really use a third way to amend. A way that the people of Los Angeles could actually use.

This third way should be slow and friction-filled enough to discourage frivolous measures, but feasible without spending a lot of money. Which brings us to the Neighborhood Council system. These much-maligned groups presently have only an advisory role, but the members are directly elected. So imagine if neighborhood councils had the power to put proposed Charter amendments directly on the ballot.

The details are to be worked out, but I’m thinking something like if a majority of NCs, or some kind of supermajority, passed resolutions approving a proposed amendment it would go on the ballot according to the same procedures that now apply to the two extant methods.

The best possible argument against this proposal is that it’s presently probably illegal. The Charter amendment process is governed by State law, and the law only provides the above-described methods. Making substantial changes in State law is already harder than amending the Charter, so what else can be done?

Maybe we could amend the Charter to require City Council to put amendment proposals on the ballot if a majority of NCs passed resolutions. It may well be illegal for a City charter to require governing bodies to pass laws, but it might not be. We won’t find out until there’s a public discussion about it.

Another argument against this proposal, not as good, is that some neighborhood councils are full of racist rich white homeowners and so can’t be trusted with actual power. I agree with the premise but not the conclusion. A lot of elected bodies are full of racists, up to and including the most powerful on earth. We can actually change this by organizing, as we’ve seen over the last year or so.

It’s also plausible that the very lack of power explains the low quality of some NC board members. Sane, competent, talented people don’t want to join groups where most of their energy will be spent fighting with angry racists. But real power will attract real candidates because the outcome will matter.

Not only that, but there are plenty of brave, effective, nonracist NCs in Los Angeles. They often lead where City Council won’t even create appearances. Just for instance compare Curren Price’s appalling ineptitude over the LAPD terror attack on his district with the Central Alameda NC’s recent emergency meeting and resolution calling for $900M in reparations and other healing measures.

Also, there’s nothing special about Charter amendments per se. We should talk about doing this for ordinary initiatives, referendums, and recalls as well.1 There’s no real danger to the City in creating powers like this, by the way. Any proposals would still have to be approved by a majority of the voters, so NCs wouldn’t have power over people, they’d just amplify power people already have.

It’s possible that giving NCs the power to create and approve ballot measures isn’t the solution, but the problem — that Angelenos have no effective way to put measures on the ballot to serve our own interests — is a real one. We need some solution to it, and this one seems right to me.

  1. Recalls may be slightly tricky because of districts. The whole City has an interest in who’s on the Council, but it’d be terrible if people who didn’t live in a district could orchestrate a recall against the wishes of the district residents. I don’t have a good solution to this, so I’m not really arguing for it here, but it’s possible something reasonable could be figured out.

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