I live in Los Angeles where it is possible to get involved in local government at a grassroots level through the neighborhood council system. Since Los Angeles is so big – we have a mayor with a large staff and 15 different city council members who represent a different portion of Los Angeles, each with their own field staff and a downtown staff, acting as mini mayors with their own fiefdoms, we also have neighborhood councils that govern themselves and try to improve the quality of life in individual neighborhoods.
I live in the San Fernando Valley, with a population of almost a million and half people, darn near half of the population of the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles loves us, not for our contributions to the local culture, but for our cash contributions. The Valley is a cash cow for the city – we pay a lot in local taxes, but don’t get nearly as much back in return services. We are ignored most of the time by most of the departments of the City. We’ve tried to secede from L.A. to be our own incorporated city but since the rest of L.A. would have to agree to that, our efforts have been in vain. They laugh at us “over the hill” and refer to us as a suburban waste land, but they’re not laughing when they get new cultural programs, street services, and public art.
To pacify us and make us feel like we have some sort of voice downtown, the neighborhood council system was developed. The city was divided into 95 different neighborhoods where each neighborhood elects its own volunteer board to represent them downtown and to communicate its needs and questions to their city council member. This is a democratic experiment, as all volunteer boards try and work together to respond to the needs, demands and whims of their neighborhoods.
I ran for and won, an at-large seat on the Reseda Neighborhood Council in September of 2012. Reseda is a funky neighborhood in the central part of the Valley. It used to have a thriving business district with a theatre, roller rink, and famous concert venue known as The Country Club. When the mall was built in the west valley, that put our small businesses out of business. The roller rink eventually closed, the theatre was condemned, and The Country Club is now a Spanish speaking church, one of many along Sherman Way. Lots of promises were made by the California Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to rebuild parts of the business district, but those promises were never kept and more businesses had to fold. Because of this, we have our share of crime, trash, blight, and graffiti. We’re not a destination place anymore. People drive right through to get to someplace else.
I felt that I could contribute my skills, resources and energy into improving the quality of life in Reseda and I have. I have done a pretty good job as secretary, keeping track of records and making sure that agendas and minutes are distributed in a timely fashion. As Outreach Chair, I’ve proven myself to be good for Reseda by producing a couple of successful events while working really hard to generate more support and enthusiasm for the neighborhood council and Reseda in general. I’m satisfied with my performance and am willing to keep doing this, even though I have to take a lot of crap from some pretty bizarre people.
The crap is what comes with democracy. Democracy really is messy and imperfect, because everybody has a voice, no matter how naive, self serving, prejudiced, or down right crazy that voice might be. Egos can be a problem. Personal vendettas play themselves out with innocent newcomers who have nothing to do with past grievances. Mistakes are made. People get mad. There is plenty of gossip. Some people do right by their service, and some do not. Some are reliable and some are not. Some fairly represent the entire community, and some only represent a select group.
Just like Washington.