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The Power, Money and Glamour of Being on the Neighborhood Council—NOT!

An “outsider’s” view of what it’s like being on the Studio City Neighborhood Council.

For two years as the Studio City Patch editor, I’ve had a chance to intimately observe the Studio City Neighborhood Council. I’ve also seen how this group is one of the most misunderstood community groups I’ve ever come across in nearly four decades of reporting.

This Thursday, Sept. 20 is the first election of the Council that Patch has covered. Elections in the past have generated more than 1,000 voters. Expectations are that this year can be more—and that is great for the community.

While I will not be endorsing any candidate, or slate that is running, I’ll give you an overview of our local Council, and what they’re all about.

First of all, what the heck is it? Los Angeles started this unique Neighborhood Council system as a response to angry and disenfranchised citizens who felt that their tax dollars weren’t coming back to their community—particularly in the more wealthy communities like Studio City. That resulted in the Valley Secession movement.

About a decade ago, these advisory committees were formed as a touchstone for community concerns, and as advisors and sounding boards to the elected fulltime Los Angeles City officials. Now there are 95 councils across the city, and they control about $45,000 that they can distribute to the community, for outreach, for events, to schools and more.

For the past two years, I’ve heard criticisms and concerns, as well as hundreds of emails, from people who have accused those on the Council as benefitting from their positions and being power hungry. I find these accusations baffling—and they’re usually coming from people who haven’t attended one of the council meetings. 

First of all, there’s no money involved for any of the Council members. They don’t get paid, they don’t get a stipend, they don’t get a free car. In fact, their reimbursements for Council expenses are all public, they are rigorously screened and pre-approved, and in many instances they are simply donated out of the Council member’s own pocket. 

Then, there’s the perceived “power.” Well, maybe a city councilman will recognize you because of your position on the Neighborhood Council, but it doesn’t get you any chance to cut corners if a city building inspector comes knocking at your door. If anything, they’re more stringent about making you follow the rules.

Power? Their Council badge and 50-cent may get them a cup of coffee. Actually, no, it won’t, that would cost them $3.25 for a Tall Latte.

There’s no “power” being on the Neighborhood Council. Maybe you know better where to go in the city for help, maybe you get hints about cutting through some red tape, but there’s no particular advantage. So you may get an occasional free parking space at City Hall. But you don’t get to go to movies for free. You don’t get in free to George Clooney’s house when President Obama comes to town.

What about the glitz and glamour? Well, there is a little of that. The Studio City Neighborhood Council has the clout of attracting every person running for Los Angeles Mayor, as well as city, state and national politicians.

One of my favorite photos is of Council President John Walker in a sea of legendary actors taken during the 75th anniversary of Republic Pictures (the site of the CBS Studio Radford lot). Jane Withers came up to ask me, “Who is that nice man over there, he’s cute!” 

There’s no secrecy—everything is covered by the Brown Act. How you vote is public, and often scrutinized. There’s little privacy—emails, phone calls and house visits come to each of the members at all hours of the day or night as they become the sounding board for complaints from everyone in the community.

I’ve personally witnessed the mounds of reports, research and data that Lisa Sarkin has collected at her house after years of being on committees and regional organizations. She’s not only seen as a respected local historian, but she is thoroughly connected to city departments, and her work on the response to the Universal Evolution Expansion Plan was considered impressive by everyone who bothered sifting through it.

Running on an uncontested seat, Scott Ouellette was instrumental in hammering out a Residential Floor Area plan with former Council member Alan Dymond that is not only being looked at on a citywide level, but by other communities across the nation.

Two eminently qualified people are running for the At-Large seat. Lisa Cahan Davis has usually played a behind-the-scenes role for major Outreach projects such as the Republic Pictures 75th Anniversary, the street banners along Ventura Boulevard and getting the word out about many other local community events.

Sam Humeid has put a face on the people who run medical marijuana dispensaries. He spent hours explaining the Council how his business helps community members, and he was on a committee that helped hammer out a palatable way for those businesses to work in communities like Studio City. Unfortunately, those plans and proposals were scuttled as the city and national officials intervened.

And don’t think the people on the Council are all reflective of the stereotyped liberal Democrats that make up a majority of Studio City. Former Council Vice President Todd Royal was a conservative Republican who moved out of the area, and Ben DiBenedetto, who recently decided not to run again for the Council, is also a Republican. 

Former Council member Michael McCue, route: {:controller=>"articles", :action=>"show", :id=>"michael-mccue-moved-thats-why-he-left-the-neighborhood-council"} --> may have been a thorn in the side for many of the members, but he remained a vocal voice for environmental issues, and is now a leader in the Green Party. Former member used his expertise with the city Los Angeles Fire Department to educate the Council, and

Ben Neumann September 20, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Dear Mike, I read your article with a big smile on my face. As the outgoing council member and former president of this amazing group of people, community leaders and neighborhood advocates, I have to say that in my 7 year tenure I have never seen anybody publicly spelling out in a better and more real way what many of us having been and are still thinking, as you did in this article. Thank you for so candidly sharing your unique insight into our little and sometimes challenging, but also very rewarding world. Thank you also for spending many of those long nights along with us in the CBS meeting room to help change our beautiful Studio City community for the better. The SCNC has been a long time coming, but because of hard work, lots of personal dedication, loyal and engaged board members and stakeholder as well as people such as you and a few others who have continuously supported us along the way, we were able to get some great things done and change the way city hall looks at neighborhood councils today. Personally, I can't wait to see what the next generation of neighborhood councils will be like.
Rita C. Villa September 20, 2012 at 10:55 PM
Mike: On the eve of the SCNC elections, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the article you wrote. The members of the SCNC board are all volunteers. We put in countless hours working to preserve the quality of life in Studio City because we care deeply about our community. I am sure that some of your readers may not have been aware of the issues you addressed. Thank you for caring enough to attend our meetings and report on issues of importance to our stakeholders. Rita C. Villa
Sue Taylor September 21, 2012 at 05:06 AM
There is no doubt that it is oftentimes a thankless job, and that much effort and many long hours are devoted to serving the community by the members of this board. But Mike, to suggest that they do not have power by virtue of being elected to this board is simply erroneous. Members of the board may not be celebrities or recognized on the street, they may not be asking for building inspectors to cut corners, but they certainly have the power of influence with city officials and in city departments that typical citizens simply do not have. While they are elected to represent the community, personal agendas are inevitable and the community is not always united or in agreement with the positions they take. So make no mistake, there is power and influence weilded in those positions. Like all political stuff - it's great if you agree with them, not so much if you don't. Sadly, from the seemingly low attendance I saw at the polls this afternoon, I'm not sure that many local citizens recognize the importance of these elected board members and the power that they have to influence what happens in our community. Hopefully I'm wrong and I just happened to arrive at a particularly quiet time. But it was a far cry from the buzz and activity that surrounded the last heated and contentous election.
Richard Niederberg September 21, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Dear Sue, The Studio City Neighborhood Council is advisory only, so there is no actual power. The SCNC speaks ONLY as a 'Corporate Body' on issues, and all issues are discussed publicly at properly Noticed meetings pursuant to the Brown Act. Even if a Board member had an 'personal agenda', it is only the official, collective, voted-upon view that would see the light of day and become part of the record, so the holder of that ' personal agenda' would soon become frustrated that it is not be acted upon.
Sue Taylor September 21, 2012 at 11:58 PM
Richard, just because it is advisory and don't have a direct vote on the City Council does not mean its members (individually or collectively) do not have power. Influence with elected officials provides power that the everyday stakeholder just simply does not have as an individual. If their advise and influence had no effect, there would be no reason to have an advisory board. And aside from the corporate body, members also occasionally assert their influence with city representatives to make special requests, access information, request investigations, etc. All things an everyday stakeholder simply would be unlikely to achieve. I'm not suggesting that power and influence isn't necessary to get things done. But to say that there is no power is a bit misleading at best.

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