Local Politics: How to Get Involved Now

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Getting active in your neighborhood council can be daunting. Rebecca Leib shares her journey to joining the front lines of local politics — and how you can do the same.

I’ve never been a “joiner,” per se. I was never involved in student council, I reviled sports, and I was high on overcooked weed brownies through most of my Jewish youth group. So when I told my straight-laced attorney dad I had been elected to my local neighborhood council, he laughed. “Who would’ve thought, the first elected official in the family!” Then his face got serious. “Does it pay?”

It, in fact, does not! And that’s one of the things you should know if you’re considering running for neighborhood council in Los Angeles. It doesn’t pay, it is fairly time-consuming and meetings involve a range of personalities: agenda’d Echo Park prima donnas, wandering homeless, bored children, the buzzed 22-year-old Bird rep. It’s all an adventure, though — and it’s one that quite honestly has the capability for lasting change.

While most of the councils are fairly active, odds are you don’t know much about them.

The Neighborhood Council System was founded to bridge the city government to the many, many, many communities in Los Angeles. They advocate on behalf of their communities on issues like zoning, homelessness, development, outreach, emergency preparedness and — if you’re in my neighborhood council — the very important issue of Dodgers game-day parking and merch sales.

There are 99 neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, each serving about 40,000 people and funded by taxpayer money. While the councils originally served as sounding boards and forums, they can and do lots of other great things like installing showers and bathrooms near homeless encampments, funding festivals, reinforcing recycling initiatives and, of course, representing the people. Hey, just ask the 25 people who voted me into office.

Yes, only 25 people. The people who voted me into office could fit inside of a public school classroom, or if you’re that buzzed 22-year-old Bird rep, four highly hideous and environmentally unsound UberXs.

There is very little communication between residents and the councils, which is disappointing, but understandable given the inconsistent outreach on the part of the city and the councils themselves.

I caught wind of the neighborhood council via NextDoor, wedged between a post about a lost rabbit and a $50 kitchen table. I’m hoping to change that through my involvement by upping outreach, communication and participation, and that’s where you come in! I’m going to give you a simple guide to getting into your local neighborhood council, what your responsibilities are once you get in, and how you can use the council as a tool for change.

Pick a Region

First, it’s important to note that you don’t have to live in the community where you’re running. You can live there, but if you work there or have any tie to an area, you can still run for that neighborhood council.

For example, let’s say you live in Los Feliz, but a Great Dane named Butterscotch pulled you from a burning craftsman home in Pico Union, and you developed a deep bond with her via walks around Echo Park Lake. You could run in any of the districts within those communities. All this fun zoning stuff, along with more information on the councils, can be found on the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s website. (They’re the agency that oversees neighborhood councils.)

You can also run “at large,” which just means you’d be up for one of the seats in Pico Union — if perhaps you don’t wanna rep the specific region of people who got you into that sticky “burning craftsman home” situation.

There are nine “at large” seats up for grabs in each community and two seats per specific district. The neighborhood council elections happen every four and two years. Chances are they just happened — if you’re reading this piece in a timely manner. But don’t fret! Seeing as the position is unpaid and lasts for years and years, people step down all the time. Things happen — people move, have kids, get a new job, travel a lot, suffer from some kind of political grassroots family curse, go to jail, die and sometimes just not feel like it anymore. Really, there are two ways to go about getting one of those hot councilperson seats:

Get Elected

You can wait for elections, register and campaign. This is what I did. I registered with a snappy candidate statement, one of the 9,000 selfies I took of myself that looked semi-decent and a commitment to serve. Oh, and I used my office copier to print a bunch of color signs that I posted around the neighborhood, in both English and Spanish.

Other council people said I did more than others have, which felt, admittedly, a little thirsty. But, it did snag me the seat by double the votes of the other three candidates.

Play the Long Game

The much easier way to join your neighborhood council — but with less glory — is to wait for a position to open up in one of the districts. This, in my experience, happens often. If you go to meetings (schedules can be found here) or participate in committees, (monthly groups that advocate for specific parts of the neighborhood council’s agendas) you’ll get a sense of how things work.

And, hey, if you’re a calm and reasonably intelligent person, you’ll get in good with committee chairs and council people. What’s a nice way to say this? The neighborhood councils are drowning in personality, so like I said above, if you can be relatively responsible, collected and conscientious, you will be welcomed. You can check in with your neighborhood council executive board to let them know you’re interested if and when a spot opens up.

Either way, I would highly encourage you to talk to people like me who have a seat on the council — they’ll give you good advice. Their names and contact information can be found here. There’s also a great EmpowerLA hotline that I have used a lot in the past. The EmpowerLA.org site is great, but very dense, so often I’d give (213) 978-1551 a ring to field a question (taxpayer money at work, baby!).

Oh Shit, You’re In!

Once you do gain a seat on the council — congratulations! Now immediately get your own neighborhood council email to field the barrage of messages from EmpowerLA, the City of L.A. and other council people. May I recommend: your name, followed by “NC” somewhere? I creatively chose [email protected] (please, hold your applause).

You’ll also need to start on the training immediately, so you’ll be able to vote at your first meeting. A warning: council meetings are once a month and typically go for three to four 4 hours. You’ll also be expected to serve on one committee, so anticipate participation, which includes reading and responding to those emails, to fall somewhere in the realm of eight-20 hours a week.

And yet, it’s been really fun. I’m still new to my position and have a lot to learn, but for me being a part of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council has already felt like I’m very directly doing good for my community. Our current political climate can feel pretty bleak, to say the least; it’s easy to disengage. While haggling for 30 minutes over the placement of a parking spot, or a proposed bar’s operating hours or what kind of trash liners should be in the bins doesn’t feel like much, it’s the tiny gestures of activism — within my district, community and region — that I hope will eventually transform my neighborhood and (with your help!) Los Angeles.

Los Angeleno