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Redefining LA's city commissions to improve citizen involvement

Los Angeles City Hall
Los Angeles City Hall
Grant Slater/KPCC

Los Angeles was defined a century ago as a low-rise city with a low-rise government. A tenuous yet vital place whose boundaries enclosed farms and homesteads large and small, Los Angeles would have a strong council, reflecting the city’s sprawl, and a weak mayor, suggesting the diminished significance of downtown.  

To actually run the city, though, the charter also created LA’s unique commissions: volunteer panels under the mayor’s authority to oversee functions ranging from the police and public works departments to libraries and animal control. The commissioners were expected to be noteworthy citizens—mostly men, mostly insiders—of achievement and substance. There are now some 50 commissions and some 300 appointed commissioners. Some, like the Police Commission, have become major change agents. Others, like the Housing Commission, have been prone to failure. Over the decades, some appointees have seemed superbly qualified, others looked more like people to whom the mayor owed a favor. Some commissions have been combined and some abolished. But despite sporadic criticism, the system has endured.

Now, a prominent local NGO is suggesting that the commissions perform a new function: deepening citizen participation in the commissions of city government.

“It’s part of giving people the tools to set the public agenda,” says Shane Goldsmith, incoming CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, who worked for Mayor Eric Garcetti when he was city councilman. A lifelong community activist, Goldsmith believes that the hundred-year-old commission system can, in the 21st Century, become  a critical tool to broaden the franchise of representation in a city whose voter turnout has sagged to 16% in the last election, and where even elected officials decry the sag in citizen involvement in government.

What Liberty Hill has done is to set up a "boot camp’’  to encourage and train activists from all over Los Angeles, prioritizing low income communities of color, to qualify for commission membership—and to add to the pool of candidates for Mayor Garcetti to choose from to fill some 300 commission vacancies.  The attendees at a recent sessions also included some prominent former city officials who’ve sat on commissions over the past decade.

The focus is to be on community activists and leaders from low income communities of color. But Liberty Hill stressed that it isn’t presuming to do anything but supplement the work Mayor Garcetti’s team is doing to compile its own roster of possible commissioners.

Raphe Sonenshein, the head of CSLA’s Pat Brown Institute who helped oversee the city charter reform process that addressed the commission system 12 years ago, thinks the Liberty Hall project shows promise. "The Los Angeles commission system is quite unusual among American cities in the scope they cover and at times the authority they wield. Yet there has been little training for new commissioners about their roles, expectations, and what they can hope to accomplish. So this effort starts to fill a void in Los Angeles government.’’

At the recent  informational meeting in the downtown Arts District, City Hall veterans sought to teach aspiring commission candidates what they can expect if they are picked and how to work best with city staff. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield noted that the Los Angeles commission system has been criticized for decades. But he contends that proposed alternate systems “May be more efficient, but they are not more democratic.”

Cecelia Estolano, who was a commission liaison staffer under Tom Bradley and Community Redevelopment Agency head under Antonio Villaraigosa, said that one of the most important things for an aspirant commissioner is attitude: “Even if you feel like you are not so important, you are very important. You are there for a reason—you have an expertise that probably no one else has.’’

Goldsmith adds, “We all believe that local government has to be more responsive. These people, with their experience in their communities, can make it that way.”