Staff Reporter

In case you thought the passage of charter reform ended the debate over how the city conducts its business, think again. The real battle is just getting started.

That's because the charter leaves it up to the City Council and a new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to develop ordinances to deal with such basic issues as how many neighborhood councils and area planning commissions there will be and what powers they will have.

How these and a host of related questions are answered over the next 12 to 18 months will determine the face of city government for decades to come.

"These two areas neighborhood councils and area planning commissions are where the public is going to see city government change the most," said Theresa Patsakis, Mayor Richard Riordan's aide assigned to charter implementation.

They will also have a profound impact on how developers do business in the city.

"I'm telling my clients to get their two cents in, because this process is going to define how planning projects are heard for much of the next century," said Larry Kosmont, a Los Angeles real estate consultant.

The first issue is determining who will craft the plan for neighborhood councils. The charter specifies that within the next four months, a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment must be created with a department head and seven commissioners chosen.

Riordan will nominate the department head and the seven commissioners; the City Council must then confirm the appointments.

"The effectiveness of the commissioners and the department head will be absolutely crucial to getting neighborhood councils off the ground on the right foot," said Councilman Joel Wachs.

The new department chief and staff will have only six to nine months to come up with a plan for neighborhood councils and present it to the council, which in turn will have six months to make any changes.

The process for forming area planning commissions is more straightforward. The City Council, with input from the city Planning Department and Planning Commission, must draft an implementing ordinance within the next year.

The area planning commissions will be appointed bodies with power over land-use decisions, while neighborhood councils are advisory bodies whose members will be chosen by the community.

The next major issue is funding, which could prove challenging given that a majority of the City Council was opposed to charter reform. The funding issue will likely turn on how many neighborhood councils and area planning commissions are proposed. On this point, there is no consensus.

Some say the neighborhood council boundaries should match the city's 35 community plan areas. That has the advantage of clearly defined boundaries and a manageable number of neighborhood councils.

But land-use consultant Craig Lawson said most of the planning areas cover three or four distinct neighborhoods.

"Should each one of these neighborhoods have its own council?" Lawson asked. If so, that could mean up to 150 councils, each of which must have its own operating funds.

As for area planning commissions, the charter states there must be "at least five."

But if there are only five, said Lawson, then the San Fernando Valley would likely end up with only one, and residents of outlying communities like Chatsworth or San Pedro might still have to travel 20 miles to the nearest commission meeting. Too many planning commissions, though, could run the risk of being too parochial.

"With 35 community plan areas, I can only hope we don't end up with 35 community planning bodies," Kosmont said. "That is hardly the streamlining of development that this city needs."

More important, though, is deciding which projects require approval from the area planning commissions and which from the citywide Planning Commission (which will be expanded from five to seven members).

For example, while nearly everyone agrees that the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport would have to go to the citywide Planning Commission, what about TrizecHahn Corp.'s Hollywood & Highland project, or the Staples Center arena?

On the neighborhood council side, a potential stumbling block is actually forming the councils. It will be up to the residents in each neighborhood to determine whether they want to form a council and how they should go about selecting the representatives to that council.

"This is not an automatic process; the councils have to be created by the residents," said Councilman-elect Nick Pacheco, who served on the Elected Charter Reform Commission and was a proponent of neighborhood councils. "That means we have to encourage the formation of these councils to educate the people on how these councils will work for them."

But this is no easy task, especially given the longstanding apathy of many residents toward local issues. In this month's election, only 17 percent of registered voters even bothered to go to the polls, comprising less than 3 percent of the total population. And while Angelenos have shown slightly more willingness to take an active role in their immediate neighborhoods, there is still the risk of relatively narrow participation.

Once the councils are set up, Wachs said he would like to establish an "early warning system," so that any significant project within that neighborhood would be referred first to the neighborhood council for advisory input. However, such a plan might run into opposition from developers wary of having to present projects to both neighborhood councils and area planning commissions before they even get to the citywide bodies.

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