Federalism from the Neighborhood Up: Los Angeles's Neighborhood Councils, Minority Representation, and Democratic Legitimacy


In 1999, the Los Angeles electorate approved an ambitious new charter for the city. One of the most important and controversial parts of the charter was the creation of a system of Neighborhood Councils. The Councils were designed to foster local ownership over municipal issues and to increase civic participation. Unlike systems of neighborhood governance in other cities, where a central board appointed representatives, these Councils were to be created from within the neighborhoods themselves.'

This Essay discusses the objectives of the Councils, assesses their performance, and offers recommendations for their improvement. In so doing, the Essay builds on the work of one author, Erwin Chemerinsky, who was one of the central backers of the Council system.'

This Essay proceeds in four sections. In Part I, the Essay offers Dean Chemerinsky's recollections of the development of the Councils and discusses the rationale for this system. In Part II, the Essay offers an overview of the history of minority representation in Los Angeles. This Part also documents the need for a decentralized system that would empower minorities to exert greater political influence.

In Part III, the authors analyze the impact of the Neighborhood Councils on minority representation in Los Angeles. While noting that the Councils have lagged in Hispanic representation, the Essay argues that the Councils have provided a unique forum for minorities to meaningfully engage in the political life of the city. In particular, the Councils have been a source of strong political participation for Asian-Americans. In Part IV, the Essay offers suggestions to improve the Neighborhood Councils. Part IV also recommends that this model be expanded to other cities.

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