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Bridging democracies: A case study of the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment

  • Author(s): Hui, Brian
  • Advisor(s): Feldman, David L
  • et al.
Abstract

In Los Angeles in the early 1990s, widespread dissatisfaction with differential access to city government and an array of systemic injustices, including inequitable city service distribution, neighborhood red-lining, and police brutality led to a crisis of confidence. The subsequent civil unrest and a secession movement, which threatened to fragment the city, ultimately led to reforms to the City’s governing charter. Although Los Angeles charter reform served as the arena in which numerous political battles were fought, some participants saw the crisis as a mandate to “strengthen” democracy by enhancing participatory and inclusive structures. These reformers created a system of neighborhood councils to promote civic engagement and improve government responsiveness to local concerns, and established the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (ELA) to oversee the new system.

This dissertation research is a case study that examines how ELA bridges the different approaches to governance between the more grassroots-focused neighborhood councils and the City’s established bureaucratic structures. I use 45 in-depth interviews, 400 hours of observation, and archival review, to explore how ELA’s role and practices bridge the boundaries between neighborhood councils and city bureaucracy, how this has changed over time, and how they shape and are shaped by the principles of strong democracy. My findings suggest that ELA serves as a boundary structure in three main arenas: public policy, organizational processes, and governance paradigms. These findings not only contextualize the outcomes of neighborhood council activities, but also illuminate the potential of neighborhood councils as a means of democratic reform in other large complex municipalities.

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