On this week’s “In the Know” podcast, assistant Opinion editor Omar Said looks at the place we call home. He investigates why exactly there’s a new neighborhood council in Westwood, and the history of politics in UCLA’s hometown.
Omar Said: From the Daily Bruin, I’m Omar Said. This is “In the Know.” This week, we take a look at something everyone connected to UCLA cares about, whether they want to or not – Westwood.
Westwood and its politics have long plagued students. They’ve complained about the lack of places to drink, dance or have fun, but those aren’t Westwood’s only problems. Westwood Village has few, if any, options for students when it comes to buying basic goods. The only home goods store around is a CityTarget, and students haven’t even been able to get an H&M to open in the Village. It can be hard to find a laptop charger or other basic tech accessories without having to take a bus out of Westwood. That all pales in comparison to the lack of affordable housing for students, be it because rent is too high or because zoning laws and height regulations have prevented more apartments from being built.
While there’s no one person to blame for this growing list of problems, many in the community have looked at the Westwood Neighborhood Council. Neighborhood councils are boards which govern over the various neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and Westwood’s has had a particularly thorny relationship with students. To get to the bottom of these deficiencies, I went straight to the source, talking to those who’ve been on neighborhood councils, and those who’ve opposed them.
Lisa Chapman: So, I’ve been on the council since 2010 when it was formed.
OS: That’s Lisa Chapman. If you’ve worked or studied at UCLA in the past few years, you’ve been one of her constituents. Despite that, many of you are unlikely to know her. After all, it’s hard to put a name to a face you’ve never really seen.
LC: I started off as the outreach director and I did that for a while. Then I became vice president after that. I guess it was sort of a natural thing to kind of do this next.
OS: Chapman is the president of the Westwood Neighborhood Council.
LC: It’s been a fulfilling experience, but it’s also been fraught with a little bit of, you know, controversy and growing pains. Let’s put it that way.
OS: Westwood is a community which has been incredibly resistant to change for years. The Westwood Neighborhood Council was founded in 2010 after a long fight, with huge amounts of pushback from homeowners in the area.
LC: Let me clear up that, because that’s a misconception. And I’m not saying it’s not true – there was pushback from the homeowners.
You know, the homeowner groups around this area have done a lot of work with the city. Before there was a neighborhood council, the homeowner groups were the ones that stood up for the Village, stood up for the homes around here, stood up for the community. That really kind of went to bat for things. That was really just how it was done then, because there was no neighborhood council around here.
So, when the formation committee – which, let’s be truthful, a majority of it was made up of disgruntled homeowners, people that weren’t going along with the status quo of the current homeowner situation – when they started this group, I think the homeowners pushed back because they felt like it was a way of them kind of just taking over power from the homeowners’ groups.
OS: And when resistance from homeowners is the topic at hand, Sandy Brown is always the name that comes to mind. In 2010, Sandy Brown was the president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association, which comprises of homeowners from the area encompassed by Hilgard Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Lindbrook Drive and the Los Angeles Country Club. It’s a weird-shaped blob, east of Hilgard and below Sunset. Sandy Brown and the property owners association she ran were a big part of the pushback against a neighborhood council in Westwood.
While I was interviewing Greg Nelson, he told me that Sandy Brown had a been huge obstructionist in Westwood. Nelson came up with the idea of introducing a neighborhood council system in Los Angeles in 1992, and he was appointed the first director of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils, after it was created. He’s retired now, but was still working as director when Westwood was starting to think about bringing in their first neighborhood council – the Westwood Neighborhood Council.
Greg Nelson: Sandy Brown was the self-declared queen of all that is Westwood, ’cause she was, I guess, the homeowner’s association. And she fought tooth and nail to avoid any neighborhood council being created out there.
Neighborhood council members would come together and they would hear speakers and take questions and answers and they invited me to come out and to stand at the podium with Sandy to discuss the pros and cons of creating a neighborhood council in Westwood, and I just let her talk ’cause the more that she talked, the worse case she was making for herself. And I would just stand there and watch the faces of the audience members and she just dug her hole so deep. ‘Cause it was clear, that it was just the simple matter – and this is the same problem that affected some of the council members – those who have power don’t like to share it.
And she was so afraid that she would end up having to share power and influence – that she could no longer be the single spokesperson for people in Westwood. And that really killed her. She just – went crazy.
OS: Sandy Brown went on to become vice president of the Westwood Neighborhood Council – a position she still has today. She continues to serve as president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association, ever since Greg Nelson met her. And Sandy Brown’s husband Jerry Brown was the first president of the neighborhood council, elected in 2010 to the inaugural council alongside Lisa Chapman.
LC: You know, Jerry is a really really smart guy. He’s a physician – he’s an intellectual. He’s a very very smart guy. Jerry and I have very very different styles. I tend to think that I’m probably a little more collaborative when it comes to working with different groups. I don’t want to say anything bad about Jerry. We just have different styles. I think Jerry was more of a person that looked at things as black and white rather than gray areas, and I think that’s where we differ. But, you know, Jerry’s a strong personality. He was not a big believer in the neighborhood councils. I think he was president of the neighborhood council because he did have this strong personality and this big personality.
OS: But Sandy Brown and her husband’s involvement seems to have only caused further division. Over the years, Sandy Brown has continued to be dismissive, treating and speaking about students as though they were tourists passing through Westwood rather than a significant and important part of the community. Throughout this whole process, students haven’t even been able to convince the Westwood Neighborhood Council that the Village had a problem.
Michael Skiles: The Daily Bruin did a follow-up newspaper article, and it had a quote from their vice president Sandy Brown about how if we students own $3 million homes like she did, and paid property taxes, we would realize that property owners (like) herself should be making the decisions, not students like us, who are just here for a few years, don’t pay taxes and then leave. And then I thought, “Wow. With this sort of attitude, no wonder there’s no change in Westwood.”
OS: That’s Michael Skiles, president of the Graduate Students Association. He had stumbled upon a fascinating problem: The very council members elected to serve the needs of all Westwood stakeholders, including both homeowners and students, were turning their backs on their constituents without a second thought.
MS: I went back and saw these articles and minutes and saw crazy things like how the D1 Cafe was denied a liquor permit and – in the actual minutes of the neighborhood council as well as the Daily Bruin article – the official reason given is that they’re concerned that, as an Iranian immigrant, he wouldn’t speak English well enough to understand the complexities of liquor law and as such should be denied a license. Lemonade wanted to come in, and they chased it out. And the more I dug, the more I saw that this council and the leaders of the council before it were precisely why we don’t have nightlife in Westwood, we don’t have a thriving business community, we’re not seeing housing development.
I decided that I needed to make it my mission to reclaim the council for our community.
OS: Michael Skiles would go on to form the Westwood Forward coalition, looking to create a way for students’ voices to matter in the community. He led the coalition as it began to pursue what was a pretty radical idea at the time – subdivision. Subdivision is the process by which a new council could be formed, one which would be able to split off part of the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s territory and become the governing neighborhood council in that area.
Paavo Monkkonen: They had already had the plan to subdivide because of kind of the resistance from the existing council to accept students and accommodate the way student could vote more effectively, et cetera.
OS: That’s Paavo Monkkonen, an associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Monkkonen ended up using his expertise to help the members of the Westwood Forward coalition with a key part of the subdivision process early on.
PM: We met a couple of times and we talked about how the boundaries would be drawn and kind of different analysis. We looked at census data in terms of housing stock and renter, owner and age in order to kind of more or less see where students lived.
OS: Westwood Forward had proposed boundaries for their council. The new council’s territory would include UCLA, Westwood Village, Persian Square and the area west of campus, going until Veteran Avenue. The boundaries specifically excluded some areas which contained single-family homes – areas which weren’t relevant to student interests. And while the members of Westwood Forward continued to go through the motions of subdivision, Lisa Chapman, long considered the voice of reason on the council, began to turn against students.
LC: I think that a small group of people felt that they didn’t have enough power and decided to go down the subdivision road. Now, keep in mind they didn’t go down this road alone. They were helped by the BID (Westwood Village Improvement Association), they were helped by (executive director) Andrew Thomas at the BID and they were the ones that told them that they really should be annexing the Village.
OS: Eventually, Chapman would say that if students had only asked for less, all would have been well. They’d just gone too far.
LC: I think that I would have been very happy if Westwood Forward had wanted to do their own subdivision council, and I would have fully supported them had they not included the Village. If they had wanted the North Village and all of the campus, I would have been all for that. But I think the gerrymandering they did with the Persian community and the gerrymandering that they did with taking the Village away, I think was inexcusable.
OS: But students’ desire to have a voice in the Village isn’t all that crazy. After all, unlike homeowners, most students are confined to the Village, which is within walking distance of campus, when it comes to shopping for the things they need. The nature of being at college means most students just don’t have access to the kind of transportation that they would need to go anywhere else. And that situation has established a deep connection between students and Westwood Village.
PM: You know, I think given the connection to Westwood Village, it’s important for students and the campus community to have a strong voice. And, they’ve done a lot to include the kind of business interests from that area south of campus down Westwood Boulevard. So, I think those interests of those people are going to be more aligned with what the campus community wants than, you know – As it had been constituted, the largest voices were coming from the single-family home neighborhoods east of campus.
MS: It’s this fundamental change in attitude from no to yes to all the business and developers who come before us and also this voice for change because it’s time to rewrite our specific plan, it’s time to get ready for the Metro to come in and it’s time to get ready for the Olympics.
OS: Skiles brought up over and over again the idea of revising Westwood’s specific plan. The specific plan is the document which governs what Westwood is meant to do and who it’s meant to serve. Many in the Village have expressed a desire to update it in recent years, and members of Westwood Forward have brought it up – again and again. So that’s what was at stake.
And on Tuesday, May 22, the polling booths were set out. For the first time, students were able to have a polling place on campus, giving them the ability to vote on neighborhood council issues at a polling place that was on their daily commute, and Westwood came together to vote on the notion of subdivision. Their vote would not necessarily be final, but it was unlikely to be overturned. 3,485 voters showed up throughout the day, coming to vote in between class, work and everything else. The next day, the votes were in. Westwood would get a second neighborhood council after all.
LC: I feel two ways about it. I feel unhappy that that’s what they chose to do. I feel unhappy that they didn’t stick with what is currently available. Students can run for 14 out of our 19 seats and they never do, they never have. I think my feeling is that I wish they had gone that route to have more of a voice and have more of a say.
OS: Put it that way, and Chapman’s points start to seem a lot more reasonable. Why did the students have to subdivide, and found their own council, rather than running for seats on the one already in place? It turns out it just wasn’t ever really that simple.
MS: The main reason that I chose subdivision as the mechanism to take back our community is that the existing council was just absolutely not allowing our community to have any significant voice as a result of systematic disenfranchisement.
In their last election, their polling place was all the way on South Sepulveda – about as far away from UCLA’s campus as you could possibly get while still being within the boundaries. You know, they were trying hard to get as far as they could. Not only was it there, it was just for a few hours in the morning of finals week.
There’s no greater voter fraud than making it so difficult for thousands and thousands of students to participate.
OS: Not only were previous elections set up to make it difficult for students to vote, the council also made it hard for them to run. In early 2017, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment announced that that the city would no longer hold elections for neighborhood councils on even-numbered years. This meant that if Westwood Neighborhood Council wanted to have an election in 2018, when the terms of its members ended, the council would have to pay for it. They opted not to giving a majority of the money they had been given by the city for this purpose to charity instead.
That meant the next election in Westwood wouldn’t be until 2019 – a fact which many students saw as part of the council’s strategy to wait out politically active students who would soon graduate. And all along, Chapman would continue to put the onus on students, blaming the division in the community on them, rather than the years long silencing of students by her council.
LC: I just think it’s a shame that it ended up in this form rather than working within the system that already existed.
Now, we have just split the community in two. I don’t think it’s good for the students, and I don’t think it’s good for Westwood.
I just think that now’s the time we should all be banding together and working together as a community rather than fighting against each other. I just feel, unfortunately, that’s what this has become.
OS: In the days approaching the vote, the council began to talk about sharing the Village, a new idea they had come up with. To boil things down, they were making the claim that Westwood Village contained enough shared resources, landmarks and major thoroughfares to count as a shared area. The city attorney immediately denied their proposal. The council would go on to appeal this decision, but the final decision would be up to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners in a meeting held Aug. 27. At the meeting, Lisa Chapman spoke on behalf of the Westwood Neighborhood Council.
LC: My name’s Lisa Chapman and I’m the president of the Westwood Neighborhood Council. I’m usually a level-headed person – this speech, however, isn’t gonna be that. We’ve been through hell and back this past year in this fiasco of a subdivision process. It’s been mean, nasty, unfair, immoral, biased. It’s been wrong on every level wrong can be. So, I’m not going to stand up here and try to make a last-ditch effort to try to convince you that our shared boundary petition is proper and just, that it meets all the criteria that has been set forth by the city and their very small little portion.
We all know that it does. We all know that the truth doesn’t matter, and it hasn’t mattered throughout this whole process. This is about politics and backdoor deals of DONE and the city attorney to what we consider to be corrupt departments that have brought nothing but frustration and distress to the neighborhood council system and grassroots politics.
OS: Her testimony did not change much. She spoke a little over eight minutes in total. The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners voted against giving the Westwood Neighborhood Council shared jurisdiction over the Village, and the new North Westwood Neighborhood Council was officially approved. But Chapman still has plans for the Village. She’s continued to mention that the Westwood Neighborhood Council will find a way to make businesses go before them, and part of her testimony at the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners meeting heavily implies the Westwood Neighborhood Council doesn’t intend to stay out of Village affairs as decided by the city.
LC: We are going to fight to share the Village and according to what’s written we qualify in every way to do that. I know the students thought that they would be able to kind of control that aspect. I don’t think that’s going to turn out the way that they had hoped.
OS: The future will certainly be interesting for the new North Westwood Neighborhood Council, whether it be contending with Lisa Chapman and Sandy Brown, or getting to work on making the Village a new place. Despite the victory students found when their council was approved, there are still obstacles to get through. But it seems like Michael Skiles has a plan, just like always.
MS: So, while we’ve got this existing specific plan in place, you’ve got this restrictive interpretation of the ordinance and this unrestrictive interpretation of the ordinance, and the existing neighborhood council has been insisting on the most restrictive possible. We’d do the opposite: Higher-level planning commissions generally defer to the opinions of the local community, which they take to be expressed by the neighborhood council. They just make the assumption the neighborhood council thinks that this should happen; they’re the ones who are living in this community, they’re the ones were able to study the issue in greater depth.
Why would we go against what the community wants?
And so, we’ll get the council and we’ll say that the community wants these places to be able to have pool tables and dancing until very soon we’re able to rewrite the specific plan to make it unambiguously clear that the community supports allowing these things so that our opponents won’t even have some basis to harass these businesses and appeal them.
OS: Listening to Michael Skiles talk about his plans makes it easy to see all the ways in which students could use this new council to truly transform the Village, and make it their own. But that’s all moot if students are truly wrong about the way neighborhood councils work, like Lisa Chapman seems to think.
LC: You know, it’s kind of an interesting thing – we’re an advisory board, let’s face it. Any power that we have is in influence and any neighborhood council is in this same sort of a thing. I think that certain neighborhood councils make names for themselves by sort of the influence that they tend to have over what happens in a community, but let’s face it – when it comes to real “power” power, it’s all held by the city council. We’re just merely an advisory board. I think that our power is that we can get the word out to a more local part of the community better than the city council can, better than newspapers can and better than word of mouth.
OS: Despite the views of Chapman, who thinks neighborhood councils have no power for change, people like professor Monkkonen still see hope for Westwood.
PM: I don’t think it’s going to dramatically transform land use decisions in Westwood, but it will definitely change them in a positive way.
OS: Lisa Chapman isn’t wrong, at least not if you’re looking at real, legislative power. But neighborhood councils’ power is supposed to come from their ability to lobby the city and rally neighborhood stakeholders to help achieve common goals. The Westwood Neighborhood Council didn’t take that approach – at least, not successfully. A council willing to use this type of power might be able to change things in Westwood. Perhaps not a lot, but a little. And change is certainly a good thing. The North Westwood Neighborhood Council’s first members were selected during an election, just one week ago. The election found many students, some of whom have never participated in government at any level, elected to positions on a council founded to fight for their needs. But those fresh new faces aren’t the first ones to take a shot at something new in Westwood.
LC: That really was my first foray into doing kind of the local politics stuff. Before that, it was mostly, you know. I was doing just a lot of volunteering and then, you know, working on my nonprofit. In 2010, I was asked to run by a group of people just because I was active at UCLA and also active, you know, in volunteering in the community as far as the schools and this nonprofit, so I was asked to run for the UCLA seat, and I ran against Margaret Jacob, who is a history professor there. It was brand new to me at that point, so I really kind of had to learn along with everybody else what local governance was all about.
OS: That’s all for this week. We’ll be here again in two weeks with a new episode of “In the Know,” looking at yet another issue here at UCLA. Any ideas for topics “In the Know” should cover? Send them to [email protected]
From the Daily Bruin, I’m Omar Said. This, is In the Know.
“In the Know” was produced this week by me, Omar Said, with editing help by Keshav Tadimeti, Michael Zshornack, Suzanna Goldman and the staff of the Daily Bruin. Keshav Tadimeti is the executive producer. “In the Know” is brought to you by Daily Bruin Radio.