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The People's Bridges to Government

oct 11(r to l) Effie Turnbull Sanders, an Assistant General Counsel LAUSD and recently-appointed alternate-at-large member of the California Coastal Commission with Joy Williams of E-Discovery at Liberty Hill's Commissions Training in June. Photo by Warren Hill.

You've heard of the Police Commission and the Fire Commission, but as Liberty Hill's researchers discovered when planning our Commissions Training program for our Wally Marks Leadership Institute, not even the wonkiest policy wonks can name all the City's 52 boards and commissions, never mind the many dozens of County and State boards and commissions. And yet these policy-making and advisory bodies made up of non-political experts and residents are one of the most important—and powerful— cornerstones of regional government.

An amazing five of the people in attendance on the June day when the Commissions training was held are now sitting members of a City, County or State commission. Word has spread that Effie Turnbull Sanders is now on the California Coastal Commission, Shawn Landres was appointed to the L.A. County Quality and Productivity Commission, Adine Forman to the County Workforce Investment Board, Tai Glenn to the City Rent Adjustment Commission, and Joe Bernardo to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority.

Why serve? Says Tai, "Civic engagement is something I believe in deeply. Citizens should find a way to engage in government, and not everyone can be a politician or work for the city. If you are lucky enough to have a talent, an expertise or insight that would benefit a commission, then you have a very special opportunity to address issues of public concern."

With roots in the Progressive Era (1890-1920), commissions are a bridge between residents and professional politicians. Their appointed members (more than 300 in L.A. City alone) oversee key city agencies and advise elected officials and government employees on core policies and programs that impact the quality of life for all of our local residents.

Why did Liberty Hill want to focus on commissions? "It's important to educate and train folks who are advocates for social justice and folks who care for our resources and our city and our state to be able to serve," says Effie. "I think sometimes people who would be great in this role are overlooked and might be missed by appointing authorities. This kind of program has the potential to increase access and increase representation."

Clearly, a number of the participants at the June training—drawn from all sectors of Liberty Hill's networks of supporters, staff and Board members, and community partners—were qualified to serve on a commission. Three members of this group—Tai, Adine, and Effie—had commission experience and when they arrived were at varying stages of considering whether to serve again. Two, Joe and Shawn, sent in their first-ever applications right after the training. All gained insights at the training, they say, that informed their actions.

"The idea of serving on a commission was appealing in terms of serving the community, but since I live in Santa Monica and I thought most of the training would be about L.A. City, I wasn't sure it would be relevant," says Shawn, who co-founded Jumpstart Labs. "Shane Goldsmith (Liberty Hill's incoming CEO) encouraged me to come and I went online while I was there, trying to find out about vacancies. I'm very interested in the question of how to make government better. Twenty years ago I was a White House intern helping on a commission looking at reinventing government and my work now is around philanthropy and innovation, so I looked into the Quality and Productivity Commission—no vacancies. Fast forward to the second week in July: Ron Galperin, Supervisor Yaroslavsky's appointee to that commission, had just taken office as L.A. City Controller and had stepped down. So I applied."

As Shawn multi-tasked, Tai, who is Executive Director of the nonprofit law firm Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center, and formerly a housing attorney, was having "great fun" learning about the wide-ranging mandates of many different commissions. "I was a commissioner for the Rent Stabilization Commission of the City of West Hollywood some 15 years ago and really enjoyed the work. I keep making speeches to my children and friends about how our consumerist, financially strapped society is killing civic engagement and the Liberty Hill training opportunity reminded me that serving on a commission is a great opportunity to play an impactful role in the lives of people in L.A. and put my money where my mouth is. There is nothing more important in this city than providing safe and decent housing for renters." She arrived ready to consider all sorts of possibilities and found herself inspired by "so many engaged, purposeful people, not just the staff and facilitators but the participants."

"The people in that room were amazing," she says. "They got me so energized!" So energized that she's now on the L.A. City Rent Adjustment Commission. "I have two school age children, I'm an executive director of a nonprofit, but I find the time to do this because it is incredibly exciting and rewarding. The city really does try to accomplish things that will improve lives. People all over the world look to L.A. for examples of ways to help their residents."

oct 11-2Adine, who is Executive Director of the Hospitality Training Academy, a nonprofit Taft-Hartley labor-management worker training partnership, served some years ago on the Santa Monica Commission on the Status of Women. In her professional life, she attended meetings of the L.A. City and County Workforce Investment Boards, she says, for 12 years, "but I've been in the audience, not at the table. Now, it is a completely different experience. At the training, it was helpful for me to hear some of the challenges of being on a commission and how issues were eventually resolved. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear others' stories of how they fought for the people they represent, and how they won those fights. It gives me faith that I can also work to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and provide more opportunities to the current and future members of UNITE HERE Local 11 and other labor unions."

Also an experienced commissioner with service ranging from national (United States Commission on Civil Rights) to hyper-local (Environmental Advisory Commission to the 47th California State Assembly District), Effie is an Assistant General Counsel to the LAUSD. She came to the training "to listen and gain more tips on how I could better serve as a commissioner. Also, the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters, where I am a Board member, was a sponsor of the training."

She says, "It was helpful in terms of keeping up on issues and also because many people have approached me about what is the path to get on these commission and boards. I was also able to walk a couple of people through my experience in dealing with commissions when I was a city attorney."

Joe, Liberty Hill's Senior Manager, Training, was on hand for the June Commissions Training as one of the staffers responsible for the logistics of the event, but he was also "ready" to consider applying to serve, he says. "I worked for the city for four years, so I knew something about commissions, but the training hit home. It made me realize that being on a commission is actually work, not just some rubber stamp committee. You're actually doing service to the city, and with that, have responsibility."

In fact, notes Effie Turnbull Sanders, "Some folks at the training were dissuaded from applying because they didn’t realize how much work is involved. When they heard just how much was involved in the application process and the waiting or in some cases when you're on the board, all the reading or getting constituent complaints and so on—they decided against it."

oct-11-3But for Joe, who is also closing in on his PhD in History (focusing on Filipino American history in L.A.) it was easy to choose to apply to the El Pueblo Monument commission. He's been to several meetings of the commission (they're every other week) where each time, "You have a lot of different stakeholders who come to the meetings: merchants association members, representatives from the different museums and nonprofits in the historical area, and of course the El Pueblo Historical Monument Department, the city agency." There's work, sure, but "I love the city of LA. I just feel I want to help out with those bodies or commissions that help promote what a great city this is."

Meanwhile, back at the County Quality and Productivity Commission, Shawn Landres has been attending multiple meetings and site visits in the short time since his appointment. "My first meeting we made a grant to the Department of Children and Family Services to put its policy manual online. When you’re dealing with taking care of children who may be in danger, having social workers able to get the info they need quickly and easily, especially on emergency calls, is just so important. I wasn't around for the earlier steps but I got to vote for it. I was proud to vote for it. It takes advantage of 21st-century technology to ensure that government workers have what they need to do their jobs well."

Since our founding more than 35 years ago, Liberty Hill has invested in leaders drawn from sectors ranging from the grassroots to the Ivy Leagues, leaders who have applied their skills in the areas of business, academia, philanthropy and politics to make Los Angeles work for all of us. Liberty Hill’s Commissioner Training program is designed to further ensure that Los Angeles has strong civic leaders to serve on all the boards and commissions making decisions every day that will be good for all of our communities.
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