The Hermosa Beach strand. (Photo Credit: Ben Freeman/Primeimagemedia.com)
The Southern California city of Hermosa Beach is turning to its citizens by empowering them to take control of matters the city can no longer feasibly manage.
“One of the things that became very obvious to me after I got elected is how difficult it was for people to be active or engaged or comfortable with their government,” said Councilmember Michael DiVirgilio.
DiVirgilio has been on the city council since 2007. In thinking about the issue he poses above, DiVirgilio saw that only a small handful of elected officials were doing the problem-solving for the entire city.
“It’s not a bad model, but it limits the ability to be innovative and to work on multiple projects at once,” he said. “I can’t put 80 hours a week into this job, but if I had 20 volunteers working on stuff that wasn’t exclusive and didn’t require city personnel, it could send the message of empowerment.”
With the help of a local non-profit named Leadership Hermosa, DiVirgilio has had great success in a two-pronged approach: empower citizens and then allow municipal responsibilities that would otherwise remain toward the bottom of the priority list for City Council get farmed out to citizens who have a vested interest in the outcome.
First, in conjunction with a larger educational effort put on by Leadership Hermosa, DiVirgilio teaches a pro bono, public-affairs crash course called “Effective Community Leadership: How to get mayoral-like results without being mayor.” Every year, about 15-25 people sign up for it.
It’s about three hours and its focuses are being patient with the slow-movement of government versus the private sector and identifying stakeholders whose help or input is needed in order to move an idea forward.
“I’m trying to show in this course that it’s very easy to apply your skills, whatever those are, to the public sphere, whether it’s to change policy, to run for office, or to do something good for the community like hold a block meeting or plant a tree,” he said.
Once the people are back in the community armed with the new knowledge, the second prong becomes much more feasible. Some of them become commissioners. Others simply take on a project that is close to home.
He admits that five years ago, there was much more money around to do things such as bring in some snow and do a tree-lighting ceremony for the city’s annual holiday extravaganza, or to maintain parks or to ensure that trees and vegetation along the beachfront are planted and healthy.
The holiday party has been taken over by local businesses who have since expanded the scope far beyond what the city ever could have pulled off. A park restoration was spearheaded by an individual who learned that neighbors, those who maintain the park, and organizations like Friends of the Park all had to be involved in the process. Another citizen coordinated volunteers to clean large planters by the beach and plant and maintain drought-tolerant vegetation.
DiVirgilio is clearly proud of the synergy between local government and its constituents in Hermosa Beach while admitting that the size of his city is perfect for something along these lines to happen.
However, he doesn’t think the model is size-prohibitive.
“Absolutely it could be transposed to larger cities,” he said. Although massive cities like L.A. have a ton of red tape, the neighborhoods that make up the city, such as Venice or La Brea, are comparable in size to Hermosa.
“In one of those, someone may want to do the park thing or the planter thing and the process is going to be the same: Connect with stakeholders, work with the city, a little elbow grease, finding volunteers and possibly fundraising to partner with the municipality to do good work that has a positive impact on the community,” DiVirgilio said.