Three Westside neighborhood councils are now in full compliance regarding ethics training, four months after an Argonaut news story detailed how most of the local advisory bodies had not complied with the mandatory requirement.
The neighborhood councils in Del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista announced recently that their entire boards had completed the city-mandated ethics training, which consists of a two-hour course that can be completed online or in person.
Approximately 60 percent of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa has complied with the mandate.
Since 2007 neighborhood councils have been required to complete ethics training following an executive directive from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Subsequent to the August story, the Del Rey and Mar Vista councils publicly acknowledged that the majority of their councils had not fulfilled their responsibilities regarding ethics compliance and their presidents encouraged those who had not taken the conflict-of-interest course to do so.
Albert Olson, the Mar Vista Community Council chair, expressed pride that his board was one of the few councils citywide that is in full compliance with the ethics mandate.
“It’s nice to know that (our board members) take ethics training seriously,” he said.
In August, The Argonaut reported that less than 40 percent of the four councils had completed mandatory city ethics training, according to records from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the system of neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles.
Six of the 15 members of Del Rey’s council, four of 13 members from the Mar Vista Community Council and ten of the 31 members of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa had taken the course at the time of the August story.
Citywide, the numbers are much smaller. There are approximately 1,500 neighborhood council members, but approximately one third have completed the conflict-of-interest course, according to October DONE records.
Mark Redick, the president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, believes that as elected members to a community body, neighborhood council members are expected to conduct themselves in an honorable fashion; and that includes fulfilling the conflict of interest requirement.
“It’s a public office and a public trust, and we should not do anything to violate that trust,” Redick said.
Jessica Levinson of the West Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies says that because the role that neighborhood councils now occupy has expanded and they now can influence decisions regarding their neighborhoods made by downtown Los Angeles policymakers, they should be expected to comply with all city mandates.
“Neighborhood councils are often the ambassadors for the City Council, and with increased respectability comes increased responsibility,” Levinson, an attorney who is the center’s director of government reform, told The Argonaut.
Venice Neighborhood Council President Mike Newhouse gave credit to his vice president Linda Lucks for emphasizing the importance of completing the mandatory requirement at every meeting since they joined the council two years ago.
“Unfortunately, in the past there was not a lot of attention paid to ethics training,” said Newhouse, an attorney. “There has really been a conscious effort by our council to stress the importance of being responsible and complying with ethics training, and Linda deserves a lot of the credit for bringing this issue to the forefront.”
The Venice council, which addresses the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest at its monthly meetings, passed a resolution in July prohibiting those who had not complied with the conflict of interest regulation from voting on financial and land use items.
Levinson believes that news stories that focus on ethics often spur government entities, whether advisory or policymakers, into action.
“Publicity can often be a motivating factor,” Levinson said. “It seems that (the neighborhood councils) needed an extra push, and the press can often play an important role in doing that.”
“(The news story) was what made us sit up and take notice that at the time, a number of our members had not taken their ethics training class,” he acknowledged.
Redick was met with some resistance from board members Fred Walton and Brett Flater when he proposed denying those who had not completed the mandatory training within a certain time period in August from voting on certain council issues. He says he does not think that many neighborhood council members would have taken the class if not for the ethics story.
“I really don’t think so,” he said. “Unfortunately, for some, it was a matter of embarrassment.”
Dr. Lawrence Kalbers, the R. Chad Dreier chair in accounting and director of the Center for Accounting Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, says that even boards that are advisory in nature should take pains to appear ethical.
“Those in positions that serve the public interest must be objective, as well as appear to be objective, even in an advisory role,” Kalbers said. “Actual conflicts of interest can reduce objectivity and even potential conflicts of interest can erode public trust.”
Cyndi Hench, president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, did not return calls for comment about her council’s position on ethics training.
City Councilman Bill Rosen-dahl applauded three of his councils on becoming fully compliant with the law.
“For Mar Vista, Venice and Del Rey to step up to the plate like this and do the right thing makes me extremely proud to represent them,” the councilman said. “I am urging the rest of my neighborhood councils to step up and use these three as a model for complying with the law.”
Denny Schneider, a member of Hench’s council, said that while Hench has sent e-mails to members regarding ethics training, he feels that those who have yet to take the mandatory training have no excuse.
“They’re either blind, deaf or dumb to know that they haven’t finished ethics training,” Schneider, who took the course in April, asserted.
Lucks and Redick have called upon DONE to impose greater sanctions on neighborhood councils that ignore the mandatory training sessions. To date, there are no penalties for non-compliance with the ethics training mandate. It has been left to individual councils, like Venice, to craft procedures to thwart those who could have a perceived conflict from casting important votes on financial and land use matters.
DONE officials could not be reached for comment at Argonaut press time.
Members who have a potential conflict of interest on a particular agenda item are expected to recuse themselves, or not take part in the discussion or voting process by leaving the room.
Rosendahl, who was scheduled to address the Westchester-Playa council on November 3rd, said that he would urge them to become compliant with the conflict of interest law as soon as possible.
“I’m pleased that they are moving forward with complying with ethics training and I hope that they use Venice, Del Rey and Mar Vista as a model for leadership on getting to full compliance,” the councilman said.
“The reality is that this is a part of public service. You have to do what it takes to comply with the law.”