Once thought to be dead on arrival due to budget cutbacks, the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) could be on its way to resurrection if two city councilmen have their way.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl is backing a proposal by his colleague Paul Krekorian to revisit an earlier decision to combine the beleaguered city department, which supervises the 91 neighborhood councils, through a series of town hall meetings that would solicit opinions from the public on the possibility of continuing DONE as a separate department.
In June, the city department won a six-month reprieve from consolidation with another agency after Krekorian fashioned a compromise to keep DONE viable until the end of the year.
“At a time when we’re cutting back on so many services, the neighborhood council movement is especially important,” Krekorian said on June 23. “It needs to be especially vibrant.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his budget point-man Miguel Santana recommended merging DONE with the Community Development Department in February as a cost-saving measure during the city’s fiscal crisis. The move would have saved the city about $4 million, according to the mayor’s office.
That proposal outraged many of the neighborhood councils and their allies, who view the grassroots volunteer boards as an extension of their communities and in many cases fund neighborhood initiatives through their $45,000 yearly allotments.
Westside residents in particular view their neighborhood councils as a welcome partner in a variety of initiatives.
“Our Mar Vista Community Council Green Committee was created by the (local) council. It was the brainchild of Rob Kadota when he chaired the council and was founded by Laura Bodensteiner, a board member,” Sherri Akers, who is the committee’s co-chair, explained in a recent interview. “Without the community council, we would not have had a vehicle to find each other.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks is ambivalent regarding the merger with DONE and Community Development. Her only desire was that the department charged with overseeing neighborhood councils continued allowing the local boards to flourish.
“One of the things that happened during the budget talks was DONE’s budget and staffing were cut in anticipation of the consolidation with Community Development,” Lucks, a member of the city Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, which is responsible for setting policy for neighborhood councils, noted. “Now they are understaffed, and they’ll be forced to rely on volunteer mentors, which they were not always receptive to accepting.”
The Venice council routinely disperses community grants to local schools, nonprofit organizations, arts and music festivals and other local endeavors. Mar Vista’s board has also been active in awarding community grants.
DONE has had its troubles, despite support from Rosendahl, Krekorian and many communities throughout Los Angeles.
Last year, DONE General Manager Bong Hwan Kim asked City Controller Wendy Greuel to conduct an audit of his department, and the results were less than flattering.
“At the request of DONE, my office recently conducted an audit which examined how the department oversees neighborhood council expenditures,” Greuel wrote in her audit report in January. “The findings showed that, while engagement and activism have grown, there has been a systematic failure of accounting and fiscal oversight of the neighborhood councils by DONE.”
Kim believes the pressure brought by neighborhood councils and their advocates led to the mayor backing away from his plan to merge his department with another city agency.
“A number of neighborhood councils came to City Hall and expressed very strong support (for DONE),” he told The Argonaut in June.
Kim was out of the office and unavailable for comment.
Rosendahl, arguably one of the most vocal supporters of neighborhood councils, said the local advisory boards have an important role to play in grassroots democracy and citizen activism.
“They are the first level of democracy and they help me be more effective in my job,” he said.
In Mar Vista, the local council’s support for sustainable projects like a “green” garden tour and a forum on water usage and conservation last year have been critical to the success of both ventures, said Akers, a green consultant.
“The community council’s newsletter continues to be the Green Committee’s best outreach tool,” she added.
Stephen Knight, one of the founders of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council and a past council president, thinks DONE should remain a separate department because it was created through a change in the city’s charter in 2001.
“I don’t see how you can merge a city department that was created by charter amendment with one that was created by an ordinance,” Knight, an attorney, asserted.
In addition, Knight said one of the strengths of neighborhood councils is that although they are advisory, they have gained a certain amount of influence without becoming a rubber stamp of the City Council.
“In order to be truly independent, they have to have their own department,” he said.
Lucks is encouraged that DONE is working on providing local councils with more autonomy, including stronger sanctions for ethics training violations.
“We will be discussing a policy for sanctions as well as a template for bylaws for the councils, so that they will be more consistent,” she said.
Akers said despite the great work that others have done to make events like the Wise Water Use Expo and the garden tour successes, the efforts would have been more difficult without the local council’s help.
“What would we have done? Gone door to door asking neighbors if they thought it was a good idea and wanted to participate,” she said.
Mar Vista’s council also had a hand in assisting local businesses in creating the Mar Vista Farmers Market, where Rosendahl has “office hours” every Sunday and the local council and the Green Committee have information booths.
“The community council’s booth provided us with the opportunity to do community outreach and inspired the market to expand their space to create the dedicated Green Committee booth,” Akers said. “If I weren’t involved with the (community council’s) Green Committee then I would probably be limited to working with an environmental group with a singular focus and have far less impact in the community.”
Rosendahl, who lives in Mar Vista, said neighborhood council committees on land use, homelessness and transportation are instrumental in allowing him to form accurate decisions for his communities.
“They know what’s best for their neighborhoods, and that’s why we need to have a city department that was created for their specific needs,” the councilman said.
Knight sees the local councils as a place where residents can go at their convenience to talk to members of their own community — who are often their own neighbors — about their concerns.
“Neighborhood councils give people a forum where they can pursue a variety of issues face-to-face with a group of locally elected representatives,” he said. “They have really gained a lot of stature and have become partners in the legislative process.”
Akers thinks city leaders who wanted to merge DONE might not be aware of the intrinsic qualities that reside within neighborhood councils.
“I wonder if the city really understands the dollar value of the services that are volunteered,” she said. “As the budget is cut back and city employees are forced to take furlough days, the community councils provide an added volunteer work force that is picking up the slack.
“Whether it’s a graphic artist, a publicist, an event organizer, a photographerÖ. the list is endless.”