Beginning Tuesday, August 18th, members of the Venice Neighborhood Council who have not taken ethics training will not be allowed to vote on land use and financial matters that come before the advisory board.
The unanimous vote at the July 21st meeting was perhaps the most peaceful issue on the board’s agenda, which also included a slew of contentious items regarding homelessness.
Rules and Elections Committee Chair Ira Koslow brought a motion before the council last month that sought to prevent any member who has not taken the mandatory ethics course from taking part in any vote on issues regarding planning or expenditures, such as financial allotments to a community group.
“I really didn’t anticipate any opposition,” Koslow said the day after the motion was adopted. “We sometimes have very spirited debates about many things in Venice, but not about ethics.”
The Venice board is reportedly the only Westside neighborhood council that has imposed sanctions on its members who have not complied with their compulsory training.
Nora MacLellan, a member of the land use and planning committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, said that since the courses are offered online, members of local councils have an opportunity to take the class.
“I really think that we all could find the time to do it, because it is a requirement,” she said.
Koslow credits Linda Lucks, the vice president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, for making certain that ethics and the need to comply with the mandatory training is constantly a topic of discussion.
“Linda talks about ethics training before every meeting,” Koslow noted. “She has consistently led the effort to get everyone to take their training.”
Lucks, who is also the president of the Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, feels that frequent discussions about a code of conduct sends a strong message to both the board and the community that the Venice council is serious about ethics.
“It’s something that I have been advocating for a long time, and I’m proud of my council for taking this step,” Lucks told The Argonaut. “There’s been very little enforcement for those who don’t take the training, and I’m proud that our committee moved forward and brought this to the full board.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl cheered his constituents’ vote to sanction the members who are not in compliance with the law, which the City Council passed last year.
“I applaud what the Venice Neighborhood Council did,” said Rosendahl. “I love my neighborhood councils and this is something that I have always believed in.”
Koslow believes that ethics training would eliminate much of the confusion about what is and is not a conflict of interest or an ethical breach.
“Once you’ve taken the class, you can’t use the excuse anymore that you didn’t know what may or may not be an ethical violation,” he said.
The Venice resolution comes at a time when neighborhood councils are beginning to greatly influence what happens in their neighborhoods. They award funds from their $45,000 annual budgets to community organizations, scrutinize development proposals and take on decisions that could alter the scope and landscape of communities.
Venice’s land use and planning committee has been especially vigilant in seeking to protect its neighborhood specific plan, and the July resolution is a result of the local boards’ desire to have a more direct influence on city decisions that affect their communities, says Challis Macpherson, who chairs the land use and planning committee.
“We are going through these requirements because we want to have more input in the city’s system,” Macpherson said.
Rosendahl understands the importance of these committees at the grassroots level and the role that they play in protecting their neighborhoods.
“Land use committees are very valuable and serve as an important check and balance on development,” he said.
Rosendahl, a former Venice resident, supports giving neighborhood councils the right to challenge planning decisions made by him and his council colleagues, but feels that as neighborhood representatives, they must also be aware of the pitfalls of conflicts of interest.
“I believe in grassroots democracy, and I think that every elected official should be proud of people who step up to the plate and want to make a difference in their community,” the councilman stressed. “But we’ve got to make sure that there is no infiltration of special interests dominating anybody’s psyche.”
MacLellan does not think that residents who choose to serve on neighborhood councils join them to push a particular agenda or to advance ulterior motives, but thinks that the action taken by the Venice council has merit.
“Having the (ethics) training and making that a caveat to (be able to vote on certain issues) is not such a bad idea,” she said.
Now that the sanctions are in place, Lucks says that her board will be vigilant in making sure that the resolution is not violated.
“We will be self-policing on this issue, now that the motion has passed,” she said.
Koslow said that his neighborhood council would maintain a list of who is up to date with ethics training so that the board can enforce the resolution.
Lucks is hopeful that her council’s action might spur others to place a higher premium on ethics and the mandatory training course.
“As we have developed sanctions for a lack of compliance, I think that more people will become more responsible,” she said.