The news that at least six Los Angeles neighborhood council members are being investigated by the county district attorney has brought increased scrutiny of the 89 local advisory boards, and some local members are calling for additional enforcement measures to prevent any further alleged unlawful behavior.
The Los Angeles Times reported on October 8th that the Los Angeles Police Department is looking into a half dozen neighborhood cases where council members have allegedly misappropriated approximately $250,000 in taxpayer funds.
The report is seen by some Westside council members, like Linda Lucks of the Venice Neighborhood Council, as further evidence that the old methods of lax enforcement of ethics training and no financial disclosure must be replaced by stronger oversight.
“The more that ethics training is mandated, the less we will see this kind of conduct on neighborhood councils,” Lucks, the vice-president of the Venice board, told The Argonaut.
Full compliance with city-mandated ethics training has been elusive for many local advisory boards. In August, The Argonaut reported that less than 40 percent of the neighborhood council members in Del Rey, Westchester-Playa del Rey and Mar Vista had completed the mandatory conflict of interest training course. Venice, which in July approved a resolution to prohibit anyone on its council from voting on financial matters until the ethics course is completed, has achieved almost full compliance.
Subsequent to The Argonaut story, the vast majority of council members in Del Rey and Mar Vista have taken the conflict of interest course.
Lucks thinks that the Times story has struck a cord with members of the public and hopefully with neighborhood councils as well.
“This is absolutely a case in point why we need to have more oversight and some form of financial disclosure,” she said.
The Public Integrity Unit, a division of District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office that prosecutes public corruption, has filed felony charges against four council treasurers and two cases are still pending.
Neighborhood councils are allotted $45,000 a year from the city — down from $50,000 over the last several years — to fund community projects and other services. Some councils use much of their allotments each year, while others use “roll-over funds,” or save them to pay for larger projects in future years.
In the wake of the financial scandals, the dearth of ethics training completion throughout the city, and with the lack of strict oversight and accountability regarding how local advisory boards are monitored, residents are now wondering why the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) did not include more oversight when the councils were created in 1999. DONE is the agency that oversees neighborhood councils.
Mar Vista resident Tina Pollard thinks that there should be more oversight of those who handle money on the local councils.
“That’s city money,” she pointed out. “Los Angeles is talking about furloughing firefighters and police officers, who have to undergo background checks. Why shouldn’t someone who sits on a neighborhood council?”
DONE general manager BongHwan Kim acknowledged that when the neighborhood councils were created, it “was never really well-thought-out enough to prevent these kinds of criminal activities.”
Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, said that amid the bad news about the alleged mishandling of community funds, the fact that the alleged perpetrators were caught is also noteworthy.
“The good news is that the system worked,” Redick said. He credits Kim with initiating what Redick calls “a top to bottom review” of asset inventory of each local council.
Lucks supports having some form of financial declaration for local advisory councils, an idea that City Councilman Bill Rosendahl also believes is necessary, now that neighborhood councils are playing a much more high-profile role in decisions in their neighborhoods.
The councilman voted with a majority of his colleagues in January to establish guidelines for neighborhood council members to declare their financial assets when they request information on what are known as council files.
Council files are municipal government documents that pertain to planning and land use matters, and many local advisory councils have become more active in seeking to protect their neighborhood from projects that they feel might not benefit them. By accessing a council file, a neighborhood council could track its progress throughout the city’s planning and land use channels.
The proposed asset disclosure would not be as strict as Form 700, which all elected members of municipal, county and state bodies are required to file by law. Commissioners and certain state employees must have a Form 700 on file with the Fair Political Practices Commission.
“We’re in our adolescence as neighborhood councils,” Lucks said. “We’re learning that we need more responsibility and accountability. That’s what grownups do.”
Redick, who led an unsuccessful drive to sanction members of his board who did not comply with ethics training by a certain date, categorically rejects the notion of asset disclosure for advisory councils.
“Absolutely not,” he asserted.
Redick does advocate credit checks and surety bonds for treasurers of neighborhood councils. “Oversight should be a part of neighborhood councils,” he said.
Pollard, who is not a fan of neighborhood councils, proposed a previously unconsidered solution.
“Until the city gets a handle on the budget crisis, they should suspend the funding to the neighborhood councils,” she recommended. “I’ve never really understood why they have neighborhood councils.”
Redick feels that there is tremendous support for local community boards, pointing out the number of residents who came to City Council chambers to protest a decision to reduce the council budgets to $11,500 during summer budget talks. But he realizes that the recent allegations of graft on some neighborhood councils could have potentially damaging effects.
“Although the actions of a few do not represent the overwhelming number of neighborhood councils that are behaving responsibly, unfortunately, this will probably be just the tip of the iceberg,” the Del Rey president predicted.
Lucks says an increased focus on ethics training and a mild form of financial disclosure would be a good place to start to help stave off further alleged corruption.
“I foresee the day when neighborhood councils will be able to establish their own checks and balances,” she said. “I think that’s something to consider.”