By Gary Walker
With budget talks set to begin soon citywide and candidates for mayor and City Council often including some discussion on fiscal priorities for the next budget cycle in debates and at community events, Los Angeles neighborhood council advocates are staking out their position on how City Hall should consider their annual allotments.
The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is asking the City Council to restore local councils’ funding to the level at which it originally began for the next fiscal year, indicating how much advocates of the advisory boards feel they are contributing to city government.
“We, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners write to request full reinstatement of funding for neighborhood councils for the 2012-13 fiscal year,” BONC President Paul Park wrote.
“Over the last four years, neighborhood councils have seen their annual budgets cut from $50,000 to approximately $37,000. The commission believes that funding neighborhood councils is the best investment that the city can make, and that full funding of neighborhood councils should be restored,” Park wrote.
“Neighborhood councils serve as the vital conduits between the city’s government and its people. By engaging residents of this city at the grassroots, neighborhood level with the elected officials and agencies that serve them, neighborhood councils ensure the proper and effective functioning of democracy in Los Angeles.”
Linda Lucks, a member of the commission who is also the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, says the assistance that local councils provide to downtown lawmakers is invaluable.
“Neighborhood councils provide a great service to the communities they serve by connecting stakeholders to their local government where they know their voices will be heard. City Hall can be daunting, and neighborhood councils help navigate City Hall and bring it closer to home,” Lucks said.
“Neighborhood councils read the lay of the land for their council member who is then able to accurately judge the will of the district.”
Another neighborhood council leader, Jay Handal, said local councils are doing an enormous amount of work that has usually been done by employees hired to work for the local municipal government.
“(DONE) has been treated like the bastard stepchild of the city,” asserted Handal, the chair of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. “As city employees have begun retiring, it’s the neighborhood council volunteers who have stepped in to help them do the business of the city.
“Neighborhood councils should be fully funded back to where they were when they were created.”
Lucks pointed to the local councils having their highest voting totals in years during last year’s elections as evidence that more people are participating and engaged with their local boards. That, she feels, is one indication of their growing influence.
“Neighborhood councils that do the best outreach resulting in higher voter turnout have high credibility,” the Venice council president noted.
DONE General Manager Grayce Liu said the reductions that the local councils have seen over the last several years – their budgets are currently $38,000 – were never intended to be permanent.
“At some point, there should be a reinstatement of neighborhood council funding to $50,000,” she said.
But Liu added that because of the city’s fiscal crisis, some members of the City Council might not think it is the right time to restore neighborhood council budgets.
At a Feb. 21 candidate debate in Mar Vista, the four contenders vying to replace Councilman Bill Rosendahl in District 11 – Mike Bonin, Tina Hess,
Odysseus Bostick and Fredrick Sutton – signaled their support for neighborhood councils, but some hedged on whether they should not face further reductions.
Bostick agrees with BONC that local councils’ budgets should go back to $50,000. “Otherwise, candidates who espouse to prioritize ‘serving neighborhoods first’ are just giving us more lip service to get elected,” he asserted.
Sutton said he is “definitely not opposed” to seeing neighborhood councils go back to the funding levels of the last decade. “They are one of the best incubators of grassroots democracy,” said Sutton, a former member of Handal’s council. “The city needs to focus on larger financial issues.
“Cutting neighborhood council budgets will not solve any of the city’s fiscal problems.”
Bostick also thinks city leaders can find additional places in the municipal government to cut instead of slicing the budgets of the local councils.
“Take the funding out of the City Council budgets if you can’t find it anywhere else,” he suggested. “Weren’t the neighborhood councils created to share the representative burden with the City Council in the first place?”
Lucks welcomed hearing contenders for Council District 11 publicly supporting the restoration of neighborhood councils’ annual allotments.
“I applaud candidates who understand the value of neighborhood councils, which take much stress off of city staff, she said. “Neighborhood councils need and deserve full funding, especially when the vast majority use the money on community betterment.”
Handal, who is one of a group of neighborhood council leaders called budget advocates, who have been invited by city officials to participate in preliminary budget talks, said his group has submitted 22 recommendations that will be a part of the city’s inspector general’s report. “We have been asking for a seat at the table for years,” he said. “This shows how the influence of neighborhood councils has grown.”
Lucks thinks local boards will at some point have even greater power within the corridors of City Hall.
“In time, all neighborhood councils, which are much more inclusive than HMO’s, will have more influence at City Hall,” the Venice council president predicted.
Bonin and Hess did not respond to inquiries about the neighborhood council budgets.