Faced with a continuing lack of compliance of a citywide conflict of interest mandate, the Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners has urged the City Council to draft an ordinance that will allow for the removal of neighborhood council members who do not take ethics training.
The commission, which is a subset of the agency that supervises the city’s 93 local boards, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, sent a letter to the council Feb. 3 asking that it create a law that will give the commissioners the authority to expel those who do not observe the rules on ethics training.
“Elected neighborhood council board members regularly vote to allocate thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for purchases of equipment, services and grants. Neighborhood council board members are also asked to vote on important and often controversial local land-use issues such as zoning applications, variances, lot line adjustments, as well as liquor license applications and renewals,” wrote Albert Abrams, the president of BONC.
Abrams told the council that after two years of taking testimony and holding open meetings regarding the need for more ethical oversight, his commission voted to send the letter to lawmakers asking for the creation of an ordinance that addresses the problems associated with noncompliance. He added that the law would give the board the authority to expel those who fail to take the training within a set timeframe.
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman in City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office, said Deputy City Attorney Darren Martinez attended the February BONC meeting, so his office was aware of the commissioners’ intentions.
“If passed by the City Council, an ordinance of this nature would be legally authorized,” Mateljan told The Argonaut.
The commission is requesting that conflict of interest training be taken within 60 days of a board member’s original date of taking office.
While many neighborhood councils have been commended for community projects that they fund and their volunteer efforts to serve as grassroots advisory panels, failure to comply with the city’s required conflict of interest training has long been a source of contention. In 2009, The Argonaut reported that as of August of that year, less than 30 percent of neighborhood councils citywide had completed mandatory ethics training.
The course can be taken online and takes up to two hours. All commissioners, local, county and state officeholders are required by California law to pass an approved ethics training class.
A local council took action on its own two years ago to remedy the problem of members not complying with the city law. On Aug. 18, 2009, the Venice Neighborhood Council passed a motion that prohibited anyone who had not taken ethics training from voting on land use and financial matters that come before the advisory board.
Rules and Elections Chair Ira Koslow, who brought the motion to the board, did not expect any resistance on the item when it was approved.
“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.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks said her council has always made ethics a priority. Shortly before each monthly meeting, Lucks makes an announcement about ethics training and she has applauded BONC’s involvement.
“When you’re dealing with taxpayer money, there have to be checks and balances,” said Lucks, who is a BONC commissioner.
Dr. Lawrence Kalbers, the R. Chad Dreier chair in accounting ethics and director of the Center for Accounting Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, says there are many good reasons why neighborhood boards should take a course in how to avoid conflicts of interest – besides the fact that they are mandated by the city.
“It is very reasonable to ask for compliance with the mandate,” said Kalbers. “The ethics course is not burdensome and provides needed insights into legal and ethical conflicts, and related laws and concepts.”
Four months after The Argonaut story regarding the dearth of compliance of Westside councils, Westchester-Playa, Del Rey, Venice and Mar Vista achieved 100 percent compliance on their councils.
Kate Anderson, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council, supports BONC’s recommendation to the City Council.
“Ethics training is essential,” said Anderson, an attorney. “We are the guardians of taxpayers’ money and we vote on very important issues like developments and financial issues.”
Westchester-Playa council President Cyndi Hench is proposing a similar measure for her board.
“We will be proposing a change in our bylaws to enforce ethics training and any other training that may be required by DONE,” Hench told The Argonaut. “Our proposed bylaws include language to take away voting privileges if a board member does not comply within 60 days of joining the board and then removal from the board if a board member is still non-compliant after six months.”
The subject of ethics training was discussed at a meeting that BONC held in Del Rey March 1. In 2009, then-Del Rey council President Mark Redick attempted to pass a resolution similar to Venice’s, but his recommendation was met with opposition by former board member Fred Waltman and current treasurer Brett Flater.
Taking the course can assist neighborhood councils in considering where a member should recuse, or not hear and vote on, certain topics that could be problematic at a later date, Kalbers pointed out.
“Some conflicts should be obvious to everyone, such as direct financial interests. However, there are many conflicts that arise that are indirect or that people may believe are inconsequential,” the professor explained. “Ethics training can raise awareness about legal issues and also how even the appearance of a conflict can damage the public trust.
“At a minimum, ethics training can raise awareness and reinforce important knowledge about conflicts of interest, stewardship, and accountability.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl supports the action that the Venice council took and what Westchester-Playa is now considering.
“I applaud what the Venice Neighborhood Council did,” said Rosendahl, who recently completed a conflict of interest class required for his position on the Metro board. “I love my neighborhood councils and this is something that I have always believed in.”
The councilman also enthusiastically backs the commission’s request for authority to remove board members who refuse to complete ethics training.
“I’m 100 percent behind (BONC),” Rosendahl said. “If you’re going to participate in public policy at the grassroots level and have an impact on financial decisions and land use issues, then you need to know what your ethics responsibilities are.”
Kalbers thinks the removal of noncompliant board members could serve as a warning to those who disregard a council directive. Additionally, the potential of being exposed for ignoring a citywide requirement to the public may be an equally potent deterrent, he said.
“As (former) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant,’” Kalbers stated. “Possible removal and sanctions can be useful, but public exposure gets attention.”