Neighborhood council elections, ethics training for local boards and the impact of factual basis stakeholders were the topics that received the most attention at a community forum held by the Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners at Marina del Rey Middle School in Del Rey March 1.
The commission, which is the oversight agency that makes policy and sets rules and regulations for the city’s 93 local boards as well as for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, came to Del Rey to get a feel for the neighborhood board’s best practices and to hear from community members who brought forth some of their most pressing concerns.
While a myriad of topics was discussed, factual basis stakeholders, the lack of consistent financial reporting for some councils and ethics training were the ones that garnered the most attention.
Commissioner Linda Lucks addressed the board’s ongoing concern regarding the submission of financial reports, which each neighborhood council is obligated to do throughout the year. She questioned DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim on how his office would monitor and handle this situation.
“Now that it’s more streamlined and everyone is on the same page, are you going to be able to force compliance with financial reporting if people don’t submit quarterly and monthly reports?” asked Lucks, the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council. “How are you going to identify them, and when you do, what are you going to do about it?”
Kim said his office will conduct random spot-checks throughout the year on the local boards. “When we find that neighborhood councils are not submitting their requirements, we’ll suspend their access to pubic funds,” Kim said.
Several local residents spoke about ethics and the need for all members to be trained on how to avoid conflicts of interest.
Ivan Spiegel recalled an incident at a local council where a perspective restaurateur catered the meeting and let the audience know that he would be applying before the board for a liquor license the following month.
“You can’t leave councils out here floundering to do whatever they want without any kind of control or any kind of guidelines,” said Spiegel, the parliamentarian for the Venice council. “There has to be something and if there are no consequences, people won’t do it.”
In an effort to crack down on recalcitrant members, the commission sent a letter Feb. 3 to the City Council asking for the authority to remove those on neighborhood councils who do not take city mandated ethics training within 60 days after their election to the board.
“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 BONC President Albert Abrams.
West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Chair Jay Handel said establishing a firm definition of whether or not members of neighborhood councils are elected officials would help BONC and the City Council decide on the proper oversight and sanctions if a member does not obey a city statute.
“We’re not the neighborhood council system that we were a year ago. We’re certainly not the neighborhood council system that we were two years ago,” Handel noted. “Whether it’s ethics training or any of the components that we’ve talked about where there are issues, the overriding question is: are we supposed to be elected officials? And if we are elected officials, we have to be treated like elected officials, including being subject to the Brown Act and all the other things.”
Handel echoed Spiegel’s earlier remarks regarding the need for enforcement when members of local boards choose not to take ethics training. “Otherwise it’s a rogue system,” he said.
While representatives from other councils argued that they saw nothing inherently wrong with allowing residents from outside a particular neighborhood to vote in a neighborhood council election, those who addressed the commission from Venice and Del Rey feel that it should be reexamined or in some cases, eliminated.
Some believe the Del Rey election was tainted because of outside voter participation, and several complaints were lodged with City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office of fraudulent conduct.
The Los Angeles City Clerk’s Office, which ran the election, did not find any irregularities in the Del Rey election, but Trutanich has recommended that the factual basis definition be reexamined.
Former Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Mark Redick addressed the topic of the factual basis stakeholder and how he and others believe it adversely affected the outcome of the April election in Del Rey.
“Over the last few years, neighborhood councils have grown in stature and influence as a bridge between City Hall and the communities that they serve. The primary reason for this is credibility,” Redick told the commissioners. “But the last neighborhood council elections have seriously tested this credibility.
“In Del Rey alone, nearly 22 percent of the total votes cast came from the so-called ‘factual basis’ voter. One candidate for office solicited this type of voter through social media, providing street corner locations where a cup of coffee could be purchased and a receipt obtained, ‘providing’ a basis for becoming a stakeholder,” Redick continued. “Another candidate’s spouse went to the neighboring community of Venice to solicit voters for the Del Rey elections as they were leaving the Venice polling place.”
Del Rey resident Dan Savage told the commission that he personally witnessed people from Del Rey engaging in the same conduct that Redick described.
Redick implored the commissioners to recommend eliminating this type of voting. “Voting under ‘factual basis’ can lead to voting under ‘factual fraud,’” he asserted. “There must be a stop to it.”
Abrams called both Redick’s and Savage’s testimonies significant. “(Redick’s) was very powerful, and Savage’s gave personal, live testimony to something that the city and our commission have heard about and are concerned about,” he said.
Redick has changed his opinion after the April election on who should be allowed to vote. Once a strong believer in the concept of “live, work or own property,” he now feels that the law should be changed to a policy where only residents vote in neighborhood council elections, as is the case in local, county, state and national elections.
Venice resident Karen Wolfe, whose son attends Marina del Rey Middle School, at one time believed that parents whose children study at locations outside where they live should be allowed to participate in the neighborhood council where the school is located. But after learning about the controversy in Del Rey last April, like Redick, she too has had a change of heart.
“After considerable research, I’ve changed my thinking on the factual basis stakeholder issue. It has always troubled me that in addition to those who live in a neighborhood, those who work or own property can also vote in neighborhood council elections,” said Wolfe, a former Venice Neighborhood Council member. “If this financial stake got a greater voice, my reasoning went, then so should people who are more involved in a community like churchgoers and parents of students at neighborhood schools.”
Now Wolfe feels there are “unintended consequences” of allowing outside voters with no firm ties to the community to participate in neighborhood elections.
“It makes much more sense for voters in neighborhood council elections to follow the same criteria as every other election in government: You vote in the neighborhood council election in which you live. Period,” she asserted.
Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe made a presentation before the commissioners. He gave them a handout on what his board had focused on since it took office last summer and listed the Del Rey Art Walk and a soccer tournament called the Del Rey Cup as two of the council’s achievements.
DeSobe, who arrived late to the meeting, had trouble fielding questions on the board’s demographics and diversity.
In an interview a day after the meeting, Abrams seemed dismayed that DeSobe was the only board member to appear before the commission. “It was unfortunate that there weren’t more members of the board there and it’s kind of sad that we didn’t get that kind of attendance that we usually get when we go to other communities,” he told The Argonaut.
Redick was not impressed with DeSobe’s presentation. “It seemed to me that the president was wandering aimlessly in search of a thought,” he said.
The commissioners attempt to come out to the public as often as they can and most councils try to take advantage of the opportunities to showcase themselves, Abrams said.
“It’s not an inexpensive venture to come out into the city for the commission,” the commission president added.
Abrams said neighborhood councils often have someone at the site to welcome the commission and noted that the past Del Rey board, as others have, created visual presentations to illustrate what they have been doing in their neighborhoods.
BONC will visit the Westchester-Playa council later this year.