Neighborhood council leaders received a belated Christmas gift Jan. 3 when the Los Angeles City Council voted to transfer the authority to conduct 2012 elections to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.

But the head of an influential city department warned that unless the City Council provides the necessary funding, holding the elections this year could present a challenge.

The Los Angeles City Clerk managed the elections in 2010 after several years of being under the direction of DONE, the city agency that oversees and supervises the 98 local councils. City leaders informed the advisory councils last year that they planned to cancel the 2012 elections and postpone them until 2014 in order to save money, as they continue to grapple with an estimated $457 million shortfall.

Neighborhood council elections are scheduled to take place biannually in even numbered years, per the city charter.

The 13-0 vote on Jan. 3 was the result of a yearlong lobbying campaign by neighborhood council leaders, who argued that postponing their elections would unduly hamper the local boards with extended terms for some of their members and would be an affront to grassroots democracy.

“The history of this country has been an ongoing struggle for the right to choose its leaders,” Ivan Spiegel, the Venice Neighborhood Council’s parliamentarian, told the City Council. “This is still America… we don’t cancel elections.”

Second District Councilman Paul Krekorian gave the local councils that were pushing to have the elections this year a boost on Nov. 16 when he signaled his opposition to the council’s original plan.

“I oppose this draft ordinance because it is clearly contrary to the spirit of democracy that our neighborhood councils represent,” wrote Krekorian, who is the chairman of the council’s arts, parks and neighborhood committee. “Extending neighborhood council board member terms until 2014 is unacceptable and it continues to be my goal to find a mechanism that allows residents to have a democratic process to select their representation on their neighborhood councils in 2012.

“I will work with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the neighborhood councils, the mayor’s office, the city clerk and every other interested party to resolve this issue swiftly, transparently and responsibly.”

DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim said he believes the pressure from neighborhood council leaders advocating for the elections not to be postponed was crucial.

“I think that was the driving force behind the council’s vote to make (elections this year) an option,” Kim told The Argonaut. “This really speaks to how influential neighborhood councils have become.”

Krekorian’s council colleague, Bill Rosendahl, applauded the vote to allow the elections under DONE’s supervision.

“I would like each of my councils to have an election this year, because elections are the baseline of grassroots democracy,” Rosendahl said.

Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe agreed with Spiegel regarding the postponement of this year’s elections.

“Our council believes strongly elections should not be delayed until 2014. It is undemocratic and unfair to postpone it,” he said.

Mar Vista Community Council Chair Sharon Commins feels that delaying elections for the local boards could hamper their citywide viability and importance.

“Neighborhood councils need to hold elections regularly to maintain credibility as charter entities tasked with extending the scope of grassroots government participation in the city of Los Angeles,” Commins noted. “Assigning the process to DONE was the best alternative to hold neighborhood council elections in a timely manner for this cycle.”

Kim said now that the City Council has given DONE the authority to run the elections, it must decide how to pay for them in a year where the municipal budget shortfall is expected to be approximately $457 million.

“Elections are very complex, with a lot of moving parts,” the DONE general manager explained. “My concern is that the council needs to make a timely decision if neighborhood council elections are going to be held this year.”

Kim has asked the council for $650,000 to run the elections. “I think that’s a very cost-effective proposal,” he said.

Election administrators must be trained, ballots for all neighborhood councils must be printed, election information must be distributed and additional personnel must be hired, among other things, he said.

To illustrate how much time is needed to get ready for an election, the DONE general manager said if the City Clerk’s Office were still in charge, they would be six months into their election preparation.

Spiegel, who is a trained elections supervisor, agrees that having the proper number of independent administrators trained and at each polling place is critical. “That’s also part of maintaining the integrity of the process,” he said.

Rosendahl said the council will consider Kim’s election package at a future meeting.

Spiegel and others feel that there should be an independent third party overseeing the elections. Prior to the city clerk’s involvement in 2010, independent election administrators hired by DONE monitored voting at each polling location.

Kim said election administrators hired by DONE are insured in the event of litigation.

Commins has also wondered how the elections will be financed.

“I am certainly concerned about funding and I’m hoping DONE offers some moderate cost election process proposals as I have heard rumors that said neighborhood council elections could cost $7,000 to $10,000 per council,” she said.

Currently, neighborhood councils receive $40,000 annually from the city government.

Spiegel said having a process in which the elections are not compromised and are conducted properly is his greatest concern.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing is maintaining the integrity of the elections,” he said. “Part of maintaining the integrity is that there needs to be a certain amount of outreach for the elections.”

DeSobe, who utilized the social networking site Facebook in his campaign in 2010, would like to see his council set aside money to publicize the election.

“Election outreach is important,” the Del Rey president said. “I personally would lobby our board to allocate a significant amount of funds to ensure a large amount of the Del Rey community and eligible stakeholders will either run for a position and/or vote.”

Spiegel questions how any council that does not actively publicize its community’s elections can say that it is representative of its constituents.

“I don’t see how any board can claim to represent stakeholders if less than 100 people or a small amount of people show up to vote due to a lack of outreach,” he asserted.

In past years, each neighborhood council has been responsible for publicizing who is running for board seats and the time, date and locations of the elections.

Spiegel feels the City Council, the constituents of the neighborhood councils and any other interested party will benefit if the elections are conducted this year.

“The sooner we have them, the fewer number of resignations we’ll have. The current boards fill vacancies with appointments, which takes the stakeholders out of the process,” the parliamentarian noted.

In addition to viewing the City Council’s vote as recognition of the influence of neighborhood councils and its support of the advisory boards, Kim also saw the vote as a vindication of the work that his office has done with the local boards, in light of the fact that it has lost over 50 percent of its staff in the last few years.

“I think it shows great confidence in DONE,” he said.

Rosendahl concurred with Kim regarding the growing influence of neighborhood councils. “I can’t speak for my colleagues, but they certainly had an impact on me (with my vote),” he said. “They are my eyes and ears in their various communities and have become an integral part of how they can affect change at the grassroots level.”

But without the funding, Kim said it might be difficult to hold the elections this year. “It would be ambitious to think that they would be held this year, but we will do our best,” he pledged.

Spiegel and others are hopeful of having the elections by the early fall. They were originally scheduled to be held in April.