Less than 40 percent of members of neighborhood councils operating within The Argonaut coverage area have completed mandatory city ethics training, according to records from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the system of neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles.
Six of the 15 members of Del Rey’s council have taken the course, four of 13 members from the Mar Vista Community Council and ten of the 31 members of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa have completed the training session.
The Venice Neighborhood Council, which last month voted to prohibit its board members who have not taken the mandatory course under conflict of interest laws from voting on certain items on its agenda, has 14 out of 21 members that are in compliance. One board seat is open.
“This is something that we are very proud of,” Linda Lucks, vice president of the Venice council, said of the vote.
The Los Angeles City Council, along with the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, have emphasized bringing more neighborhood councils in compliance in recent months, following the council’s directive this year regarding the compulsory course that covers conflicts of interest, says Claudia Dunn, DONE’s assistant general manager.
“Both have really become instrumental in encouraging neighborhood councils to comply with their ethics training,” Dunn told The Argonaut.
Lucks, who is also a member of the Neighborhood Commission, said taking the ethics course comes with the territory of being a neighborhood representative.
“It is part and parcel of being a responsible board member,” she said.
The City Council voted to impose mandatory ethics training for the 89 advisory councils last January, when it passed a measure that would allow neighborhood councils to open council indexes regarding land use and planning projects in their communities.
Citywide, only 451 members of the local advisory boards have taken and passed the mandatory testing and have been awarded certificates as of July.
“In previous years the numbers were much lower,” Dunn said.
According to DONE records, only 166 advisory board members in 2007 had been awarded certificates for passing compulsory training and 127 in 2006.
The Del Rey Neighborhood Council might be considering a policy similar to what Venice adopted last month. Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey board, said that his council’s executive committee would soon decide on whether or not to sanction board members who have not taken the mandatory training.
“This is something that we could very likely introduce at our August 13th board of directors meeting if our executive committee agrees to consider it,” Redick said in a recent interview.
Del Rey will consider crafting sanctions similar to those that have been imposed in Venice, where board members who have not received their ethics training certificates from DONE cannot vote on land use or financial agenda items.
Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit, non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization that examines ethics in government, noted what many others have in recent months; that because local advisory councils are becoming more relevant in their respective communities, their responsibility to be above board with their votes and policies have grown proportionately.
“Because they are taking on greater responsibility and assuming an increasingly important role in their neighborhoods, being ethical has become even more important,” said Levinson.
Neighborhood councils, created in 2001 in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ city charter rewrite, have gained stature and prominence over the last few years for their grassroots support of neighborhood causes and the willingness of their members to assume voluntary roles on community boards that deal with land use, homelessness, community projects and environmental matters. They can now open City Council files that pertain to planning, and the Westside councils are petitioning for the right to appeal land use decisions taken by the City Council in their neighborhoods.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Mar Vista, Westchester, Del Rey and Venice, supports the idea that neighborhood councils should have the right to access planning documents and appeal land use decisions, but also believes that local advisory councils should divulge any conflicts that may be associated with their votes.
“If you’re going to be in a public role, you also have to be in a transparent, disclosure role,” Rosendahl asserted. “What we want is for people to take the ethics training as a requirement, because that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Roy Persinko, a Mar Vista homeowner who regularly attends his neighborhood council meetings, seemed perplexed to learn that many councils have not fully complied with the city’s ethics law.
“I don’t see any reason why so many have not taken the training,” he said.
Membership in neighborhood councils is estimated to be at over 1,500, but less than 500 members have taken ethics training, a fact that Rosendahl laments.
“I want it to be 100 percent, so that everyone understands their responsibility and the public trust,” the councilman said.
The ethics course consists of three sections — impartiality and fairness, stewardship of the public trust and fostering accountability.
It is offered online as well as in person, and usually takes approximately two hours to complete, say DONE officials.
Members who have a potential conflict of interest on a particular agenda item are expected to recuse themselves, or not take part in the discussion or voting process by leaving the room.
Levinson, who has examined the ethics course that neighborhood council members must take, does not feel that it is a cumbersome chore.
“The training looks pretty reasonable to me. It looks like the entire process can be done online and only takes up approximately two hours of time,” she said. “That does not seem to be too much to ask of our neighborhood council members.”
Redick believes that not taking conflict of interest training does not square with the mission of holding a public, albeit volunteer office.
“It’s a public office and a public trust, and we should not do anything to violate that trust,” he said.
The Del Rey president feels that there should be a specific period of time for any new neighborhood council member to take and pass ethics training once elected to the board.
“I would say 90 days after an election, everyone should be required to demonstrate that you have complied with ethics training, which is mandatory,” Redick, who like Lucks has taken the compulsory class, reiterated. “And I will demand the resignation of any board member who has not taken ethics training after a reasonable amount of time following their election to the council.”
He complimented the Venice council on taking steps to prevent conflicts of interests with its vote to sanction those members who are not in compliance with the city law, and will seek to have his council enforce a punishment at least as strong.
“(Venice) did the right thing when it comes to ethics and I applaud them for that,” Redick said. “If you have not taken your (ethics) training, you should not be voting on (land use and financial) issues.”
Levinson thinks that the penalties that the Venice board has taken could set a tone where neighborhood councils with members not in compliance with the ethics regulations might be compelled to be more attentive to potential conflicts of interest.
“I think that it sends a clear and direct message that (Venice) takes ethics training very seriously,” she said. “The quickest way to get them to pay attention since it is a voluntary position is to take away their vote, which I think is a very reasonable sanction.”
Redick thinks that the Venice council example could be adapted by other neighborhood councils, and Levinson agrees.
“I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be replicated in other councils,” she said.
Rosendahl stressed that while he has always been supportive of the neighborhood councils in his district, they must also be honorable and responsible.
“I believe in grassroots democracy, and I love my neighborhood councils for what they do for the community,” the councilman added. “But we’ve got to make sure that there is no infiltration of special interests dominating anybody’s psyche.”