Elections scheduled for Oct. 28
This year’s elections for Los Angeles neighborhood councils, which are set to take place Sunday, Oct. 28, will feature one of the more competitive races for board seats in recent memory.
In some cases, those seeking reelection have the typical advantages of incumbency – name recognition, local connections and perhaps a neighborhood constituency.
But in every advisory council campaign within The Argonaut coverage area – Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey and Westchester-Playa – there are sitting members who are not in compliance with the city’s mandatory conflict of interest training statute.
According to the EmpowerLA.org website of ethics training graduates, Westchester-Playa, Venice and Mar Vista each have six incumbents who have not taken the city’s compulsory online ethics course or whose certificate has expired.
Del Rey has five.
Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Executive Directive 2006-7 and pursuant to Los Angeles Code Section 49.5.18, all city officials must participate in ethics training every two years.
The Los Angeles Ethics Commission, in conjunction with then-city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, created an online course to assist city officials, including neighborhood councils, in satisfying this requirement.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the city agency that oversees the city’s 95 neighborhood councils, provides those who have passed the course with a certificate of completion, which is good for two years.
The incumbents whose certificates have expired or have not taken conflict of interest training run the gamut in their failure to comply with the mandatory ethics course.
For some, this year is at least their third reelection bid. Some have allowed their certificates to elapse, while others were appointed to their respective boards earlier this year but have yet to take the test.
“I think that the responsibility of being a board member should be taken very seriously and I think a training course is very appropriate. The nuances of potential conflict can be surprising and I can’t imagine how anyone would even consider not taking the training,” said Mar Vista resident Sherri Akers. “This (community) council is our voice in the city government – they are given a great deal of access to City Hall and to the leadership in city services.
“As a community member, I expect each board member to be responsible for accurately representing the will of the community,” Akers continued. “I would hate to think that someone might use that access to push their own agenda with the city.”
The question of whether neighborhood council members should be classified as city officials is an ongoing debate, said DONE Interim General Manager Grayce Liu.
“It’s not an easy question to answer,” Liu said. “Defining their status has been an ongoing issue.”
Nevertheless, the statute pertaining to whether the local councils are required to take ethics training is unambiguous, Liu added.
“(Ethics training) is mandatory for neighborhood councils,” she said.
While members of the local advisory boards are volunteers, they manage budgets of almost $35,000 annually and are told upon winning election that they will be required to take the ethics course.
For Venice resident David Ewing, whether or not an incumbent running for reelection had obtained their conflict of interest certificate would be “a strong consideration” in his decision on election day.
“The board and officer positions require people to have initiative and responsibility to do things on their own,” said Ewing, who has attended Venice Neighborhood Council meetings for several years. “If they can’t fulfill the most basic requirement, how can we expect them to do a decent job (on the council)?”
In August 2009, The Argonaut found that only approximately 30 percent of those who were elected to neighborhood councils had completed ethics training. Four months later, Mar Vista and Del Rey became fully compliant, while Westchester-Playa was approximately 60 percent compliant.
At the time of the 2009 news story, Venice was the only local board where all of its members had taken the ethics course. On Aug. 18, 2009, the board passed a motion that prohibited anyone who had not taken ethics training from voting on land use and financial matters that come before them.
There have been calls for stiffer penalties for those who do not abide by the city’s rules regarding ethics training.
Last year, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, a subset of DONE, sent a letter to the City Council asking that it create a law that would give the commissioners the authority to expel those who do not observe the rules on ethics training due to the lack of compliance with the law.
“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 then president Albert Abrams.
Others feel that DONE should be in charge of enforcing any sanctions against recalcitrant members. To date, DONE has no enforcement policy to compel those who serve on local advisory boards to complete conflict of interest training.
“Enforcement is not our city’s strong suit at any level of government,” Ewing said.
Liu said DONE’s view has been to allow each council to create its own bylaws governing ethics and any potential sanctions. “Much of this is about self-governance. But at the same time, these are city funds that we’re talking about,” she said.
Neighborhood councils receive $38,000 from the city to award community projects, pay for newsletters, fund local renovation initiatives, etc.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Del Rey, Westchester-Playa, Venice and Mar Vista, was upset to learn that there are members seeking reelection who have not taken ethics training. “For me there’s no excuse,” he said. “I accept all of my neighborhood councils and I empower them.
“These are neighborhood leaders and if you’re going to be a part of grassroots democracy and represent the community then you are obligated to take the training.”
The two-hour course covers how to avoid a conflict of interest, the state’s open meeting law, commonly known as the Brown Act, use of the public office, transparency and several other areas of governmental ethics.
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.”
The public should be apprised of any incumbent on a neighborhood board who has not taken the mandatory class and is seeking reelection, Akers said.
“If they take the training, we can be assured that they are fully informed about their responsibilities and limitations,” she asserted. “I would go one step further and suggest that it should be disclosed as part of the election if an incumbent has failed to take the training.”
Rosendahl went even further. “I urge my constituents not to vote for any (incumbent) who has not taken ethics training,” the councilman said.
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.”
Lui said ethics training can provide local councils with the knowledge they need to not unknowingly put themselves and their boards at risk or be able to determine if a municipal department or employee is making decisions that can have repercussions for their constituents.
But that can only happen if they know what constitutes a conflict or what unethical behavior is under the law.
“Some folks may be unintentionally putting themselves and their councils in conflict without knowing it,” DONE’s general manager cautioned.
“How are you going to hold a city agency accountable when you don’t know (what might be a conflict or illegality) yourself?”