In a move that has long been anticipated by Westside neighborhood council advocates, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called for the elimination of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the 90 neighborhood councils throughout the city.

The agency, if the mayor’s proposal is approved, will be merged with the city’s Community Development Department.

The mayor’s Monday, February 22nd announcement is the latest in a series of month-long proposals and recommendations from city leaders that have worried and angered members of the advisory councils, who are also contending with a possible loss in funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial assets saved over time.

“The consolidation effort will not only create cost savings, but will serve to take the bureaucracy out of community empowerment,” Villaraigosa said at a City Hall press conference.

“This consolidation is an opportunity to create the volunteer opportunities that engage communities and foster participation in our neighborhoods.”

Villaraigosa said the move would save the city approximately $2 million.

The City Council agreed on Friday, February 19th to consider laying off 3,000 municipal workers, and is seeking concessions from labor unions as well as further consolidation of city departments as it strives to make inroads in its $212 million budget deficit. DONE could be one of the first casualties of the city’s budget troubles, and some neighborhood council leaders feel that this could reap unsatisfactory repercussions elsewhere.

“I am concerned that merging the operations of DONE with the Community Development Department will result in less than satisfactory results,” said Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council. “Community Development is essentially a ‘caretaker agency’ for the remaining DONE staffers and the jobs they have to do.”

Redick said Community Development is not equipped for the needs of neighborhood councils.

“It was never mandated to work with the neighborhood councils as DONE was,” he said. “Therefore, my real concern is that the commitment to the neighborhood council system will decline in a material way.

“This could compromise the mission of every neighborhood council in Los Angeles.”

BongHwan Kim, DONE’s general manager, raised similar concerns earlier this month when the possibility of eliminating his agency or merging it with another municipal department was floated.

“There’s no doubt that if the council adopts the recommendation, it will be a big setback (for neighborhood councils),” Kim told The Argonaut. “Other city departments don’t really understand how neighborhood councils operate.”

Kim has created a plan for restructuring his department, which he plans to present to the City Council in hopes of continuing in its role as monitor of the neighborhood councils. On February 1st, the city’s top budget analyst recommended slicing the agency’s staff in half by eliminating 19 positions.

Greg Nelson, who ran DONE for five years until 2006, raised doubts about the legality of Villaraigosa’s proposal.

Albert Olson, chair of the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council, understands that the city government has a difficult job as it looks for a variety of solutions to lessen the deficit.

“I’m very sympathetic to the fact that cuts have to be made, including to neighborhood councils,” Olson said. “But I’m not sure where this (possible reductions to neighborhood councils) is going, and I’m very concerned about it.”

Linda Lucks concurs with Olson regarding the need for difficult fiscal action on council budgets and department consolidation.

“There’s no way to argue against the need to consolidate city departments during difficult budget negotiations,” Lucks, vice president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, conceded. “My concern is that the core functions of neighborhood councils not be affected.”

One of those functions is appropriating money for community projects, and that has council leaders worried. Under consideration by a council committee is a proposal to slash the annual budgets of local councils to $22,500 from their current $45,000 allotment.

“All of our projects that we have funded for this year are safe,” Olson said. “The obvious concern will be for next year.”

Redick said the city’s leaders should be mindful of the fact that those who choose to serve on their local councils do so largely out of commitment to their neighborhoods.

“I recall when the Del Rey Neighborhood Council was first starting up, after each meeting, we ‘passed the hat’ in order to help pay for the room we were renting,” the Del Rey president remembered. “Having no money at the time did not stop our desire for neighborhood empowerment, and the unfortunate financial calamity we find at City Hall will not diminish that determination.”

If DONE is folded into Community Development, Redick is concerned that the April elections for new neighborhood council members could be jeopardized. The council decided last year that the city clerk would handle the elections, instead of each individual local advisory board, as was the case in past years.

“The immediate priority is to ensure that the city clerk moves forward and holds the neighborhood council elections as scheduled,” Redick said.

There is discussion among some City Council members of going back to the old election system this year to save money, which Redick opposes.

“That would be a disaster, to say the very least,” he asserted.

Lucks shares Redick’s concerns regarding the elections.

“They need to go forward,”

she said. “To change the process back this close to the elections would really pull the rug out from under us.”

But Lucks said there could be a silver lining in Villaraigosa’s plan to merge DONE with Community Development, which she says has worked well with community members in Venice.

“They have been involved with the community quite a bit and they deal with non-profits a lot too,” Lucks noted. “So if this kick-starts the potential for us to work more with grant writers from local non-profits that can assist us with seeking grants to help us fund community projects, that could be a good thing.”

Both Lucks and Redick say they will fight any reductions to their budgets that exceed 50 percent.

“I’m not going to settle for $22,500,” Lucks vowed.

Department consolidation and cuts to neighborhood council budgets cannot be implemented without the consent of the City Council.