By Gary Walker
In what several local community leaders view as a sign of the growing power of Los Angeles neighborhood councils, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recently released 2013-14 budget requests that the City Council provide a funding mechanism for the local boards to conduct their biannual elections next year.
“This budget builds upon significant actions taken to maintain the city’s financial health, reinvests in core municipal services, and benefits from an ongoing economic recovery,” Villaraigosa said in a statement after releasing his $7.7 billion spending plan April 22. “The ability of our administration to present a responsibly balanced budget that includes surplus revenue investments is the result of progress we have made together in cutting costs, creating a more efficient city government and realizing the benefit of increasing city revenues.”
Among the items listed in the budget proposal in bold under Recreation and Community Services is “provides funding for the neighborhood council spring elections of 2014.”
The announcement of the mayor’s recommendation for the city to pay for next year’s elections comes approximately a month after a group of neighborhood council leaders sent a letter to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich – who some see as an ally to neighborhood councils – protesting the recommendation of a council committee to have the local boards allocate 20 percent of their yearly allotments toward paying for their own elections.
The report, which was released in March, also recommended suspending the elections if the local councils did not agree with the 20 percent suggestion. In addition, the committee proposed slashing the annual allotments of local councils from $37,500 to $27,000.
The neighborhood leaders, some of whom belong to a group called the Budget Advocates, asked Trutanich for a legal declaration on the city’s proposal to not provide funding for the local elections, which is mandated under the city charter.
“I am writing to urge you to provide full funding to all neighborhood councils that will enable them to carry out their city charter-mandated functions, including the costs of conducting their elections. As you are aware, since 2009, there have been drastic cuts to both the budget and staffing of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, as well as to the funds provided to the neighborhood councils,” Trutanich wrote Villaraigosa in a March 13 letter.
Trutanich, who has clashed with Villaraigosa as well as some members of the council, indicated that there are legal requirements that the city is mandated to carry out regarding the local advisory councils.
“Moreover, I know that you are aware of the line of legal authority that concludes that constitutionally required activities of government cannot be so de-funded as to materially impair and render their intended duties incapable of appropriate performance,” the city attorney continued.
“This office believes that neighborhood councils fall squarely within that category of government activities that should be fully funded.”
West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Chair Jay Handal, a leader of the Budget Advocates, sees the mayor’s decision to ignore the committee’s proposals as a victory for neighborhood councils.
“I think neighborhood councils are growing up,” said Handal, whose group also had 22 of its recommendations accepted by the city’s inspector general this year. “I think that there are some members of the City Council who are seeing the growing influence of neighborhood councils and it scares the hell out of them.”
Mark Redick, the vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, feels Trutanich’s letter coupled with the pressure applied by advocates of the neighborhood council system played a factor in Villaraigosa’s budget recommendations.
“I applaud him for coming around to the thinking of leaders like Jay Handal, (Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa President) Cyndi Hench and (Mar Vista Community Council Chair) Sharon Commins,” Redick said.
“This was a strong effort in grassroots democracy that is unseen throughout the country.”
Senior press secretary Viki Curry said Villaraigosa “understands the respect that many communities have for their local councils and wanted to make certain that they would be able to hold their elections next year.”
“The neighborhood councils are an important tool for Angelenos to engage in civic life, and the mayor understands that regular elections are necessary for them to function,” Curry said. “The mayor’s budget team worked with the (Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana), (the) city clerk and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to find efficiencies and savings to ensure elections will be held in the spring of 2014.”
Last year, neighborhood councils had one of their highest voter turnouts ever. The Venice Neighborhood Council led the way with 1,622 ballots cast.
Handal took issue with a pledge by Villaraigosa that he would not offer any cuts to city employees after reading that two positions are being eliminated in the mayor’s budget from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the city agency that oversees neighborhood councils.
“The Budget Advocates will strongly object to the loss of these employees,” Handal promised, noting that DONE has suffered layoffs for the last several budget cycles. “We feel that this is impeding DONE from doing what it is mandated to do by the city charter.”
Ivan Spiegel, the parliamentarian of the Venice Neighborhood Council, said no reductions in the local councils’ budgets was a good sign but he feels that Villaraigosa did not comply with a request made by many neighborhood council leaders.
“I’m very happy that the mayor is recommending no further cuts for neighborhood councils this year, but he certainly didn’t ‘fully fund’ us,” said Spiegel, who has been a county elections supervisor. “We asked for $50,000 and he proposed $37,000. Now we have to wait and see what the City Council decides to do.”
Redick also thinks the local councils should be funded at a higher level, given the mayor’s statements regarding the city’s economic health. “Looking at the improvement in the city’s fiscal future, I would hope that the City Council would increase (neighborhood council budgets) to $42,000 or $45,000,” he said.
When they were created over a decade ago, neighborhood councils were allotted $50,000. That was reduced beginning in 2009.
Handal, like Spiegel, says the onus is now on the City Council to both increase the local councils’ budgets and maintain the funding for next year’s elections.
“The ball is in their court,” said the West Los Angeles council chair. “We know that all the time that we as volunteers put in to making our councils and our city better is an investment of time and we think it’s a very valuable investment.”
Mayor’s budget calls for funding 2014 neighborhood council elections
By Gary Walker