Angered by what they feel is an affront on the grassroots democratic process, a group of Los Angeles neighborhood council leaders have asked the city’s chief legal officer to inform Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council that their budgets are not to be touched.
The action was prompted by the decision of a City Council committee that would require each of the 95 neighborhood councils to pay 20 percent of their budgets for their own elections in 2014 or the elections would be suspended. The mayor’s budget committee has also proposed slashing the annual allotments of local councils from $37,500 to $27,000.
If the elections were to be postponed, “that would be the beginning of the end of democracy in Los Angeles,” said Jay Handal, the chair of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
Neighborhood council elections take place in even numbered years. They were delayed over a year due to municipal budget restraints and were held last year, with the councils paying approximately $1,000 for the services of independent election administrators, who ran the elections with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees all neighborhood councils.
In 2010, the city clerk’s office managed the elections.
The neighborhood leaders, many of whom are part of a group called the budget advocates, sent a letter to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich apprising him of the council committee’s proposal and the possible reduction to their budgets, which they allege is in violation of the city charter.
Neighborhood councils are advisory boards that work on local matters and are funded with public money. They provide recommendations to their council representative and serve as forums for neighborhood residents to air their grievances and vote on local and citywide issues including budget matters, planning and development and neighborhood specific topics.
“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 at times been at odds with the outgoing mayor, suggested 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.”
Mar Vista Community Council First Vice President Bill Koontz is against any proposal to reduce neighborhood council allotments.
“While I understand that the city is in trouble and it needs to make cuts in every department, I don’t see the logic in canceling our elections or postponing them again or defunding them all together,” Koontz said. “That money is just a drop in the bucket compared to other departments in the city.”
Trutanich, who is battling former Assemblyman Michael Feuer in a runoff election race, referenced earlier statements by Villaraigosa regarding the city’s fiscal condition.
“The mayor has said that the city’s financial condition is improving, so it follows that the Los Angeles neighborhood councils and DONE should be fully funded,” Trutanich told The Argonaut. “The city charter mandates neighborhood council functions and their critical mission to hold credible elections.
“This need not be a win or lose situation; the mayor and council can choose to make this a win for the entire city by fully funding these councils that serve as the local voice of our residents.”
Following the defeat of a local tax measure, Villaraigosa told news outlets that he had been informed that the local economy was improving.
Mark Redick, vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, said he agrees with Trutanich on the importance of neighborhood councils.
“The city attorney is spot on,” he said.
Redick, a frequent critic of Villaraigosa’s budget proposals, believes the recommended action by the mayor’s team is designed to reduce the local council’s growing influence.
“This is a willful and deliberate attempt by the mayor to spay and neuter neighborhood councils,” he asserted. “Quite simply, it’s shameful and there’s no excuse for it.”
Koontz noted that local councils have been extremely generous as well as judicious with their budgets despite suffering cutbacks for three consecutive years.
“I look at the council system as the best bang for the buck that the city has,” he said. “Here in Mar Vista, we have 13 seated council members, all volunteers. We get $37,500 from the city and we don’t use that to pay for salaries, retirements, gas for the city car or anything like that.
“Instead we use that to help schools start learning gardens, purchase and install neighborhood watch signs, help LAPD support their Santa’s Sleigh and Winter Wonderland programs for kids, etc.,” he continued. “We pump that money right back into the neighborhood on a much smaller scale than the City Council has time to deal with.”
Handal credited Trutanich for backing the local advisory boards during a time when many feel they are under siege. “He is the first city official not to give lip service to (supporting) neighborhood councils but who is actually standing up for neighborhood councils,” he said.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl is aware of the budget committee’s proposal but views it as a starting point and not a final recommendation.
“Right now, there are a lot of different strategies that are floating around on how to deal with the budget,” the councilman said. “I take it with a grain of salt because the reality is at this point it’s unclear what we will do.”
During last year’s neighborhood council elections, the turnout was among the highest since the local councils were created a dozen years ago. The Venice Neighborhood Council led all councils in voting with 1,622 ballots cast, more than some City Council candidates throughout the city garnered in the March 5 election.
Redick was outraged at Villaraigosa’s statements about the economy and the proposal to slice more from neighborhood council budgets.
“It was appalling that the mayor knew of the city’s improving financial status and didn’t say a word about it,” he said. “His willful silence underscores why neighborhood councils are more important than ever.”
The Westchester-Playa vice president feels there is a direct correlation between the elections and the proposal to take more money away from the local councils.
“I think this is an attempt to diminish the ardor of neighborhood councils,” Redick stated. “But I also think one of the unintended consequences of this is that you will see people who have not previously spoken out before who support neighborhood councils that will rise up and take a vocal stand.”
Villaraigosa’s office did not return calls for comment.