Those who are planning to campaign for a seat on a neighborhood council or considering a run for reelection next year might be forced to put their plans on hold if the Los Angeles City Council votes in favor of a new ordinance in October.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office is in the process of crafting a new municipal law that would delay the 2012 neighborhood council elections until 2014 in order to save money as city leaders begin to look at next year’s budget priorities.
The municipal deficit has affected the local advisory boards, created in 1999, as well as other city departments.
In the spring, the City Council voted to trim $5,000 of the local councils’ budgets, citing the need for all areas of city government to make concessions during a recession and leaving the boards with $40,500.
Many longtime neighborhood council advocates and observers, including Ivan Spiegel, are firmly opposed to the ordinance and any delay to next year’s elections.
Spiegel, the parliamentarian of the Venice Neighborhood Council, asked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a Westside Regional Alliance of Councils meeting Sept. 12 to weigh in on the upcoming ordinance.
“This year, you asked for a 10-percent cut in neighborhood council funds to share the pain,” Spiegel began. “The City Council turned around and then decided to cancel the elections for 2012 and they’re in the process of having the city attorney draft an ordinance to officially cancel them, in order to save money.
“This ordinance is going to come before you for your signature when it comes out. Will you be willing to veto this and allow grassroots democracy to come back to the city?” Spiegel asked the mayor.
Villaraigosa responded quickly to the question:
“Let me go on record by saying I believe that we should have an election,” he said. “I’ll weigh in now and let them know that I don’t like that idea and that they’ve got to give me something else,” the mayor added to applause from the audience.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl agrees with Spiegel and the mayor. “I don’t think that it should be postponed,” he said of the elections. “We should be able to run them with volunteers and a few people who are trained in election procedures.”
The suggestion to put off the elections as a cost-saving measure was first posited publicly at a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners meeting in Del Rey March 1.
A task force was created to examine concerns that were raised after the 2010 elections. Composed of 24 neighborhood council representatives, the group compared, among other things, the expenditures involved in having another entity run the election with how much the city clerk’s office spent in 2010.
According to City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who hosted a series of town hall meetings on a variety of possible changes to the neighborhood council structure, there was one topic that all who participated agreed upon.
“There were a few points of consensus during the town hall discussions and one was that the city clerk should not administer neighborhood council elections,” Krekorian wrote in a report issued earlier this year.
The task force recommended implementing what its members view as a more flexible and cost-saving system, including employing what are known as independent election administrators.
Spiegel said the administrators were used in prior elections when each individual council was responsible for its respective election.
“We’d like to go back to the system that we’ve used in years past, with (the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) supervising us with the assistance of the administrators,” said Spiegel, who is a trained poll supervisor for the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder.
DONE is the city agency that supervises neighborhood councils.
The task force found that if the city clerk ran the election, it would cost nearly $1.2 million, not including voter outreach. When neighborhood councils conducted them under DONE’s supervision, they paid the administrators $800 and paid for their own election outreach.
On Sept. 24, the Congress of Neighborhood Councils unanimously approved a resolution asking the City Council and the mayor not to cancel the 2012 elections.
Nora MacLellan, a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, feels that suspending the elections would rob communities of the opportunity to choose new members or vote to keep some of the incumbents.
“They expect the community not to have a voice or opportunity to vote on who continues to be a member of the neighborhood council boards?” she asked.
Former Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Mark Redick supports efforts by Spiegel and others to move the elections back into the hands of neighborhood councils. He rejected the idea that the city could save money by postponing next year’s elections.
“The City Council took away $4,500 from neighborhood councils last year, so neighborhood councils have already prepaid for their elections,” Redick asserted. “If they aren’t going to have (the elections), they should give the money back to the local councils.”
Redick believes there is another consequence that could arise if the elections are postponed.
“If there are boards that have been non-responsive to a community’s needs, now they will have to wait two more years to have an opportunity to vote them out,” the former council president noted. “This has the potential to dull the blade and the will of the community.”
DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim acknowledged that the city is facing a fiscal crisis and he understands how many of the neighborhood councils feel. “If they don’t want the city clerk to run the election, it is up to them to advise the City Council how they feel,” he said.
MacLellan pointed to another potential consequence that could arise out of a postponement of next year’s elections.
“Some of the members of our council have term limits,” she noted. “So will it be up to the president of the neighborhood councils to appoint members to the board as vacancies become available?”
Having a different structure where the public can bring complaints is another aspect of the elections that the task force discussed. Last year, the city clerk’s office handled the grievances that were filed after the election, but the task force recommends that an independent third party handle complaints in the next election.
The Del Rey Neighborhood Council election was one that drew the attention of DONE. Stephen Knight, a former president of the Del Rey board, lodged seven grievances with the city clerk, including allegations of electioneering, loitering by a candidate at a polling location, the lack of voting material in the Mar Vista Gardens precinct and voting by non-Del Rey stakeholders.
After nearly two months of investigation, the clerk’s office found no improprieties in the election.
Spiegel would like to see an independent body oversee any grievances in the next election. “Anybody other than the city clerk,” he said.
Redick said that to delay the elections is contrary to the mandate and the reason why the local boards were created.
“If neighborhood councils are supposed to be representative of grassroots democracy, how can we say that we’re not going to hold them?” he asked.
Spiegel said that despite the city’s fiscal situation, it is not a reason to postpone a grassroots election.
“People have a right to choose their elected leaders,” he concluded. “You can’t usurp that just because of a budget crisis.”
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman with Trutanich’s office, did not respond to repeated email requests for comment on the proposed ordinance.