Confronting the rarely-discussed topic of the lack of ethics training among certain neighborhood councils, the Rules Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council is seeking to bar members of its board who have not passed their mandatory ethics course from voting on land use matters.
Ira Koslow, the chair of the council’s Rules and Elections Committee, feels it is time that Venice and other neighborhood councils begin to take the matter of ethics training more seriously as they gain increased stature citywide and among their constituents.
“Right now, there are no sanctions for not completing ethics training,” Koslow pointed out. “In Venice, we’re very honorable when it comes to ethics, and what we are doing is we’re trying to comply with this requirement.”
Koslow’s committee will propose the resolution on Tuesday, July 21st to the full board. In addition to not being allowed to vote on land use topics, the resolution would also prohibit anyone who has not taken the ethics class the right to vote on any financial business that is before the local board.
Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, supports Koslow’s motion and hopes that it succeeds.
“I applaud Venice in moving forward with ethics reforms,” said Redick, who has also considered introducing such a measure to his council. “My position is that if you’re too busy to take ethics training, than you should not be serving on a neighborhood council.”
To date, 418 members of the local advisory boards have taken and passed the mandatory testing and have been awarded certificates, said Claudia Dunn, the assistant general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the system of neighborhood councils.
“The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners has really been instrumental in encouraging neighborhood councils to comply with their ethics training,” Dunn told The Argonaut. “In previous years, the numbers were much lower.”
According to DONE records, only 166 advisory board members in 2007 had been awarded certificates for passing compulsory training and 127 in 2006.
The City Council voted to impose mandatory ethics training for the 89 advisory councils in January when it passed a measure that would allow neighborhood councils to open council indexes regarding land use and planning projects in their communities.
So far, there has been little enforcement of this statute and many members have not taken the compulsory class.
Emily Winters, a Venice artist, says that local community councils should strive to uphold and maintain high principles and standards.
“Ethics in Venice have always been in question,” Winters asserted, citing the uproar over a February vote regarding the controversial overnight permit parking issue. “In the past, many people didn’t go to meetings because many of the (board members) didn’t know the rules (that govern neighborhood councils).”
Denny Schneider, a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, is not sure that Koslow’s proposal will create a more ethically driven board.
“It’s a great idea, but it won’t keep anyone honest who isn’t honest if you have not filed any paperwork to show that you’ve disclosed that you have a financial conflict,” he said.
Financial disclosure among neighborhood councils that wish to open council files that pertain to development is another topic that has drawn mixed reviews among local advisory boards. In California, full-time commissioners, state, county and municipal elected officials are required to fill out a financial disclosure form known as Form 700, which is a statement of economic interests.
While there is support for a much less rigorous set of disclosure requirements being proposed for neighborhood councils that seek large roles in planning items before the full-time City Council, Redick and others feel that they are unnecessary and intrusive.
“I don’t need a Watergate-era law to be ethical,” Redick said.
Koslow does not think that expulsion from a neighborhood council is necessary if a member does not comply, but barring anyone from participating in crucial votes on land use and financial considerations is important.
“I think that’s too draconian,” he said of expulsion. “We think that not being allowed to vote on these two important issues is a fair penalty.”
Koslow believes that ethics training would eliminate much of the confusion about what is and is not a conflict of interest or an ethical breach.
“Once you’ve taken the class, you can’t use the excuse anymore that you didn’t know what may or may not be an ethical violation,” he said.
LeeAnn Pelham, the executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, told The Argonaut in an earlier interview that she believes that ethics training can reduce the possibilities for a member of a neighborhood council to inadvertently engage in behavior that might be questionable and might require possible sanctions.
“Conflicts of interest are very important issues,” Pelham said. “Exposure to ethics laws that apply to members of all boards can only be beneficial.”
Dunn believes that Venice pursuing penalizing members who do not abide by the mandatory statute is consistent with the growth and evolution of neighborhood councils, how they are perceived citywide and their importance to their local communities.
“Neighborhood councils have undergone changes over the last several years,” she noted. “New people are beginning to come on board and they are encouraging their respective boards to take the ethics training seriously.”
Winters finds it interesting that the Venice council is bringing codes of conduct to the forefront for public discussion.
“I’m really amazed that this would come up at all,” she said.
Koslow said that he does not expect any resistance from his fellow neighborhood council members on the motion.
“We think that preventing those who have not taken their training from voting on expenditures and land use matters is a reasonable sanction,” he said.