By Gary Walker
A new addendum to the Venice Neighborhood Council’s bylaws will require members of two key committees to comply with the city of Los Angeles’ mandated conflict of interest training.
The council voted unanimously 15-0 May 22 to require members of the council’s Budget and Land Use and Planning committees to take and pass an online course given by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) prior to casting votes on financial and planning items. DONE is the city agency that oversees all neighborhood councils.
Jake Kaufman, the land use and planning chair, chose to abstain from the motion instead of voting yea or nay.
The change in the standing rule adds the two committee to the list of those who must now take the training course or lose their voting privileges on financial and planning matters.
All 95 neighborhood councils are required to take the mandated conflict of interest course.
“Any member of the board of officers who has a financial or material pecuniary interest in an item, as defined by state, federal or local laws, shall recuse themselves from voting on any item in question,” the new rule states.
“Any member of the Venice Neighborhood Council who has not received a certificate of completion for the mandated ethics training within 55 days of taking office, whether by appointment or election, will be prohibited from voting on any land use issues or financial expenditures of any city funds.
“This standing rule shall apply to all members of the Budget Committee and the Planning and Land Use Committee effective Aug. 1, 2013.”
Board member Ira Koslow, who chairs the council’s bylaw committee, thought that the inclusion of budget and land use committee members made sense because they help shape board policy on two areas that the local council frequently votes on and specifically references in its standing rules regarding ethics training.
“The idea is if you’re voting on financial and land use matters, then you should be taking ethics training,” he explained.
Koslow pointed out that members of the Budget Committee are already board members and should have already taken the city-mandated conflict of interest course.
“And the only member of the Land Use and Planning Committee who is also a board member is the committee chair, so none of the other committee members have been required to take ethics training,” he added.
Board member Cynthia Rogers said it has been a tradition of sorts for the Venice council to take ethics seriously.
“Making it a priority to have the board along with significant committee members take the ethics exam can only be a good thing,” Rogers said. “It’s a priority of (our council) to serve the public with the highest ethical standards, and that all starts with education and awareness.”
The Venice council has led the way on compliance with city’s conflict of interest statute among all neighborhood councils for several years. Until four years ago, council President Linda Lucks was the only council leader among neighborhood councils covered by The Argonaut to publicly remind her members at each meeting that ethics training is required.
Following a 2009 Argonaut article that showed that fewer than 30 percent of local advisory boards were compliant with ethics training, all board presidents routinely publicly remind their members of their city-mandated duty to take the course.
Several incumbent board members at the time of last year’s neighborhood council elections were not in compliance with ethics training, including Kaufman, according to DONE records.
The certificates of Venice council members Kristopher Valentine, Scot Kramarich and former board members Marianna Aguilar and Jed Pauker, who lost in their reelection bids, had also expired when they sought reelection in the Oct. 28 race.
Karen Wolfe, a former member of the council’s land use committee, applauded the council for taking action on something that she feels is long overdue.
“I think it is an excellent idea,” she said. “I think it’s important for the committee to demonstrate that they have an understanding of the Brown Act and other conflict of interest rules.”
The Brown Act is a 60-year-old state law that guarantees the public the right to attend public hearings and meetings of city councils, committees and agency boards.
Another local council has also begun moving towards holding its members more accountable regarding ethics. The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa voted May 7 to give the board president the authority to remove those who have not taken ethics training three months after they have been elected to the council.
Incumbents in Westchester-Playa, Del Rey and Mar Vista who were not in compliance with the city ethics law also ran for reelection last year.
Sue Kaplan, a Venice resident who has monitored the land use and planning votes in her community over the last year, said Koslow’s motion is important because many of the committee’s current members do not have a background in planning.
“I can only see the positive for members of the committees to be also required (to take ethics training). As the (LUPC) Land Use and Planning committee becomes more made up of professional and less of neighborhood members, the subtleties of true representation get even more distinctive,” she said.
“This is truly an issue when committee members are making recommendations that directly affect our neighborhoods and the residents therein.”
Wolfe, who says she has witnessed some acts of questionable ethical behavior by some members of the land use committee in the past, said that making the committee aware of any potential conflicts has been one of the community’s most frequently discussed topics in recent months, especially last fall.
“I think (the local council’s vote) is a reflection of the issues that were brought up in (the Oct. 28) election,” she said.
Rogers, an attorney, said the conflict of interest course is helpful to those who vote on important board matters and can serve as a blueprint to avoid any possible conflicts and potentially unethical behavior.
“DONE offers a great two- hour workshop which centralizes all this info and gives us the tools to foster accountability, impartiality, and just generally how to be solid stewards of the public trust, whether we are a board member or committee member serving as an outreach of the Venice Neighborhood Council,” Rogers said. “I say two thumbs up.” §