Longtime community leaders quit the board following ethics spat, accusing some of bending the rules to help their friends; others see a witch hunt
By Gary Walker
Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa President Cyndi Hench, Vice President Mark Redick and three other elected members have resigned from the city advisory board amid a public dispute about ethics that involves allegations of favoritism.
Hench, Redick and others believe resistance to removing a high-profile board member for serial unexcused absences, despite bylaws that empower the board to do so, exposed members’ willingness to throw good governance out the window in order to help a friend.
“My resignation isn’t out of frustration … it’s out of disgust,” said Redick, assailing board colleagues for “deliberately misleading statements” designed to obfuscate board rules as a means for achieving their own political ends.
“The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa is no longer a council of neighborhood interest. It is a council of special interests,” said Redick, who before moving to Westchester in 2011 led the Del Rey Neighborhood Council for nine years.
Others believe the attempt to remove longtime influential board member David Voss was itself a political hit job, claiming selective interpretation of the board’s rules in order to make an example of him.
Voss is a founding member of the Westchester-Playa council who has served multiple four-year terms, but he hasn’t attended a meeting since November. J.D. Webster, also targeted for dismissal, hasn’t shown up for a meeting since July, according to council attendance records.
During the board’s April 3 meeting, Hench offered a motion to remove Voss and Webster from the board after the L.A. City Attorney’s office suggested that she take what might have been a routine vote to enforce board-ratified bylaws — operating rules that were largely crafted by Voss, a prominent area attorney — that state “three unexcused absences from duly-noticed board meetings shall result in automatic removal.”
The board voted 13-5, however, not to remove Voss or Webster.
‘More of a Guideline’
Board members Geoff Maleman and Tom Flintoft spoke loudest against Hench’s motion to boot Voss, who was out of the country at the time and could not be reached for comment by press time.
Flintoft called the absences “no big deal” and described Voss as a “tremendous asset to the board.”
“The bylaws are more of a guideline,” Flintoft said. “I don’t want this to be used as a ‘gotcha’ document.”
Maleman argued that it would be hypocritical to apply the automatic removal provision to Voss when other members have racked up more than three unexcused absences over their tenures, pointing out that board bylaws did not specify a timeline over which absences should be counted.
“My question,” he said, “is where do we draw the line and say, ‘From this point forward is when we’re going to look at those three absences’?”
Just before voting on the fates of Voss and Webster, the board revised its bylaws to establish a 12-month timeframe for keeping track of unexcused absences, an action Maleman decried as arbitrary and capricious. Using a 15-month standard, at least four other members would also be subject to automatic removal, he argued.
“My ethical concern is that some people are choosing to remove [Voss] without removing others who have also violated the same bylaws provision. That is simply unethical, and I will never support that,” Maleman stated in an email clarifying his position. “I believe the intent of this motion was to make sure David Voss was removed from the board. However, the motion was agendized without regard for others who might also be in violation of the bylaws.”
Hench and others who resigned in protest argue the issue is the board’s willingness — or lack thereof — to follow its own rules.
“I really saw the disproportionate difference between my views of the bylaws and how others on the board see them. I’m a rule follower and I just really realized that this is not a group of people that need me,” Hench said the morning after the meeting. “I view unexcused absences as absolutely disrespectful to the board.”
Patricia Lyon, David Oliver and Garrett Smith followed Hench and Redick in stepping down, citing dismay or disillusionment with lack of respect for the rules that govern the council.
“Ethically I can no longer be a member of an organization that thinks bylaws are optional. I am submitting my resignation effective immediately,” Smith informed the board in writing on April 4.
Kimberly Fox, an appointed secretary of the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee, has also quit.
“Without high confidence in the strong application and protection of bylaws and legally mandated procedure, I am no longer willing to volunteer my time in support of the neighborhood council process,” wrote Fox.
‘Precious Few Doers’
In a March email obtained by The Argonaut, Maleman asked Hench if there was another way to handle Voss’ failure to show up at that month’s meeting.
“Since there’s no clear definition for ‘excused’ vs. ‘non-excused’ absences in the bylaws, could we just revise the last set of minutes to reflect that Dave was an excused absence and chalk all of this up to a lack of communication?” Maleman wrote on March 14. “Just trying to look for a way to follow both the letter of the law and not lose someone like Dave who has obviously invested hundreds of hours in making the [neighborhood council] go. We have precious few ‘doers’ and I would hate to lose him, but I still want to make sure we have a way to remove someone who fails to show and doesn’t participate.”
Asked to clarify what he meant in the email, Maleman stated: “My suggestion was to err on the side of the less drastic reaction — chalking this up to miscommunication rather than opening a can of worms that would see the board remove five, six or perhaps even more board members. Without the bylaws in front of me at the time, I was also relying on Mr. Voss’ email statement that the bylaws did not define ‘excused’ vs. ‘unexcused’ absences.”
It isn’t clear which email by Voss that Maleman refers to, but the statement suggests some sort of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the issue before it came to light at the April meeting.
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., served as executive director of the Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission, which created the neighborhood council system in 2001. He said the tensions playing out on the Westchester-Playa board aren’t entirely unprecedented.
“I think it’s inevitable when you have active, engaged people, things can become contentious sometimes,” said Sonenshein.
“A good set of bylaws are essential to the function of any government,” he continued. But, “If there are factions who are debating bylaws, they may not actually be debating about the bylaws.”
‘It’s a Sad Commentary’
There had been no indication, however, that Hench, Voss and Maleman had any major public disagreement or falling out before Hench’s motion to eject Voss. In the big picture, the three of them largely tended to agree on how to handle most issues brought before the board.
The Westchester-Playa board is one of the largest neighborhood councils in Los Angeles — it has 31 seats, six of which were unfilled before the current spate of resignations — but until now tended to reach majority consensus without such intense discussions.
On Tuesday, Playa del Rey community activist Julie Ross filed a grievance with the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city agency that oversees neighborhood councils.
“If they’re not willing to abide by the current bylaws, then the neighborhood council cannot function as it currently exists,” Ross said.
Former neighborhood council member Denny Schneider, a prominent public transportation advocate who fought LAX expansion, said rampant absenteeism in the board’s early days is what prompted its tough stance on missed meetings.
“We had trouble reaching a quorum, so [absenteeism] had become a very serious concern,” he recalled.
Now Schneider worries about finding people willing to step up and take the place of the very active board members who’ve resigned.
“A lot of institutional memory will be lost,” he said. “It’s a sad commentary on today’s politics.”