CityWatch, May 28, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 42
Conspiracy Theorists have argued that the simplest way to neutralize the neighborhood council system would be to support it with funds that come wrapped in conflicting rules and a vague process, then get out of the way while participatory democracy destroys itself. Based on results, there seems to be a fair amount of evidence that this is a valid theory. After all, as the City of LA grapples with a $7 billion budget that includes draconian staffing cuts and reductions to city services, neighborhood council advocates remain sidetracked by debates over ATM cards, Demand Warrants, Rollover Funds, $45 K budgets and accounting fees. Meanwhile, Rome burns!
If City Hall had actually set out to neutralize the neighborhood council system, to keep them sidetracked and out of the way, then by all rights, it appears that the evil plan has worked.
Of course, as Ruth Galanter offered up years ago, to believe in conspiracy theories is to believe in the competency of City Hall, quite a stretch. "Most people look at government and they think it's a conspiracy. It's so hard to believe it's as inept as it is. I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence."
Whether by design or by simple systemic failure, the neighborhood council system is facing a significant crisis that is consuming incredible amounts of advocate energy debating the fine points of neighborhood council funding. From the NC Budget Advocates meetings to local NC meetings, from regional NC Meetings to Board Orientations, from City Council meetings to City Department meetings, and from the Neighborhood Commission meetings to the Education and Neighborhood Committee meetings, it’s all about the NC budget.
The concerns are consistent, the questions are simple, the answers vary from time to time and from place to place, leaving NC advocates a little more on edge as time goes by. The meetings typically draw questions and comments on these co-mingled topics:
● Neighborhood council Rollover funds through 2009.
The account is closed. The City Council has “swept” the rollover funds that neighborhood councils had left over from their budgets through 2008/2009.
Protest from NC’s that the process was unfair resulted in a reprieve and out of approximately $1.5 million in rollover funds, NC’s were able to retrieve approximately $900,000, leaving three groups of dissatisfied NC’s.
Some failed to turn in the appropriate paperwork to qualify for their previously encumbered funds, some claim to have lost their funds due to the confusing rules and process, and some claim that other NC's qualified unjustly as the result of an uneven application of the rules.
According to sources in Councilman Paul Krekorian's office, the process is complete and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment has closed the books on old rollover funds.
● Neighborhood council Rollover funds from the 2009/2010 budget.
So far, so good. Neighborhood councils with funds left over from their 2009/2010 budget will be able to roll them over into their 2010/2011 budgets.
For all of the drama, the total funds swept as a result of the “assault” on the neighborhood council rollover funds is $600,000. Not a significant payday for the City of Los Angeles when you consider the incredible amount of time spent meeting and discussing and debating and fighting.
● The proposed neighborhood council budget for 2010/2011.
So far, so good. At this point, the proposed budget for neighborhood councils is $45,000 per council. With 91 certified neighborhood councils qualifying for funding, this amounts to $4,095.000 for the entire system. This does not include the budget for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
While the current proposal to fund NC’s at $45,000 each and to allow rollover funds from 2010/2011, the caveat is that it comes with a proposal to require the NC’s to fund their own accounting at as much as 8% which tops out at $327,600 systemwide. $3,600 per council
Critics point out that this is another loss on top of the most significant loss of all, the gutting of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which leaves the NC system gouged more than virtually any other department in the city.
● The proposed budget for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment for 2010/2011.
We're still waiting. Based on results, often harsh but always fair, it’s reasonable to say that the budget for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is a bit vague.
A number of approximately $3 million has been bandied about but the details seem elusive.
At this writing, the Mayor’s office is unable to offer up specifics, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is unable to offer up specifics, the Community Development Department is unable to offer up specifics and the CAO’s office has not yet responded to requests for a breakdown of the Mayor's proposed 2010/2011 Neighborhood Empowerment budget.
On the day that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment went before the City Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, one Deputy Mayor and two General Managers, complete with an obligatory swarm of staff, sat at the proverbial horseshoe and collectively revealed that the budget details were a mystery to them all. Somehow in the budget journey, the Departments training funds had literally disappeared and nobody had noticed prior to their journey to council chambers.
Short answer: the Mayor’s office and the CAO’s office have promised to meet with NC representatives to explain the intricacies of the proposed budget, just as soon as they get the answers themselves. Whose budget is this?
● The process for funding Neighborhood Councils.
We're on our own! Neighborhood councils are already looking forward to 2010/2011 by preparing a budget as the basic mandate for qualifying for their NC funds.
Beyond that, the rules for actually spending the money are so convoluted and fluid that NC advocates have taken it upon themselves to propose funding structures that address many of the complaints and problems from the past.
Shawn’s Plan now has company from Jay’s Plan which was joined by Adrienne’s Plan and Paul’s Plan. These plans all have something in common. They are an attempt by volunteers to fill the void left by those who are literally on the clock but are unable to come up with a simple and effective plan for managing the funds of neighborhood councils.
For all of the schemes, one NC advocate pointed out it only amounts to a half dozen checks per month per NC yet the City of LA has somehow made it into a cumbersome process that defies comprehension.
Another NC advocate pointed out that for all of the audits and criticism, it wasn’t the NC’s that came under fire but the system itself that allowed such deviation and discrepancy.
Through it all, it is apparent that there is an absence of leadership and it is an incredible distraction that is keeping many talented and well-meaning volunteers from engaging in the real and significant citywide budget debates, all in an effort to manage NC funds.
● The proposed consolidation of the Community Development Department and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
Opposition is mounting! As of Wednesday’s Education and Neighborhood Committee meeting, it’s safe to say that the proposal to consolidate the two departments is far from over.
Committee Chair Paul Krekorian has received accolades for his commitment to engaging the community in the process and based on the public testimony, the consolidation plan has few, if any, fans.
Critics from around the city consistently line up during public comment to give testimony to the claim that the current system is broken, the proposed consolidation is hardly an improvement and that the neighborhood council system deserves better.
Critics of the consolidation offer many reasons for their opposition including:
DONE is a charter department, CDD is an ordinance department. To consolidate and then refer to the new organization as CDD/DONE is to rename the new department CDD or Community Development. In one fell swoop, Neighborhood Empowerment has been subsumed and no longer exists in the vernacular of the City of Los Angeles. (Conspiracy Theorists perked up!)
CDD’s mandate is dramatically different from DONE’s, there may be overlap but that is true for many departments. This does not bode well for DONE if the host department answers to federal grant regulations while the DONE answers to the City Charter and the will of the people.
The people of Los Angeles lose connectivity to the Mayor and the City Council if their department no longer has a General Manager but instead has an Executive Director who answers to an Assistant General Manager who answers to the General Manager who then answers to the Mayor.
The proposal to move the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment around is a smokescreen and avoids the real need, a systemic overhaul that addresses the failures of the past and positions the neighborhood council system for success. “It’s not where you park it, it’s how you park it.”
The consolidation proposal is superficial and the General Manager of CDD is light on the details, hardly the beginning of a fruitful and successful relationship.
Ultimately, Councilman Paul Krekorian summed it up best when he said “If policy decisions are to be driven by budget savings, then the budget savings must be real. Most important, the proposal must be effective for the neighborhood council system and I remain unconvinced that this is the best plan.”
● The vision for neighborhood councils and a commitment to supporting them.
There is none! Through all of the many meetings, it is apparent that for all of the org-chart proposals and budgetary distractions, the core vision for neighborhood councils is missing from the discussion.
The merger details, the funding proposals, the staffing structure are all meaningless if the City of Los Angeles doesn’t support the neighborhood council system with a department that is committed to a clearly articulated vision.
● The value of balancing the city's budget on the backs of the neighborhood councils.
There is none! At last week's Board of Neighborhood Commissioners meeting I counted 15 people who were on the City of LA Payroll, all sitting obediently and waiting obediently for their moment of contribution.
Wednesday's Education and Neighborhoods Committee meeting was more of the same. From Deputy Mayors to City Councilmembers to Mayoral and Council Staff to General Managers to City staff in numbers that would dwarf even the most bloated Hollywood entourage, and all to look for the crumbs in the sofas of the neighborhood councils. We don't even have sofas!
Neighborhood councils deserve support, a system that operates efficiently and effectively. There is no chance of balancing the City's anticipated half-billion-dollar budget shortfall by squeezing the neighborhood council system. To keep trying demonstrates a severe case of City Council and Mayoral innumeracy.
To continue the discussion regarding neighborhood councils, visit cd2policy.wordpress.com where Councilman Krekorian has a running poll on what people think should happen regarding the proposed consolidation.
(Stephen Box writes for CityWatch and views City Hall through his own unique lens. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net)