DONE: Should We Kill the Beast or Tame It?

EASTSIDER-It is not a secret that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) is broken. It is equally evident that something like 90 percent of their woes are self-inflicted wounds by Grayce Liu, the DONE staff and their assigned City Attorney. So, what should we do? 

Personally, I think it would be cool to fire the lot and bring back Greg Nelson, or at least a clone of him. Start over. But that’s not in the realm of probable outcomes, for a few sad but true political reasons: 

1) Hiz Honor Eric Garcetti is perfectly happy (or ‘not unhappy’) to have Grayce Liu run around cheerleading for him, and on someone else’s payroll to boot. He has no incentive to do anything, and when there’s a problem, she’s there as a scapegoat. 

2) Most of the City Council members like having DONE around as a safety valve, so they can blow off the Neighborhood Councils as “someone else’s problem.” Honestly, most elected officials only like Neighborhood Councils when they are rah rah boosters of whatever scheme has become the Council member’s flavor of the month. Truth to power is definitely not part of the equation. 

3) Finally, the City can’t get rid of DONE and the Neighborhood Council system without a -- hold your breath -- CHARTER CHANGE! That is simply not going to happen. No sir, those are reserved for conning us out of money for bond issues, sales taxes, and other ways to extract money from the body politic. Besides, it takes a lot of time and effort to do a charter change right, and it would stand as a public declaration of failure. 

The History 

My last Open Letter to Councilmember Ryu on DONE is a reasonable place to start looking at where we are today. 

Not to mention so many of my fellow CityWatch contributors and the individual articles from and about the Neighborhood Councils themselves -- from San Pedro to Skid Row to Studio City to Venice, etc., too many to name individually. If you don’t believe me, do a search onCityWatch using the SEARCH tab on the website. 

And lately, CityWatch even has a tab on the right, in the right hand column, for a new group called DONEWatch, where you can participate in fact-checking the department. 

A Modest Proposal 

If we can’t kill the beast, we can ensure that it does no more harm. So, here’s the proposal: 

1) Eliminate all DONE staff except for back-end clerical staff who process the necessary City support like paying bills. And yes, that means getting rid of all the people who run around telling Neighborhood Councils what they can and cannot do. 

2)Keep the General Manager position with or without an incumbent. There is no requirement to have an incumbent, and if Mayor Garcetti wants to pay for it, he can keep Grayce. 

3) Eliminate the City Attorney position, sending the incumbent there back to the LA City Attorney’s Office where these legal questions belong anyway. Neither I nor any of the NC folks that I have talked to can recall a single lawsuit against any of the Neighborhood Councils since the Plan went into effect some 17 years ago. Other than troublemaking and bad legal advice, it is a useless position. 

4) Have the City Clerk run all elections. This has already been accomplished, and they know how to do it, including the handling of election challenges. Give them time to figure out a way to handle voters who are not registered with the County. 

5) Take the silly duties like Grievances and Bylaws that are currently being administered by Grayce & Co. and put them under the umbrella of BONC. It will give that group something to do besides play with themselves. 

6) Move all the IT stuff like the website and documents to the Citywide IT staff, who actually know how to build a transparent and usable website. You know, one where the links actually work, where the filenames provide a usable description of the document (instead of deliberately hiding them)– a site that is robust. Just like when Greg Nelson was the General Manager of DONE. 

7) Halt all NC subdivisions except those in the pipeline (I could live with dumping them too, except for Skid Row) and give it up for now as a bad deal. God’s Gift to the Eastside, Jose Huizar, has already gotten whatever it was that it cost to have the vermiform appendix of Hermon carved out, and paid off his real estate buddies by setting up Skid Row for failure after encouraging them to go fish and file. 

As a recent CityWatch article on the subject demonstrates, the whole setup is nothing but a political shell game of who’s got the juice with which Councilmember. 

Furthermore, it’s a bad idea anyway when we start toying around with the Plan’s 20,000 people minimum required to have a Neighborhood Council. 

The Takeaway 

So, there it is -- a modest proposal that would both save the City of Los Angeles money and reduce problems with DONE significantly. Since there has never been a lawsuit against a Neighborhood Council, the City saves both the cost of an attorney and as well the conflicts created when the current DONE attorney chooses to weigh in. 

The bulk of the other problems have come from DONE staff who give often contradictory and/or questionable advice, thus generating grievances, appeals, and yes, CityWatch articles! Shazaam!  Problem eliminated. Besides, most NC folks that I talk to would rather do their own thing anyway, far from the Mothership. 

The City Clerk is set up to run elections; that’s what they do. And as they wrestle with how to handle self-affirmation stakeholders, at least we know that they will do an objective job of it, because they have absolutely no interest in the election outcomes. Further, the City Council will have a hard time restricting the funding for the City Clerk to run NC elections. If it isn’t funded, they simply won’t do it. 

If they had deliberately set out to hide things, DONE couldn’t have done a better job with their website. When and if whoever set this thing up leaves, dies or retires, it is likely that the whole mess will go down. Having central City IT folks do a reset will encourage best practices and compatibility with the rest of the City. Just the reduction in Public Records Act requests should pay for any increased transitional costs. 

The only fly in the ointment is that the Council and the Mayor are probably terrified of anything that fixes a real problem and saves money at the same time. After all, the idea could take root and grow. Heck, Jack Humphreville would be ecstatic! 

Kick the tires and think about my Modest Proposal. To make the NC system truly work, they would need enough paid City employee staff to handle the meetings at 95 or so Neighborhood Councils each month and to process and pay invoices/bills in a timely fashion. 

In the meantime, stay tuned to David Ryu’s Health, Education and Neighborhood Councils Committee. After completing their recent survey, they seem to be poised to propose some changes of their own to the Neighborhood Council System. One can hope.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.