NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS-The functions of the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) have evolved over the years.
Some of these changes have definitely been for the good, but some recent changes have not been welcomed by the Neighborhood Councils it serves.
And service is, or at least should be, the sole function of this department as envisioned in the City Charter when the Neighborhood Council (NC) system was created as a way to increase input from communities across greater Los Angeles, bringing democracy back to a City that had become dominated by a crony-driven overly-bureaucratic municipal government.
Today DONE certainly does have their fingers on the pulse of the City or, more accurately, certain pulses – primarily those at City Hall.
Democracy comes from the ground up; it is not imposed from above, and certainly not to support the many special interest groups that unduly influence our elected officials.
Furthermore, DONE has consistently violated its own rules, including approving splinter NCs formed from special interest groups which has contributed to the increasingly adversarial approach to addressing issues of concern across the City.
How democratic is it when an NC representing less than 10,000 residents and other stakeholders has equal funding and input as one representing over 100,000?
Another example is the decision by DONE to spend outreach funds without consulting with the NCs. The NCs might view the outreach effort differently or may consider it ill-advised altogether. The NCs should have input. Each NC has its own specific needs and one size does not necessarily fit all.
Additionally, if the data in Tony Butka’s recent CityWatch article addressing a somewhat unusual approach to disbursement of NC funds is correct and these monies are on top of NCs’ existing budgets, no matter how well-intentioned, that’s a half million bucks going out without proper checks and balances at a time when the City is facing a fiscal crisis.
- In meeting with Budget Advocates last fall, DONE expressed an interest in becoming a source of assistance to NCs by providing suggestions rather than stating rules – a welcome change. In direct contradiction to this perspective, DONE then requested NCs revise their bylaws by this spring.
This was before the new General Manager had even completed her listening tour to fully assess the needs of the various NCs. This should be put on hold until she, and DONE, address more urgent underlying issues.
- Suggested language from DONE for bylaws reforms included “Committee members shall be appointed by the President and ratified by the Board” which would give one person almost complete control over the committees.
This would make NCs into commissions that could select committees whose sole purpose would then be to rubber stamp NC objectives rather than being the paradigms of grassroots democracy they were intended to be.
When faced with a question on how stakeholders could be denied the right to join a committee at an NC meeting this winter, the Neighborhood Empowerment Advocate (NEA), whose sole purpose as DONE’s representative was to give guidance to the NC, stayed silent. If there was a legitimate reason, people have the right to know. Or the whole process is delegitimized.
Every action by DONE must be refocused on allowing all voices in the community, elected or not, to be heard.
- An advisory workgroup of NC members to discuss issues and concerns fizzled last year but a slimmed-down reincarnated version, working independently of the institution they are assessing, would be a great first step.
So long as they don’t get bogged down in the same bureaucracy that has been strangling the provision of services citywide for the past decades.
- To enable effective support, DONE’s staff must provide the same guidelines to each NC.
This must include reducing the rules-and-regulations complexity and bureaucracy endemic to governmental structures. At the same time, DONE must provide more appropriate training and monitoring of the NCs.
And it must ensure easy participation by all Angelenos to the degree they want, along with the flexibility that was intended when the NC system was enshrined in the City Charter.
To accomplish the foregoing, DONE must first get their own house in order by clarifying the authority and overseeing the performance of their NEAs.
The NEAs must act consistently and fairly, as advocates not overseers.
- As Neighborhood Councils continue to evolve, institutional knowledge within the NCs themselves continues to erode as key leaders leave or boards are kicked out en masse by insurgent special interest groups.
To combat this loss of knowledge, DONE needs to identify ways to comprehensively maintain more stable operations across the NC system.
Although it would be easier for DONE to maintain consistent oversight of the NCs if each NC was structured identically, all NCs are considered independently operating entities and have developed different bylaws and procedures.
With the City Clerk’s office now handling funding operations and elections for NCs, DONE should have the personnel to pivot into its most important function – support.
The challenge DONE’s new General Manager Raquel Beltrán (photo above) faces is ensuring that focus is on support and not perpetuating a holdover of the previous cumbersome bureaucracy.
It needs to reimagine itself as a nimble and flexible resource for the NCs and then get on to the next task.
Increasing the Department’s communication with the City’s other Departments will help to make the NC System more effective and involved with the City. There is very little cost to supporting the NC System with other Departments and the rewards for the City could be large.
DONE is the department; the NCs are not.
DONE must remake itself into the cheerleader for democracy in action that it was conceived as and support the NCs in all their iterations instead of imposing the top-down bureaucracy of failing City Hall politics.
(Liz Amsden is a member of the Budget Advocates, an elected, all volunteer, independent advisory body charged with making constructive recommendations to the Mayor and the City Council regarding the Budget, and to City Departments on ways to improve their operations, and with obtaining input, updating and educating all Angelenos on the City’s fiscal management.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.