GELFAND’S WORLD - The recent scandal in the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) has now been revisited. As many of you may recall from previous columns, DONE is the city department that is supposed to assist Los Angeles neighborhood councils. In recent years, they've developed an authoritarian streak. It's more and more common to hear neighborhood council participants refer to DONE as acting like the mean principal who is visiting a sixth-grade classroom. Out of this has come a grassroots revolt by neighborhood council participants which is, at the moment, being manifested by the development of a neighborhood council bill of rights. We'll be reporting on it as it develops.
In the meanwhile, DONE continues as before, in its own tone-deaf style.
The next 3 paragraphs present the background of the current mess. Those of you who are familiar with the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council (HSDNC) story can skip it and go to the next part.
As in other city agencies, DONE is administered by a General Manager (GM). The previous GM, Raquel Beltran, presided over the last scandal. Briefly, the HSDNC was having trouble getting enough board members to hold meetings for a while. In a move that council presidents should avoid at all costs, the president of HSDNC asked DONE for help. The help he requested is called (under the city code) Exhaustive Efforts, and it involves DONE taking over the neighborhood council, running its meetings, and ordering people around until things (supposedly) get better.
My view of how EE works is (to borrow the old cliche), DONE figuratively beats the council's board members about the head and shoulders until they love each other well enough to hold meetings. In truth, EE under DONE is supposed to teach people how to run an effective organization as a working democracy but DONE does this by acting as a dictator. Done runs the meetings, tells the council what meetings it can or cannot hold, and often makes decisions about council actions on its own. In the HSDNC case, the DONE representative walked in, told board members that they would be spending $4000 on a charity event that would be held in a different city, told them that they had to attend the event, and that they would be removed from the board if they didn't. The DONE action was not only improper, it was (to borrow a useful word) Stupid, in the sense that the proposed action would do little or nothing to bring in new board members and solve the quorum problem.
The result was that the large majority of board members resigned in protest, publishing letters that have been read all over the city. CityWatch covered the scandal. Within a few days, Raquel Beltran was out as GM of DONE, and we got an interim GM by the name of Vanessa Serrano. Her signature is on the report about the HSDNC scandal which went out on May 12. It is that report which is the subject of this discussion.
The so-called "report" is linked at the bottom of this article. What's missing is any sense of the real issues that limited board participation, or the actual number of board members remaining in office at the time of the scandal, or pretty much anything that was definable and could be remedied. Instead, we get a claim that DONE interviewed everybody who had anything to do with the scandal (although they never refer to it by that term). The only substantive elements are nit-picks about how and whether the board members were threatened by the DONE representative, and how the edict from DONE regarding the $4000 expenditure was delivered.
The report contains a certain amount of defensive discussion of the $4000 appropriation, as if it were at all reasonable to throw public money away in this fashion. The report refers to discussions with a few people who actually approved of the expenditure, without mentioning whether any were at the board meeting in question, and without making reference to a board vote on the subject. Let me remind anyone who isn't familiar with neighborhood council procedures that we are required to take a roll call vote on each expenditure. DONE is implicitly admitting to a violation of the code under which the rest of us function.
The report does admit that the board members who were present at the meeting were of the belief that they were being required to attend the $4000 event, lest they be kicked off the board by DONE. This is about as far as you can get from the language of the city Charter describing the purpose and functioning of the neighborhood council system.
There is one remarkable paragraph which I will paste in here:
We reviewed the Exhaustive Efforts letter and Work Plan and found that there could have been an inaccurate reading of the letter and Work Plan. Per the EE letter, Board members are required to participate and attend at least two community elections events to help with outreach and recruitment. However, the letter does not say that Board members would be removed if they did not attend the events presented at this meeting. The letter does require board members to attend all board meetings during EE as an absence may result in removal from the board. The events presented at the February 8th meeting were the first two events scheduled and more were expected to occur. The Department could have done a better job by providing this clarification at the meeting.
Let me translate this into English: The DONE representative flagrantly misled the board members about requirements that DONE wanted to place on them. Moreover, DONE believes that it can order people to come to events and to provide unpaid work, without regard to long understood Constitutional liberties. DONE is neither a criminal court nor the draft board, but it seems to think that it has the same powers. This is despicable.
Here is one more tidbit about the $4000:
The Work Plan called for an increase in general awareness and engagement of the HSDNC to stakeholders. The Department allocated various expenditures to support the HSDNC outreach efforts, including the allocation of $4,000 to the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation. The funds were expected to cover the cost of booth space and NC logo placement on the event's promotional material.
A central point: It's not surprising that nobody in the area had heard of the HSDNC, because the city of Los Angeles has made it a practice of never talking about or otherwise advertising the existence of our neighborhood councils. So now, the HSDNC is blamed for a citywide omission that has been going on for 21 years.
Moreover, the approach taken by DONE is designed to have the minimum effect for the maximum dollar output. Take a look at the last sentence in the above quote to get the gist: That $4000 is, in effect, a donation to the Sheriff's Youth Foundation, because all it buys for the council is booth space and the printing of the logo on the promotional material.
In the report, we have these words: "The Department regrets the confusion and disruption from these events."
No, it wasn't confusion. The board understood all too well what the DONE representative was telling them, and they rose as one to tell DONE and the city government No. How about DONE and the City Council recognizing officially that the city does not own us (either body or soul), that we do not work for the city, and that we are elected officials in our own right. DONE ought to apologize for its own improper behavior, and not for some bogus "confusion" that it wants to pretend exists. This is the non-apology of non-apologies.
A few thoughts of my own
Most of us have driven past the boundaries of the HSDNC. It includes the Paramount Studio lot, a central part of the residential section of Hollywood, and lots of shops. It includes Sunset Blvd and part of Hollywood Blvd.
It shouldn't be hard to find a dozen people who are committed to making one meeting a month. In looking over the HSDNC bylaws, I found a few details that are a hindrance in that pursuit, and a couple of rules that are also a problem. But if the root problem was a temporary shortage of board members, there are other ways to solve this besides the extremely blunt instrument that is Exhaustive Efforts.
The whole Exhaustive Efforts system should be abolished by removing it from the city code. My first thought when reading the report and looking at the HSDNC bylaws was that I could solve the problem in five minutes with an orange crayon.
Or a blue pencil.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for Citywatch. He can be reached at [email protected])