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City Attorney Sipping that Special Kool-Aid: Won’t let Neighborhood Councils Give Grants to Schools

EASTSIDER-I don’t know if City Attorney Mike Feuer has simply lost control of the City Attorney’s Office, or if he’s been drinking some of the special kool-aid they’re handing out to his staff. But here’s a nutso note on their latest legal bombshell to Neighborhood Councils: 

“If any Board member of a Neighborhood Council has a child in school, the entire Board is not allowed to vote for a grant to any private, non-profit, or LAUSD School!” 

 

Of course, I don’t have a copy of the actual language of the City Attorney’s opinion, because it’s secret!

Honest, this legal advice is so smokin’ hot that it has to be treated with more secrecy than Hillary Clinton’s emails. It’s right in there with the Snowden disclosures about the NSA! I guess they’d have to kill us if they told us. 

Of course this is the same City Attorney (along with the LA City Ethics Commission) that sees no harm in Councilmember Paul Krekorian accepting $12,600 in campaign contributions from a private school to build its “Bridge Over Coldwater Canyon” on the city’s dime. 

Some Background: 

At Saturday’s LANCC meeting, the two BONC Commissioner’s present confirmed that, yes indeed, there was an agenda Item on the March 1 meeting about grants to schools, but there was no attached legal opinion or any other documentation. 

Here’s what we actually know from the BONC Agenda itself: 

“11. PUBLIC HEARING: Discussion: The EmpowerLA - Monthly Profile for February 1, 2016 instructed Neighborhood Councils that Neighborhood Purposes Grants (NPGs) for private non-profit and LAUSD schools would be disallowed if a board member is the parent of a child attending the school.” 

Of course the Item was continued -- there was no public hearing because the legal advice is not public, so we can’t actually have a public hearing, and the City Attorney evidently has to go off and figure out the implications of this constitutional crisis. No wonder they subcontract real litigation. 

The Statutory Framework: 

In terms of the Neighborhood Council Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils from 2001, it is to: 

“Promote public participation in City governance and decision making processes so that government is more responsive to local needs and requests and so that more opportunities are created to build partnerships with government to address local needs and requests.” 

And: 

“Certified Neighborhood Councils shall be as independent, self-governing, and self-directed as possible. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) shall assist Certified Neighborhood Councils to pursue options, including, but not limited to, tax-exempt status and/or non-profit incorporation, to strengthen their independence....” 

What we don’t have in the Plan or the Ordinance is anything about the City Attorney’s right to interfere with the functioning of Neighborhood Council’s themselves. 

Let me be perfectly clear -- Board Members of Certified Neighborhood Councils are unpaid, volunteer citizens performing a public service established in the Charter, the Plan, and the Ordinance. They are not City employees, and the City Attorney is not their legal advisor. 

The City Attorney is the legal advisor to DONE since it is a Department of the City and is staffed by paid City employees. The City Attorney is also the legal advisor to BONC, since they are a Board or Commission established by Charter, and are all mayoral appointees. And honestly, given the track record of the BONC and the DONE, who cares? 

The Charter, the Plan, and the Ordinance all contemplate that BONC and DONE and all City Departments (presumably including the City Attorney) are there to provide support to the Neighborhood Councils, as they try to meet their duties to communicate their stakeholders interests and weigh in with non-binding advice designed to hold the City’s feet to the fire before they do stupid things. 

I am also compelled to point out that in the 16 years since the NC Charter Amendment was passed, I cannot find one single legal opinion from the LA City Attorney delineating the relationship between the City Attorney and members of the Boards of the 95 Neighborhood Councils. You know, like a real legal opinion that sets forth the statutory relationship between the two entities, providing clear authority and citations. That kind of actual legal work. Nada. Nothing. In sixteen years, enough time for someone to be born, grow up, and have had a Quinceanera. Sheesh. 

A Modest Proposal: 

Let’s eliminate the one possible pretense of authority over Neighborhood Councils -- eliminate all NPG’s! That’s right, the Neighborhood Purpose Grants, in which we give away money to our favorite folks. This is what is at the heart of this pipsqueak problem: the expenditure of public funds.

There are at least two very good reasons to do this. First, the small $37,500 budget given to each Neighborhood Council, along with $5000 for this year’s elections, has only proved that people will sell themselves for a remarkably small amount of money. Let’s eliminate the issue so that the City Attorney can go back to pretending to prosecute Airbnb zoning violations or weighting in on the legality of the City Council’s slimy development projects. 

As those of us who have been around the NC system for a while know, the only real reason there’s been almost no change of Board membership in too many NC’s, is that small groups of people get off on playing “City Council” and handing out a few bucks to their friends, relatives, and to those who kowtow to them. Such is not, however, what the Charter and the Plan both say. 

So, good reason number two to take away the money: No money -- and those kinds of Board members go away. Stripped of their cash toy, they’ll be unwilling to actually do the work of outreach that the Charter says is their number one mandate. 

Take away the money and the City Attorney has no standing to even try to tell a bunch of unpaid volunteers with only advisory authority what to do. And there’ll be no “city liability” for the City Attorney to hide behind.

Take away the money and flatly demand that the City of Los Angeles and DONE directly provide all the support that each Neighborhood Council is absolutely entitled to -- meeting venues, translation services, secretarial services, outreach and communications support, etc. Take that, Filipe Fuentes! 

In other words, instead of having the system tell the Neighborhood Councils what they can and cannot do, make the system support the Neighborhood Councils in doing their mandated duties. The Charter is quite clear about who is supposed to provide support to whom – and it’s not our current (on purpose) “upside down” system. 

To me, by far the biggest benefit will be that there will no longer be three to four hour NC meetings that cause stakeholders to gag and never come back. This change will allow new people with different perspectives to step up and get involved. Right now, in my Neighborhood Council, if we get people interested in running for office and they attend a stakeholder meeting, they walk out part way through, shaking their heads saying, “no way we’ll participate in this mess. Not a chance!” 

A while ago I wrote an article on NC’s and the Schools. Just think -- there are so many areas where the NC movement, beholden to no one, can reach out to our City stakeholders who feel disenfranchised. We can try to put the heat on the “go along to get along” politicians that are destroying our City. 

Isn’t that what Charter Reform was all about? Let’s go for it!

 

(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.