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LA’s Empowerment Department Goes on the Attack

GELFAND’S WORLD--Barely more than a week ago, elected board members from four neighborhood councils from the harbor area submitted a letter to the mayor of Los Angeles, asking him to take action against the newly appointed General Manager of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.

That new GM, Raquel Beltran, has recently carried out actions that affect numerous councils down in this part of the city. The first such action was her threat to take over the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council if they attempted to replace their officers, a power that the council had available to them under their own rules and bylaws. You can read about it in my earlier column here.  

Then, Beltran and DONE staffers went on the attack against a woman who has been taking notes, doing the minutes, and doing bookkeeping for several neighborhood councils. You can read my story here.  

Neighborhood council leaders attempted to work out some sort of resolution of the latter issue, but were unsuccessful. It appears that Sheryl Akerblom has been blacklisted from doing neighborhood council work. When asked about their conduct, DONE representatives, including the General Manager, refuse to answer whether they have even informed Akerblom of the charges against her. They refer to confidentiality, a meagre excuse indeed. Keeping the facts away from the accused isn’t confidentiality, it is something medieval. Numerous members of local neighborhood councils have referred to the lack of due process. 

Here is the letter. Note that I have omitted the signature page (34 elected neighborhood council board members have signed so far, including myself) and irrelevant contact information, but everything else is the text that was sent to Garcetti.

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January 30, 2020

Hon. Eric Garcetti, Mayor, City of Los Angeles

We write to express concerns regarding a situation involving a staff person employed by our neighborhood councils and her recent termination by Department of Neighborhood Empowerment General Manager Raquel Beltran. We believe Ms. Beltran’s action and subsequent statements about that action call into question the general manager’s judgment and credibility.

The individual affected by Ms. Beltran’s decision, Ms. Sheryl Akerblom, has been employed by the Central San Pedro, Coastal San Pedro, Harbor City, Harbor Gateway South, and Northwest San Pedro councils, in some cases for as long as six years. She prepares minutes and performs other clerical work for each of these councils. She also provides bookkeeping services for Coastal San Pedro and Harbor Gateway South.

It is our understanding that a complaint regarding Ms. Akerblom was made by one or more individuals at one of these councils and that this led Ms. Beltran to terminate Ms. Akerblom’s availability to work for any neighborhood council. Ms. Akerblom has never been informed of the nature of the complaint nor have any of the councils been provided information regarding the complaint. Thus far, Ms. Beltran has failed to provide an adequate explanation for her decision. Unfortunately, this places dozens of Harbor area neighborhood council board members in the position of accepting that Ms. Akerblom is guilty despite the evidence of our own experiences working with her.

We have discussed with Ms. Beltran some possible compromises in this matter and been rebuffed. The only option Ms. Beltran has offered is to allow councils to utilize Ms. Akerblom’s services until March 31 on the condition that we replace her. This we cannot do.

Beyond the question of fundamental unfairness to Ms. Akerblom is the matter of Ms. Beltran’s failure to consult with the affected councils. Furthermore, Ms. Beltran’s statements to individuals involved in this matter and at some neighborhood council meetings have been contradictory.

We seek your immediate intervention in this matter and ask for the following:

  • That Ms. Akerblom be provided with particulars of the complaint against her and be offered an opportunity to respond;
  • That our neighborhood councils be afforded the right to choose our own staff and that said staff be paid from our councils’ funds without interference from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment; and
  • That a protocol be developed by the relevant city agencies, in collaboration with neighborhood councils, to address situations involving staff working directly for the councils.

We look forward to working with you and your staff to resolve this impasse in a way that is fair to all parties.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that a group of neighborhood council board members have acted in concert, and with such a substantial level of unanimity, to defend our rights and the rights of another individual. I should note that of the 17 board members of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, 16 signed the letter, and the board member who abstained was only put on the board as a replacement in the past month.

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The question I keep asking myself is this: What on earth has motivated the office of the City Attorney to go along with an action that is so risky to the city, considering the obvious legal liability that these actions suggest. I really wish that one of the City Attorney’s staff would call me and explain what they are trying to accomplish.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])

-cw