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While No One’s Looking: Neighborhood Councils and the $5000 Play Money

EASTSIDER-With all the big ticket things going on, like dealing with corrupt politicians, imploding municipal budgets, and Federal follies, it’s easy to ignore the little stuff, like a sudden offer of $5000 to each Neighborhood Council to pay for good deeds.

But that wouldn’t be right. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. 

Background 

When some of my Neighborhood Council friends began finding out that DONE was suddenly giving five grand to each Neighborhood Council for them to give away to their community in light of the COVID-19 disruptions, I was curious. In fact, I start to look for a paper trail. 

There wasn’t one. So I put in a Public Records Request, which now has to be filed with the City Clerk’s Office instead of with DONE or BONC. More delay and good luck ever finding the link to the City’s PRA program. But here’s the link I ultimately found. 

Let’s look at the actual language of the Document. First, about the authority to bypass everything and spend $5000 per Neighborhood Council. 

“NCs are hereby granted additional access to utilize their funds to assist with community response activities that directly align with the Mayor's Executive Orders for this crisis. The Mayor has declared that public interest and necessity allow for the immediate expenditure of public money to safeguard life, health or property and has authorized Departments to order the services necessary to do so. In addition, the City Clerk grants authority to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) to review and approve each NC request to expend funds under these COVID-19 Special Instructions before the request is submitted to the City Clerk for processing” 

Just how much money does each NC get to spend? 

“2a.  The authorized amount of $1,000.00 has been increased to $5,000.00. The NC is now authorized to expend NC funds not to exceed a total of $5,000.00 for emergency services and/or supplies under the circumstances described herein without prior board approval utilizing the mechanism for review and approval established by DONE.” 

And who in each Neighborhood Council gets to decide how to spend the money? 

“1a.  During the period of the COVID-19 declared emergency, the NC President or designee may, at his or her discretion, request authority from DONE to direct the immediate use of NC funds under the conditions listed herein.” 

Finally, is there a checks and balances system over this process? 

“1b.  As soon as the NC board or quorum of the board is able to hold a meeting via teleconference or other method approved by DONE, the authority to spend funds reverts back to the NC board, per majority decision, to direct use of NC funds for the COVID-19 declared emergency under the conditions listed herein.” 

I suggest that reading the entire document -- all 1 1/2 pages of it -- is a worthwhile exercise. Kinda like the snake that ate its tail. 

Discussion 

After hearing a number of stakeholders from various Neighborhood Councils make queries about why, suddenly, NC Presidents could spend (first $1000 and then) $5000 on essentially whatever they wanted, it didn’t make sense to me. 

So I sent in a Public Records Request raising the following questions and concerns:


“Recently there has been a lot of email traffic about DONE giving each Neighborhood Council $5000 to spend in their community to help stakeholders deal with the COVID-19 virus and its fallout.

However, I can find absolutely nothing on the DONE website, or on the GPNC website regarding this matter. On your website I finally found a link to a two page document, but it took me two days to find out the link to the City Clerk (not DONE), and the document raises more questions than it answers.

To wit:

 
(1) there is no indication that any interested City entity actually voted to promulgate your Addendum. Did either BONC or DONE engage in a due process vote to expend public funds, and/or ratify the specifics contained in the Addendum?

(2) I note that the Addendum is unsigned by either the General Manager of DONE, the President of BONC, or the City Clerk. On its face, this raises legitimate questions regarding the legal right of whoever came up with this policy to actually expend public funds "without prior board approval utilizing the mechanism for review and approval established by DONE."

(3) Under "Emergency Authority" it appears that DONE staff and a NC President can simply decide to expend funds without any particular justification.

Therefore I am making a public records act request for any and all written communication between the Mayors Office, City Council Offices, the City Attorney, the City Clerk, and DONE regarding this program and the specific Addendum to the NC Funding Program, all of which is buried online.”


For those interested in the details, the Public Records Request and the response can be found at the City Clerk’s website, here.  

The Takeaway 

In response to the records request, I received some 44 pages of emails that did not really answer any of the questions I posed.  Further, if you are not a City Hall insider or a semi-crazed blogger like yours truly, there is no way in hell that you would ever be able to find either the authorizing document or even how to file a public records request. 

For example, the authorizing document has the easy to find title of “Addendum To NC Funding Program Policy 5.0 SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS Related to Expenditures of NC Funds During the COVID-19 Declared Emergency” 

And if you think that’s a doozy, check out the actual link to the document.   

Seems to me that there are a couple of takeaways to this tale. First, as the public gets more fed up with LA City’s corruption perpetrated by our 15 City Council Fiefdoms and the Mayor, they are starting to demand accountability and ask questions. 

Second, as stakeholders and some Neighborhood Council board members also start to ask questions and oppose the nutso sale of our City to well-heeled developers, the City -- including DONE and BONC -- has gone to the bunkers, making it unnecessarily hard to find out any information. Like public records requests, and where to find legally required City documents. Just witness this article and the links. 

Third, if you believe in the Tooth Fairy, then there was no contact between the Mayor’s office, Council offices, or the City Attorney regarding this half a million dollar giveaway, since I specifically mentioned them in the Public Records Request. Right. 

Seems to me that the $5000 was a bribe to each Neighborhood Council to make them shut up about having absolutely no role in helping their stakeholders during the COVID-19 meltdown. You know, like having all NC meetings canceled, no setup to do online meetings, and being expected to take a webinar on. . .The Brown Act. 

Just for context, I got a lot of flack when I questioned CD14’s Jose Huizar’s run from the gate, giving him the moniker “God’s Gift to the Eastside.” Like the gift of a plague.  

Everybody knew that Huizar was an unindicted co-conspirator owning and manipulating the PLUM (Planning and Land Use Management) Committee, but nothing happened until the Feds finally stepped into the slime pit and started kicking over rocks. 

This is not good, nor is it acceptable. We need structural change in LA City Government, and a good place to start is to make DONE and BONC support the Neighborhood Councils instead of subverting the very Charter Reform that created the system. You know, the mandate to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire and represent their communities.

 

(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.