EASTSIDER-We have come a long way from the 1999 Charter change creating Neighborhood Councils, including BONC.
Unfortunately, the result over time has been a shift to authoritarianism rather than the inclusiveness promised by the Charter.
Back in the Day
As Raphael J. Sonenshein wrote in his seminal Los Angeles: Structure of a City, the original implementing ordinance, Ordinance No. 174006, from 2001, relegated the jurisdiction of BONC as essentially the certification (and de-certification) of Neighborhood Councils:
Section 3(b) stated that. . .
“The Department shall evaluate the certification application and make a recommendation to the Commission pursuant to the procedures set forth in Article IV of the Plan.”
And Section 3(c) stated that. . .
“The Commission shall either approve or disapprove the certification application based upon the criteria set forth above in Subsection B of Section 2 of this ordinance and the criteria set forth in the Plan.”
As of October 2006, there were a couple of material changes to the Plan. There was a new Article VI, “Certified Neighborhood Council Self-Assessment, Boundary and Bylaw Adjustment, Complaint, and De-Certification”.
Quite a mouthful, and let’s look at a couple of the provisions. First, there was a new Section 3, Bylaw Adjustment:
“A Certified Neighborhood Council that wishes to change or adjust its bylaws shall complete an Application to Change or Adjust Bylaws, as prescribed by DONE, and shall submit the application to DONE for evaluation. DONE shall have ten business days from receipt of the application to complete the evaluation.”
So it is clear that as of 2006 Neighborhood Councils created their own bylaws, and only they could change them.
The section goes on to say that if DONE agrees with the application, the Bylaws are deemed approved. On the other hand, . . .
“If DONE determines that the changed bylaws are inconsistent with the principles governing a Certified Neighborhood Councils purpose or operations, DONE shall forward an evaluation to the Commission for its review.”
And finally, there were provisions for the de-certification of a Neighborhood Council. Note that none of this realistic jurisdictional framework resembles the current bureaucratic (and potentially illegal) top- down powers that BONC purports to have.
A Note on LA City Boards and Commissions
As the LA City website itself states, here are the rules of the road for City Boards and Commissions:
“City Department and Bureaus are headed by General Managers. However, some Departments are also headed by an advisory or controlling Board or Commission appointed by the Mayor, subject to confirmation of the Council. There are few Boards and Commissions that are appointed by each of the 15 Council members.
The Board of Public Works is the only full-time, paid Board. The Administrative Code authorizes other Boards and Commissions to receive a $50 stipend per meeting attended though stipends are typically waived. Appointees must be voting residents of the City of Los Angeles and cannot be members of the City Council nor sit on more than one Board or Commission at a time.
Below is a list of Boards and Commissions which links to information about their members, contact information, meeting agendas, and minutes.
For information on Board of Public Works and other Department Board meetings, please check the Public Meetings Calendar. Additional information on Boards and Commissions and their members can be found on the City Clerk's Commission Page.”
Since they are all appointed at will by the mayor, most of the Boards and Commissions are there to pay off “friends” of the Mayor, provide a safety valve to unhappy stakeholders, and if necessary, to rat out the Departments they allegedly oversee when choppy political waters are ahead.
Within this pantheon, the BONC is both a latecomer, and unique in that it was set up to handle Neighborhood Council formation and de-certifications. Originally, other than that it pretty much stayed above the fray. It is also unique in that it is supported by the General Manager of DONE but does not report to it. Or anyone.
The General Manager Roll Call
By my count, DONE has had five General Managers. First (and best) was Greg Nelson, who had been deeply involved in the Charter Amendment debate. He was appointed by Mayor Hahn. This was the period when the intent of the NC movement was encouraged, with the Neighborhood Councils going their own individual ways to represent their stakeholders against the LA City behemoth.
Greg was quickly replaced by our thin-skinned Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with Lisa Sarno as an Interim (2006-2007). During Antonio’s reign from 2005-2013, he went through GMs like Chiclets gum. Sarno was so toxic that an important NC member, Daniel Wiseman, sent an open letter to the City Council and Controller calling for a vote of no confidence and her immediate discharge.
Since it was evident that Neighborhood Councils were beneath Villaraigosa’s concern, we then went through Carol Baker (2007), Bong Hwan Kim (2008-12), and finally, the Mayor’s ultimate pawn, Grayce Liu. Liu would last from 2013 -2019, being a consummate insider carrying two mayors’ water: Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti.
She was clear from the start that her role in reality was to serve as a buffer between the mayor and the unruly Neighborhood Councils, and as long as she did that, she would be untouchable to do as she wished.
While she did a number of really rotten things for the mayor (witness the Skid Row Formation Committee), she also knew how to walk the line between suppressing the NCs while at the same time keeping a lid on the Department.
My favorite was her habit of reining in any Neighborhood Council that pissed her off by putting them into “Exhaustive Efforts,” a civil analogue to Purgatory.
Grayce received her payoff in 2019 from the mayor who handed her a posh well compensated job with the Personnel Department. The title is “Civic Engagement Officer.” You bet.
Last, and least, we come to Raquel Beltran. She was thrust upon us in the waning days of Mayor Garcetti, who simply doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Neighborhood Councils as he files over LA in airplanes looking for his next job.
2021 Edition of the BONC’d DONE.
Having worked for a lot of public bureaucracies over the years, I can recognize a full-on power grab when I see one, and the “new” BONC and DONE provide a pretty good example.
From the benign loose oversight of BONC back in the day, we now have a full-on top-down Board with the alleged power to do anything they like to Neighborhood Councils, including imposing Bylaws on them at the behest of Ms. Beltran. The fact that this destroys the intent of the 1999 Charter Amendment and the 2001-2006 Ordinance #174006 implementing the Plan for a Citywide Neighborhood Councils is never mentioned.
Of course, the BONC itself is not supervised by anyone, and neither is General Manager Raquel Beltran. Try that with a real Board or Commission.
Let’s see how the GM and the Board have recently used their awesome power by looking at some BONC minutes.
January 2021 Minutes: four out of the seven Commissioners turned up to form a quorum. The only business, and it wasn’t even an action item for a vote, was buried in the GM’s “Report.”
Evidently the Reseda NC didn’t treat DONE staffer Spencer Alfaro nice at the meeting. Beltran’s reaction? Go to the Labor Relations Division of the City Attorney to do something bad to their Board.
(Note to GM - if your staff person doesn’t like how they get treated, then don’t send them to the meeting. Given the instructions you give them and the BS many of them hand out, what do you expect?)
February 2021 Minutes: All Commissioners showed up, so there must have been something they needed to vote on. Yup, that masterpiece, a Civility and Positive Human Relations in the Neighborhood Council System Resolution. Whew, what a mouthful. The vote was 6-1, yes.
(Note to GM - There is nothing in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which requires civility as people exercise their right to free speech, and it’s silly to argue that being an advisory only volunteer NC Board member or audience member somehow abrogates the First Amendment.)
In an interesting aside, when the Board voted to adjourn at 9:30, it shows there were only four members left to vote in favor of adjournment.
March 2, 2021, Minutes: All but one Commissioner showed up. Interestingly, although the meeting started at 6:06 p.m. and went until a 9:57 p.m. adjournment, there is absolutely nothing in the minutes to indicate that anything at all requiring a discussion or an action vote took place during the three and a half-hour meeting. Ain’t democracy grand?
March 15, 2021, Minutes: This meeting was held at 1 p.m., with all but one Commissioner being present. In this one, we have 40 minutes of the meeting given over to the General Managers, verbal only, take on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Training/Anti-Bias Training, and the Regional Grievance Panel Hearings Process.”
(Note to GM - this is the way in which most bureaucrats hide stuff.)
Speaking of obfuscation, it turns out that the biggie for the meeting was a $53,250 no bid contract to a relatively unknown third-party vendor, Evitarus, for “PUBLIC OUTREACH AND ENGAGEMENT PROGRAM SERVICE for the City of Los Angeles, Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.”
Oh baby, baby, someone needs to look into this one. We know the Mayor and Council can do this kind of stuff, but DONE? Beltran? Predictably, the Motion passed on a 6-1 vote.
(Note to City Attorney - Do DONE Commissioners and/or the GM have any potential liability for this contract, and have you given them legal advice on the matter in writing?)
April 6, 2021, Minutes: After giving away the big bucks, we had a bare majority of four Commissioners present and three absent for this one. However, it turns out there was another no bid contract up for sale, this one to the Raban Group, for CAPACITY BUILDING, STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, AND MEDIA MANAGEMENT SERVICES FOR THE 2021 NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL ELECTIONS. This time, to the tune of the paltry sum of $23,200. It, of course, passed with four votes.
(Note to City Attorney - see comments on March 15th minutes.)
That’s it for minutes as of the date of this article. Still Remaining is, of course, the rat’s nest of a Draft Digital Media Policy, which would give elected volunteer advisory NC Board members less first amendment rights than you and I have. It seems to get kicked from meeting to meeting like a potential grenade.
So here you have it. Within two years of Grayce Liu’s departure, Raquel Beltran has created a closed universe that she owns, with no supervision. An activist, authoritarian BONC (for what reason we know not), where she can feed them what she wants, and get them, not her, to take the votes on more and more issues that DONE will administer in the dark.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that when your executive officer is someone who comes from the NGO and Public Policy end of the spectrum, there are always questions of “who knows who” in the letting of a no bid contract. Prior to coming to DONE, Raquel Beltran was with the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, which seems to me to make this a legitimate line of inquiry.
With the Mayor everywhere but in Los Angeles looking for a gig, it just may be that we have to wait for the 2022 City Elections to see if anything gets better. In the meantime, the people who were responsible back in the day for our Neighborhood Council system will just have to weep.
(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.