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Fascism With A Smiling Face

GELFAND’S WORLD - In a previous article, I told you about a proposal from city government that would give unprecedented authority to one person to censor and punish neighborhood council board members for thought crimes.

The mechanism, as proposed in a seven page letter, would be to give the General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) the right to suspend you as a board member on mere suspicion. 

The proposal uses the word "alleged" to refer to what would justify such action. Not "demonstrated" or "proven" but carried out entirely without due process. 

This is really nothing new. We've seen misconduct by the city before. 

Here's one example that goes back about ten years, when a former mayor wanted to take the neighborhood councils down a peg. The Acting General Manager of DONE solicited all the rumors and gossip that anyone was willing to provide, and put them together in a massive document ostensibly about disruptions in neighborhood council meetings. At the time, I interviewed a number of people who were the targets of this attack and found that there was little substance to any of it. The report induced a lot of blowback from the innocent, and the Acting GM was eventually replaced. 

So now we have another proposal that claims to be the necessary response to some vaguely insinuated complaints about neighborhood council board meetings. In response, a number of people got together and have now proposed a motion that all Los Angeles neighborhood councils are invited to take up. 

Here is the Proposed Motion that will be sent to all neighborhood councils 

Whereas, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners has before it consideration of amendments to the Code of Conduct Policy, that are extreme, anti-democratic, and un-American, and 

Whereas, these amendments include the following: 

If a Board Member or Committee Member is alleged to have violated either the City’s Workplace Equity Policy or the Commission’s Code of Conduct, the Department, with written approval from the General Manager, may immediately suspend the Board Member or Committee Member for a period of up to 90 days.

and 

Whereas, punitive action should never be based on an allegation and occur only following due process involving investigation and a hearing and provide the accused the right to a presumption of innocence and opportunity to mount a defense, and 

Whereas, the following clause grants authority to arbitrarily impose suspensions at the sole discretion of an individual who is not accountable to anyone. 

“The Department shall be the sole decision-maker with respect to a suspension. The Board Member or Committee Member may not appeal the suspension decision.” 

and 

Whereas, this clause fails to provide adequate protections for the rights of individuals accused of misconduct and states that any board or committee member may be suspended solely on an allegation, and 

Whereas, this is a direct disenfranchisement of the voters who elected the board member and removing a board member without due process gives DONE the unilateral ability to overturn an election; 

Therefore, be it resolved that: 

The _____________________ Neighborhood Council expresses grave concern regarding proposed amendments to the Code of Conduct Policy submitted by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.

 

Be it further resolved that:

  1. BONC is strongly advised to immediately withdraw consideration of the proposed amendments to the Code of Conduct;
  2. In connection with future revisions of Neighborhood Council paperwork, DONE shall request the Neighborhood Councils appoint a group of representatives to consult with BONC, DONE and the City Attorney on an ad hoc basis;
  3. An aggregate majority of those meeting shall at all times be Neighborhood Council board members;
  4. The initial focus of this group shall be to develop and incorporate rules under the City's recently adopted Workplace Violence Policy into the existing Code of Conduct, including appropriate enforcement actions;
  5. Discussion about incorporating the proposed Workplace Equity Policy shall be deferred until such a policy is formally adopted by the City, if at all; and
  6. Any amendments to the Code of Conduct must take into account varying degrees of conduct when considering suspension and appropriate penalties, if warranted.
  7. At all times, policy should require that the minimum correction necessary to address any issue be used;
  8. No person shall be suspended or otherwise penalized for that which is protected political speech.
  9. No board member or Neighborhood Council affiliate shall be required to waive rights granted under the Constitution of the United States and the State of California, including but not limited to freedom of speech and assembly, probable cause and due process.

 

The Underlying Logic of the Motion and why the city government misses the point 

There was a discussion at one of our regional alliances the other night. The city, represented by General Manager Raquel Beltran of DONE, presented the logic behind the proposal and one additional argument that was simultaneously self-incriminating and even a little bizarre. 

Here is the city's argument as best I can understand it: Neighborhood councils have been asking for help and something has to be done. The city hasn't had the tools to deal with serious problems so far, and this new policy will give them the tools. The 90 day suspension of a board member will allow for a cooling off period (I'm paraphrasing here, but that is the gist of what I heard), and this is less onerous than DONE immediately asking the BONC to remove an elected board member from neighborhood council participation. 

In short, Raquel Beltran will be able to put the children in a timeout if they act up. 

This argument is along the lines of "necessity is the mother of invention." The necessity is apparently some person getting elected to a board and then turning out to be a problem. The invention is to reverse that person's election, at least for a quarter of a year. 

Funny, I don't see that "necessity" argument in the Bill of Rights. It's quite the opposite. 

DONE is trying to turn the Constitution upside down. Luckily, they are not asking for the right to imprison their political opponents. But I think that most of us consider our board seats to be something of value, and not to be surrendered lightly. 

The part that they won't explain or reveal 

At the meeting the other night, I asked repeatedly for the specifics. What behaviors have happened in recent years that require this level of response? In particular, have there been incidents of physical violence or tangible threats? Anything that a court might grant a restraining order over? 

What's curious is that even the people in favor of the city's proposal did not actually tell us of any specific incidents. Nobody talked about real crimes, or threats to commit crimes. The one incident raised by the GM was when a board member and a member of the audience got angry with each other and apparently left the room to settle their differences. The dispute was settled among the two with mutual apologies and as far as the board was concerned, that was that. But this incident is the example that DONE's GM raised as one reason for giving her absolute, unappealable authority to reverse the results of lawful elections. 

One reveal 

The GM did suggest a partial answer. It was explained to us that the sorts of problems that the new policy is designed to solve grow over time until something really needs to be done. As usual, no specifics were introduced, but I got the idea that perhaps we were talking about personality conflicts. 

What's of course missing here is that any competent chair should be able to handle such animosities through the use of parliamentary procedure and through strength of personality. What became obvious in this discussion was just how ignorant and incompetent the DONE staff are in terms of teaching such basics to our chairs and new board members. We don't need to overturn the First Amendment in order to deal with churlish people. We just need chairs who know how to maintain order. 

A remarkable response from the GM 

As the meeting wore on the other night, it became clear that a number of the participants were pretty much on the same page -- that the city's proposal is way out of line and never should have been presented. As the draft motion (above) states, the proposal is un-American, besides being anti-democratic and extreme. 

Here is the GM's answer: You will get a chance to discuss your concerns in a series of workshops, and then the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners will be able to consider your views and possibly make changes. 

In other words, the GM's view is that the proposal is basically OK, and could survive a few tweaks in its wording. There was no sense of realization that the proposal is barbaric and outrageous. There was no indication of her part in the drafting of the proposal, even though it comes to us with her name and title as the signer. Perhaps the BONC will clarify the use of the term "alleged" as the reason for removing somebody from board participation. That is not enough. The problem is giving this kind of power to an unelected bureaucrat. 

A distinction we ought to be considering 

My sense is that the proposal in its current form is intended to give teeth (the GM's word) to DONE's authority to enforce the equity policy that the city is developing. We have a draft of that policy and it dwells on thought crimes such as implicit bias. DONE plans to require that all neighborhood council board members take a new series of training programs that will teach us to be better people and to avoid micro-aggressions and such. 

So here is my view: I'm not a city employee. I don't have a contract and I certainly don't have a bargaining unit (i.e.: a union) to negotiate on my behalf. I don't get paid for what I do, and I certainly do not consent to the city making new demands on my time when such demands don't have any Constitutional grounding (my freedom of thought, implicit in my freedom of speech and freedom to write these articles) or based on actual necessity. 

If the city wants to make demands on my time, then let's have a negotiation where a proper payment is made for my services, and where I enter into the agreement freely. 

One last thought. While I was listening to the few people who wanted to defend the proposed city policy, I was reminded of a similar kind of argument that is a sad part of our history. The defenders of this policy reminded me of some midwestern congressman defending the Japanese internment of 1942. It was the argument of necessity back then, same as it is now.

 

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