EASTSIDER-As a civic activist who has served on a neighborhood council, I am deeply concerned about the future of the Neighborhood Council system itself. The following is a letter I wrote to Councilmember David Ryu about the problematic performance of the Department of Neighborhood Emplowerment (DONE) and the need for change. (Photo above: DONE GM Grayce Leiu and LA Controller Ron Galperin.)
To: David Ryu, Chair, Health, Education and Neighborhood Councils Committee
Re: Request Regarding DONE and the City Attorney VIA EMAIL
Dear Mr. Ryu:
It has become increasingly clear that DONE is broken. They have neither the leadership nor the budget to adequately provide support for 97 Neighborhood Councils.
Furthermore, DONE evidently does not have a legal team capable of handling a statute as long standing and clear as the Ralph.M. Brown Act. I have covered both of these concerns at some length in two recent CityWatch articles, and have attached copies of those articles to this letter.
At present, there seems little indication that the vast majority of Neighborhood Councils have any faith in DONE -- from elections to monthly meetings to consistent answers to questions, and for giving advice and/or orders.
More and more stakeholders have simply opted out of the system entirely. For example, in my own area, the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council has had virtually all of its officers resign, as well as a number of other Board members, and may or may not even be capable of producing a quorum. Other Councils, including but not limited to Northeast LA, seem to wind up in “Exhaustive Efforts” as they push back against DONE. Attendance at LANCC meetings has significantly dwindled over time. There is [overall] less participation in the Neighborhood Councils.
In San Pedro, there was a mass resignation of five Board members who had given it their best for a long time and quit in disgust. Skid Row and its attempts to break out of the Downtown NC was thwarted by questionable means, even as a teeny group in Hermon was helped to leave the ASNC, notwithstanding the Plan. Thank you Jose Huizar for nothing. I could go on.
This is not a sustainable system. I cannot help but point out that when Greg Nelson was the Head of DONE, the system worked. From Lisa Sarno through Grayce Liu the system has progressively deteriorated. The lesson is clear that a strong independent head of DONE is needed if there is to be any credibility of the system. There is a major crisis in DONE’s leadership.
There are also a few funadmental questions that the Mayor, the City Council, BONC, DONE, and the City Attorney have consistently refused to answer.
Here are three open questions about DONE, the City Attorney, and the Neighborhood Councils. As a mere stakeholder, I don’t have the ability to require the City Attorney to answer basic legal questions regarding DONE, the City Attorney, and the Neighborhood Councils. For the last 18 years they have stonewalled issues, hiding behind “attorney client privilege” and will not respond in writing to the many of us who have asked basic questions.
However, as a Councilmember and Chair of the NC Committee, you have the absolute right to ask these questions, and even get something back in writing.
1) Who are the clients of the LA City Attorney in the Neighborhood Council System other than BONC and DONE? In representing DONE against the actions of a Neighborhood Council, isn’t there an inherent conflct of interest if in fact both entities are supposedly “clients?”
(2) What legal basis is there for DONE to cancel a Neighborhood Council Meeting over alleged violations of the Brown Act in their posted agenda, as opposed to “suggesting” that the NC take such action?
(3) What legal authority does the City Attorney have to order a Neighborhood Council to take any specific action, be it over Brown Act Agenda issues, Bylaws questions, or for that matter, “best practices?” If they won’t attend NC meetings to provide legal advice to the Boards, then are the NC Boards “real” clients?
I won’t spend too much time on other basic issues, such as Bylaws. Currently, DONE has supposedly reviewed and approved each Neighborhood Council’s Bylaws, after obtaining an OK from the City Attorney. Yet when a Council tries to implement those approved Bylaws regarding attendance, vacancies, and/or grievances, DONE has stepped in to declare portions of these approved Bylaws inoperative or invalid. How?
Or why is it OK for DONE to act in matters even where they clearly have a conflict of interest over an Election? In the case of the recent Studio City NC elections, at least one Board member believes that both DONE’s GM Grayce Liu and a City Attorney representative perjured themselves as they handled the election challenges. Where’s the oversight? Isn’t your Committee the appropriate forum for addressing this issue?
Take online voting as an example. It clearly did not work in the 2016 NC elections, and involved the hiring of a questionable outside entity to handle the process. Yet we are now told that, somehow, online voting is a great thing and is going to be included in the next set of NC elections, with no indication that anything has been fixed. At all.
I believe passionately in the Neghborhood Council system as approved by the voters back in 2000. But that system can only thrive when it is supported and encouraged, not controlled and suppressed.
As currently administered, NC Boards waste most of their time with meaningless bureaucratic actions under the Brown Act, like notices, agenda, and minutes, even as DONE doesn’t capture all of them and can’t find what was submitted half the time. The same is true for discussion and votes on funding basic NC needs like rent, temp support, websites, translation services and the like. These are matters that the City Council has paid staff to handle, and paid City staff should provide these basic needs to Neighborhood Councils at no cost -- as part of their “support” that is delineated in the Plan.
Or take the so-called “subdivision” provisions, or other related matters. If we can’t set up a truly neutral and objective framework for administration, the rest of it becomes moot. It takes solid leadership to accomplish these goals.
I truly hope that you and your Committee will take charge of this mess and re-empower the Neighborhood Councils to be what the Charter intended: truth to power and holding the City Council and the Mayor accountable for their actions. A recommendation from your Committee to the Mayor to replace Grayce Liu with a new and hopefully responsive DONE Department Head would be a good beginning.
Tony Butka, CityWatch Contributor
(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.