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Stephen Box can neatly trace his metamorphosis from guy helping the Greater Echo Park–Elysian Neighborhood Council to organizer of a middle-class insubordination cum revolution, which began with an unexpected tragedy.
A few years ago, self-proclaimed idealist Box was helping a local leader to oversee Echo Park's neighborhood council elections and mail the ballots to area residents.
But the election chairman, Larry Pickens, died a few weeks before the Echo Park voting was completed. So Box stepped in and paid for the postage to mail out the remaining ballots. It wasn't cheap. $750. He kept the receipts, and assumed that being reimbursed by the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) in the face of a tragedy wouldn't be that difficult.
"I turned the receipts in," Box recalls. "I waited about a year and kept asking about my money. I even asked [DONE's general manager, BongHwan Kim] about the money, and he told me, 'I don't know what to do. The rule can't be broken.' "
The rule, Box explains, is that he wasn't an Echo Park Neighborhood Council board member and therefore couldn't get reimbursed, no matter how many receipts he showed. "Eventually, the treasurer [of the neighborhood council] said, 'Fuck it! I'll get you the money!' I don't know how. He got the money," says Box.
Box's experience isn't rare. A year late and a dollar short is the common experience with the embattled Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which is being targeted for dismantling by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, purportedly solely as a budget-cutting measure.
Yet there may be more to Villaraigosa's move than merely saving money. When City Controller Wendy Greuel's audit of DONE and the neighborhood council system was released in January, it was probably the most scathing indictment of the management of a Los Angeles city department in recent history.
"The department as currently structured isn't doing the job it's supposed to be doing," Greuel said in a recent interview. Her audit language was stronger.
"The findings show that ... there has been a systematic failure of accounting and fiscal oversight of the neighborhood councils by DONE. ... [It] appears ill-equipped to manage its current responsibilities. The department does not have the proper personnel in place to provide the fiscal oversight. ..."
Greuel found that:
• DONE, the sole department responsible for auditing the 89 volunteer neighborhood councils, which each get $45,000 per year to use on a wide range of things, from junk food and postage to office equipment, never conducted a "proper" accounting of the 89 councils' records.
• DONE failed to review 364 quarterly expense reports sent in by neighborhood councils.
• DONE had a $5.6 million budget hole, a surprise to Kim.
• $160,000 was lying unnoticed in a DONE checking account, another surprise to Kim.
In recent weeks, City Councilman Paul Krekorian, chairman of the council's Committee on Education & Neighborhoods, and Dennis Zine, the committee's vice chairman, have held public meetings and invited neighborhood council members to voice their grievances against the department — ahead of a possible City Council vote to slash the department's budget.
L.A.'s $212 million deficit, and the City Council's failure for more than a year to fix the fiscal mess, earned Los Angeles a downgraded credit rating in February and set off vague talk of a possible municipal bankruptcy. Pushed by a fed-up Villaraigosa, the council reluctantly went along with his plan to eliminate 1,000 jobs and agreed to consider laying off another 3,000 of the city's 48,000 workers — although the council often threatens cuts and then backs down.
Many neighborhood council leaders among L.A.'s 89 distinct neighborhoods do not want the budget crisis to be used to punish the volunteer councils, which are considered a unique experiment in urban governance in America. That's where Box comes in, acting as one of the leaders of BudgetLA, a confederation of neighborhood councils now channeling their discontent over City Hall's fiscal failures into demands for smarter political leadership.
One of those leaders, Shawn Simons, president of South L.A.'s Empowerment Congress North Area Development Council, says, "I understand the city is in trouble financially. But I think [focusing on the neighborhood councils] is the wrong target. It should be the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. The audit, if you really want to read it, is about DONE, not the neighborhood councils."
Although Villaraigosa's plan to dismantle DONE, slash its 38-person staff and merge it with the Community Development Department is expected to save $2 million, some grassroots leaders say they can save taxpayers far more money — by taking the administrative duties away from City Hall entirely.
Simons says the nonprofit Bridge California Community Corporation would charge the 89 neighborhood councils just $480,000 to oversee the neighborhood council system and run their local elections. If true, this would be a massive savings over the $7.6 million annual DONE budget.
How does the nonprofit idea sound to Kim, DONE's widely criticized general manager? "I don't know if the unions are going to be happy with it," he says. "We'll need to go through the city attorney. ..."
Kim insists that deeper cuts in DONE will make his poorly functioning department even worse. "Over the past two years, we've had a 40 percent cut in staff. We lost staff who did audits, process payments."