ON JANUARY 14, AT A SPECIAL meeting of the city of Los Angeles' Board of Neighborhood Commissioners in a middle-school auditorium in South Los Angeles, the board voted 4-1 to put the Vernon/Main Neighborhood Council out of business.
Too real for City Hall: Alvenus Neptune, Keion Adams, Donald L. Barnett, Deacon Alexander (Click to enlarge)
It was a curious night in the annals of community empowerment, as the commission appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave the local residents, who have been meeting regularly for years to improve their community, just five days to shut down operations and return all city-owned office equipment.
In the past several months, some neighborhood members of the Vernon/Main council have crossed swords with City Council Member Jan Perry. In one instance, President Donald Barnett showed up at a South Park gymnasium for a meeting about an Environmental Impact Report for a "wetlands park" at Avalon Boulevard and 54th Street.
Barnett publicly raised several questions that annoyed Perry, who is advocating the park: Can you really call it a wetland, when the plan is to gather filthy storm-drain water and let it seep into the earth? Is this the best land use in an area desperate for development? Could the $19 million slated for the storm-drain purification project be used for homeless housing instead?
According to Barnett, Perry became so vexed that she abruptly ended the meeting. Perry denies his allegation, telling the Weekly that she allowed the meeting to "finish"— but won't say how.
Perry's influence aside, "BONC"— as the board of seven Villaraigosa political appointees is called, is starting to earn a reputation for trying to silence boisterous neighborhood councils — with help from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (which people actually do call "DONE").
Barnett and Vernon/Main board member Deacon Alexander say they believe their neighborhood council was shuttered on Perry's orders — a suggestion Perry dismisses as "silly."
Yet several days ago, appalled neighborhood residents and business owners looked on as BONC board President Linda Lucks condescendingly lectured the South Los Angeles group, informing them that even though she was going to shut the group down against its will, they could see it as "a positive thing"— because now they can petition BONC to "recertify and make a fresh start" without the current highly activist local leaders.
The BONC board determined that the neighborhood council violated its own bylaws, and some officials at DONE also claim that the mostly black group has engaged in racist behavior. Rather than trying to untangle a thorny bramble of neighborhood politics, BONC voted to wipe out the group, prompting questions about the city's failure to follow any written standards for how and why a neighborhood council gets the boot.
NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS WERE CREATED in order to appease angry Hollywood and Valley secessionists so fed up with City Hall's neglect and diversion of taxes that they tried to break the city apart — and scared then-Mayor James Hahn and other city leaders into believing they just might pull it off.
Although Los Angeles voters chose not to break up Los Angeles, the movement against downtown and its powerful interests gave voice to far-flung neighborhoods. Chastened, city leaders created neighborhood councils to work in "partnership" with city agencies, and to receive stipends and administrative support.
Unlike in homeowners associations, city leaders deemed that the membership of neighborhood councils could be anybody who does business in a neighborhood, or is just a patron of a business in a neighborhood, or who merely declares an interest in the neighborhood. All were defined as "stakeholders."
Critics point out that the broad definition of who is a "neighbor" has opened the doors to outside interference and lobbying. It has also left City Hall more firmly in charge of deciding who gets to continue to exist as a neighborhood council, and who does not.
The January 14 vote to dismantle the South Los Angeles group came after the city's manhandling of a much different neighborhood council called North Hills West. This group of activist suburbanites in the West Valley had successfully defeated a series of city-supported, residential developments on its rustic fields and meadows — the very sort of interest in local issues a neighborhood council is supposed to engage in.
But instead of thanks for its grassroots democracy, the group suddenly faced decertification by City Hall — thanks to anonymous charges by unnamed "stakeholders" who claimed the group was involved in financial impropriety and "hate language."
Then, in an embarrassing about-face, DONE Project Coordinator Manuel Durazo was forced to admit in December that none of the anonymous charges could be substantiated. In January, DONE Acting General Manager BongHwan Kim publicly conceded, "I told [North Hills West Neighborhood Council] it's much better that they be the problem solvers, and the city should not be defining their agenda... I've come to learn that a policing role is not appropriate for DONE."
But a number of BONC's board members don't see it that way. "I take offense!" Commissioner Tsilah Burman shot back at Kim. "I would ask that you not use the language of 'policing' — I would say that what we're trying to do is be a place of last resort when a neighborhood council feels they can't get their problems resolved."
When the West Valley group learned that BONC was now attacking a neighborhood council in South L.A., the president and two board members traveled from the Valley south to attend the January 14 meeting — and to show solidarity with their embattled, cityside peers.
It didn't help. By night's end, Burman joined three other commissioners — Lucks, Daniel Gatica and Michele Siqueiro — to decertify the Vernon/Main council, even after the group refuted, with detailed documentation, a litany of thin charges by DONE.
Among other things, DONE Project Coordinator Mark Lewis accused the South Los Angeles group of failing to hold timely elections. In fact, Lewis blocked those elections until he approved the group's petition for election-prerequisite changes to its bylaws. DONE must respond to such petitions within 10 days, but made the group wait four months, then rejected its petition due to "insufficient paperwork."
Lewis also wrongly testified that the South Los Angeles group regularly failed to gather a quorum of "nine" board members. In fact, Vernon/Main's council needs only seven members for a quorum. The neighborhood council turned over to the Weekly a complete set of minutes dating back to 2005 that plainly show that its meetings were held with a quorum and according to its bylaws.
Barnett says he also made repeated requests to Lewis to provide a Spanish-language translator at its meetings, which Lewis often failed to do. (An e-mail from Lewis dated November 7, 2007, apologizes for one such failure.) DONE also blocked Barnett's efforts to hire a "nonauthorized" translator — a hiring policy confirmed by General Manager Kim.
Former executive director of DONE Greg Nelson describes what his erstwhile department is doing to the neighborhood council as the "bleeding of an organization to death with a thousand paper cuts." The petty demands have perplexed him. "I just don't see why DONE would need to approve a translator," Nelson told the Weekly.
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This is not what the framers of the City Charter had in mind when they created the rules that spell out how Los Angeles governance works. City Hall is required to conduct "exhaustive efforts" to resolve problems within the neighborhood councils.
Nelson says DONE "is required to make exhaustive efforts to resolve a neighborhood council's problems, prior to decertification." While he accepts the complaint by the neighborhood council that it got "prejudicial and disparate treatment," he also says that DONE was trying to meet the standard of "exhaustive efforts" by asking the BONC board for permission to hold a new election — rather than completely decertify the neighborhood group.
But Commissioner Burman says the BONC commission "didn't feel that taking over the elections was going to solve that problem," so it disbanded the group.
In light of the requirement for "exhaustive efforts," that's a strange position for BONC to take — giving rise to the rumor that Jan Perry ordered the dismantling of the South L.A. neighborhood council. As Nelson points out, his department successfully organized new neighborhood council elections in Venice, and also in Van Nuys. To jump straight to decertification in South L.A. "was clearly a bad decision... Sounds like the decision was already made to decertify them, then everybody just looked for reasons."