On the eve of the May 12 L.A. City Council Budget and Finance Committee meeting, a vast network of neighborhood councils, some 1,500 volunteers strong, was planning its attack. “There is an incredible amount of chatter,” said Len Schaffer, chairman of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council and of the broader Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition. The Budget and Finance Committee, made up of three City Council members, had just heard public comment on a plan by Bernard Parks and Greig Smith to drastically cut the $45,000 budgets of all 90 thriving neighborhood councils. “There is an incredible amount of heat building,” remarked Schaffer.
The City Council lavishes public money on itself and its favored support groups, but it spent several days threatening to slash the neighborhood councils’ tiny budgets to $11,200 each. Such a move would have crippled the very groups that most closely watch, and often critique, the City Council — and which played a key role in convincing the public to vote against the City Council’s ill-planned and suspiciously hurried solar project, Measure B, in March.
Slashing the budgets of the neighborhood councils would have had zero effect on the city’s vast deficit, but the most outspoken advocate of the cuts, Parks, insisted the move could save some city jobs. He said, “People have not come to grips with the depth and urgency of this crisis” — a $530 million budget shortfall and $1 billion the city owes to its retired workers.
But Doane Liu, former deputy mayor for neighborhoods under James Hahn, who oversaw much of the implementation of the neighborhood council system, laughed at the notion that the thin-skinned City Council, which is often pilloried by neighborhood council leaders for its mishandling of city affairs, was really out to save money. “It is ridiculous right now to cut that small amount of money they get,” Liu said, “when we are talking about a $7 billion budget and what they get is like one-tenth of 1 percent.”
Sitting inside the City Council chambers before last week’s budget meeting, council member Tom LaBonge conceded to a concerned neighborhood council representative from Atwater Village, “You do stuff.” But, he also told activist Leonora Gershman-Pitts that if faced with closing recreation centers and parks — to date, no such plan has been proposed — he’d cut neighborhood councils first. Gershman-Pitts nodded as LaBonge added, “Don’t worry, you’re not gonna walk away with nothing.”
At one point during the packed hearing, Westside council member Bill Rosendahl walked up the aisle with his long arms raised, whooping “How many want their $45,000? Cash! Cash!” To which the crowd, jammed with neighborhood council reps who skipped their day jobs to fight the cuts, whooped back.
Then, on Monday, May 18, hammered by angry bloggers, neighborhood leaders, skeptical journalists and a host of other critics, the City Council relented, fully restoring the $45,000 to each neighborhood council.
Critics saw the attempted grab of money as particularly absurd since L.A. has the highest-paid mayor and city council in the nation, who each drive free taxpayer-financed cars and spend millions of dollars on huge personal staffs — perks that are not remotely the norm in other major California cities. (See accompanying story, “Ducking for Dollars.”)
Greg Nelson, former head of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was the longtime chief of staff to former councilman Joel Wachs, a maverick who aggressively fought such City Hall overspending. In 1993, Wachs ran for mayor on a platform of creating neighborhood councils to engage the long-disengaged Los Angeles public in civic debate and keep an eye on City Hall policies. Nelson himself later fought successfully to give the neighborhood councils serious standing in the city’s constitution.
“We wrote it into the City Charter [constitution] so it couldn’t be monkeyed with,” Nelson says. He questions how the City Council can justify targeting the neighborhood council budgets while fiercely protecting their own controversial slush funds — pots of $100,000 in public cash that each council member is handed each year, which the council members then dole out to their favored civic groups and district insiders. This strings-free pot of public money — a sizable $1.5 million per year — is strangely misnamed the “City General Purposes Fund.”
“All this talk of a 10 percent cut [in proposed City Council office costs] is absolutely bullshit if you are supplementing it with slush-fund money,” Nelson says.
The $1.5 million slush fund has been around in various forms since 1987. Avak Keotahian, in the Chief Legislative Analysts’ office, says its original intent was to expedite the budget process. The City Council “would bicker over nickel-and-dime things and waste a lot of time” so the council was handed an open account to play with, Keotahian tells L.A. Weekly.
But that original intent has long since been lost. More recently, the fund was offered as a sop to placate angry City Council members who lost some powers during a series of voter-approved City Charter reforms. Nelson says that at best, the $1.5 million is used by the City Council today, amidst its fiscal freefall, “to buy friendship . to buy votes.”
And they do cling to it as if there’s no crisis. Many council members annually engage in a “move-it-or-lose-it” scheme in which they claim to be transferring the slush-fund money to “staff salaries.” But, in fact, Council President Eric Garcetti has conceded publicly that these transfers are often not spent on staff — they are just a clever technical move to avoid losing unspent slush-fund money at year’s end. The slush-fund game itself is extremely hard for the public — or the media — to follow.
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“When people want to slander it, they say it is a slush fund,” Parks says. “It is not a slush fund because it is not being used for the benefit of the person administering it. It is a fund in which you are helping community programs and people in your community.”
But Council Member Janice Hahn has begun to openly question the City Council’s priorities. We “do things we can’t do anymore,” she lectured Parks and the rest of the Budget Committee last week, adding, “I am pleading that you restore the [neighborhood council] funding to the $45,000.”
Jay Handal, chairman of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council, who sent a mass e-mail to neighborhood councils, asking them to join the ultimately successful fight to restore the full $45,000 to the 90 groups, says the whole experience of watching City Hall protect its perks in the face of a dire recession has left him cold.
“We have offered every way to save them additional money,” he tells the Weekly. “It is obvious they want to continue the bad habits of too many employees, inflated salaries, too many benefits, pensions unrivaled in the nation, and a complete disregard for the 1,500 volunteers in the N.C. system. This city needs a political enema!”