Secrecy Rules in L.A.'s $24 Million Gang Program

LOS ANGELES CITY GOVERNMENT, long unable to keep kids from joining gangs, is in the early stages of a program spearheaded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that he says will make a dent in gang-related violence and murder.

A few days ago, though, inside a crowded room at Los Angeles City Hall, it became clear that City Council members who have touted the mayor's plan are in the dark, and the entire extremely unusual process for spending $24 million in taxpayer funds annually is emerging as one of the most secretive in modern city history.

Seated at a long conference table with maps showing the 12 city “zones” that the Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) task force plans to focus on, task force director the Rev. Jeff Carr explains that the new, $24 million program will differ from the L.A. Bridges program, into which City Hall poured millions of dollars before admitting that it was not closely tracking the children and could not prove that children were prevented from joining gangs.

The dismantled L.A. Bridges, designed by a squabbling City Council during the 1990s, badly failed. As L.A. Weekly reported in a December 14, 2006, article, “Broken Bridges,” City Hall ineptly funneled taxpayer money into the hands of a now-imprisoned gunrunner who claimed to have gone straight and peddled himself as a gang “expert.”

Carr, a “social-justice” advocate and evangelical minister whose past efforts to deal with gangbangers have been mixed, promises major differences this time. He is limiting the youths reached through prevention programs to 100 children per zone. They will be chosen through a 53-question assessment tool Carr says was formulated by experts to single out kids actually at risk of joining a gang — not simply perceived to be. Outreach agencies hired by the city must meet with their young clients three times a week, and with the significant adult in each child’s life once a month.

Despite these structural changes, GRYD is already showing similarities to L.A. Bridges: Eight of 12 nonprofits selected are former recipients of Bridges money. Moreover, Carr and Villaraigosa insist on keeping anonymous the names of the roughly 50 people appointed by Villaraigosa to hand-select those 12 nonprofits, and even the names of the six Villaraigosa insiders who chose the secret group of 50 are secret.

The secrecy is not only bizarre — Carr could name no other city doing it — but may itself create serious image problems if publicly funded GRYD runs into trouble. Carr says Deputy City Attorney Richard Bobb, who died recently, advised that anonymity be used so as “not to compromise the process.”

Carr concedes that not even the City Council knows the names of the 50 anonymous private citizens now telling the mayor where to award $24 million in antigang funds. “That is the one place where we are not being completely transparent,” Carr says. “Fair enough.”

Carr insists that nonprofit groups that apply for GRYD’s $500,000 “prevention grants” and $250,000 “intervention grants” faced a process so stringent that it eliminated “backroom deals.”

The process is based upon awarding “points” to nonprofits identified by the anonymous private citizens who are assembled, roughly, into five-or-six-person teams in each of the 12 citywide “zones.”

For example, in Watts, the final contenders were the L.A. Conservation Corps and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Those two groups’ grant applications were reviewed by the five anonymous committee members, who in turn had been recruited by Villaraigosa’s anonymous task-force recruiters. According to Carr, sufficient knowledge of the gang problem earns applicants 10 points. Organizational capability, which includes adequate staffing and a history of financial stability, earns 20 points. An operational plan, including prevention services and a way to evaluate effectiveness, is worth 50 points. A well-presented budget earns 20 points.

In Watts, L.A. Conservation Corps earned 84.25 points compared with Watts Labor Community Action Committee’s 82.75 points. In a second round, worth 50 points, both groups were inspected and interviewed by two members from Villaraigosa’s secret selection committee and one member of his anonymous six-person oversight committee. Carr says L.A. Conservation Corps won 33.5 points to the other group’s 32.83, so L.A. Conservation Corps got the city contract.

Social worker Reginald Quinn and consultant Bill Burgess, both connected with the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, praised the mayor’s secretive selection process. After all, the Asian American Drug Abuse Program had just secured $500,000 in gang-prevention money and is putting in for another $250,000. Says Burgess: “This is the mayor’s baby."

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