During a visit to Saturdays semiannual gathering of neighborhood councils at the Convention Center, Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa criticized the Department of Water and Power and its oversight board for proposing to raise water rates despite an agreement with the local panels not to do so without their input or his. Out of the blue, the current commission put across a motion to raise rates, by the way without discussing it with me, Villaraigosa said at the Congress of Neighborhood Councils. And Im not the mayor yet, but everyone knows Im going to be. Last year, the DWP backed off an 18 percent rate hike for water users after neighborhood councils rebelled. The panels argued that the agency failed to consult with them, as required by city law. An 11 percent increase went forward after several months, and after the DWP opened talks with the councils that resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to govern information sharing. In a turn of events that has taken some city officials by surprise, neighborhood-council leaders monitoring the DWP said the agency has properly followed the MOU and is within its rights to propose an additional 3.8 percent increase. At a pair of City Council committee meetings in June, neighborhood leaders defended DWP General Manager Ron Deaton against charges that the agency was again out of control. That doesnt mean the councils have signed off on the rate hike. The DWP is moving forward, under the MOU, to hire a financial-review firm to check into the need for the new charges. The councils will then get 90 days for review and comment. Asked about his commitment to neighborhood councils generally, Villaraigosa said he was very supportive of what youre doing here. I think its very important in a democratic society to engage people in service and civic participation, Villaraigosa said. The neighborhood councils are Los Angeles effort to create more civic participation. The question about support came from Edwin Ramirez of Pacoima, who had a mixed reaction to the mayor-elects response. I asked at the wrong time, Ramirez said. He does have misinformation now about the MOU [with the DWP]. Hes not familiar enough with neighborhood councils. Hes going to have a lot to learn. Villaraigosa said he would support outgoing Mayor James K. Hahns plan to allow each council to decide how $100,000 is spent within the neighborhood on street services although he said the details must be worked out to ensure that services are distributed equitably. He has not committed to another Hahn promise, one that was widely dismissed earlier this year as election-year pandering: to reserve a spot on each city commission for neighborhood-council members. Ramirez said the new mayor should consider it. If he doesnt, the Pacoima leader said, Hes going to have a pretty big battle on his hands, because neighborhood councils are moving forward. Earlier at the Congress, Hahn told neighborhood leaders who supported him and backed his plans for more local control over City Hall that they should accept that the election is over and move on. Also being inaugurated this week, along with Villaraigosa, is Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who brings his own concerns about neighborhood councils. The new 11th District councilman supports neighborhood boards in concept but said they ought to tighten controls over who gets to elect them. A neighborhood council should be an expression of people who live in a community, Rosendahl said. His district has seen several controversies over neighborhood-council stakeholders, who can be anyone who lives, works, worships, owns property in or otherwise has an interest in the neighborhood. The Westchester neighborhood groups makeup was determined by a vote that included construction workers at the Playa Vista development. The Venice council has had a batch of problems, and Rosendahl cited an episode in which a dog supposedly voted. He said a West L.A. neighborhood-council election was controlled by people bused in by a church. I was elected by registered voters, and I consider that a sacred trust, Rosendahl said. A neighborhood council will remain advisory to me, and not yet have any of my power, until they represent those people. Opening neighborhood councils to people other than residents was a key part of the agreement that resulted in councils being put in the city charter in 1999. But there continue to be controversies over the role of nonresident stakeholders. I think the definition of stakeholder is ridiculous, Rosendahl said. He added that he might favor limiting neighborhood-council membership to registered voters. I am open to a healthy discussion with the new mayor and the City Council on the subject, he said. Meanwhile, several neighborhood councils are doing their best to grab a share of power at City Hall by demanding the right to get . . . file numbers. Nothing happens in City Hall until it is assigned a file number, and that happens only when a request comes from a City Council member or department official. But for a neighborhood council to get something going, it has to get the blessing of its City Council member. Thats how Jason Lyon, of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, made sure Los Angeles was on record supporting a same-sex marriage bill. He got his motion through a City Council committee, and it is soon to proceed to the full body. But Lyon got to that point only with the help of Councilman Eric Garcetti. Now the Silver Lake panel and a host of others are trying to persuade city officials to let them get other things started in City Hall without going to the elected officials first. City Council members are wary of opening the filing system to neighborhood councils. The mission of an advisory agency is to advise and not to administer, said Councilman Tom LaBonge. But he added that he was willing to try out the idea for six months to see how it goes. Councilman Eric Garcetti said he favors Lyons idea in principle, but added that some sort of filters should be put in place to make sure neighborhood-council motions, requests and ideas dont overwhelm City Hall. Each council file costs us something like $50,000 to open in staff time, from beginning to end, for the life of that file, Garcetti said. Janice Hahn, who chairs the committee that monitors neighborhood councils, said she liked the idea but wanted to hear from city departments about any burdens the plan might place on them.
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