A plan to reform the oversight of L.A. neighborhood councils has emerged from the Valley, the place where it all began.
Recent events have made reform a necessity, and the Valley has a plan.
Here'’s the quick recent history: The councils are largely independent, with their own bylaws and elections, and each is given a small pool of money — $45,000 per neighborhood this year — for neighborhood projects. This was too much temptation for a fallen humanity, and in 2007, six of the 90 or so councils were found to have misused city funds. This is sometimes called stealing.
City Controller Wendy Greuel conducted an audit earlier this year of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the councils and their money. The audit was scathing in its conclusions. She found a lack of financial oversight and recommended closer inspection.
With the city’s finances in bad shape, DONE'’s staff was slashed and the mayor proposed merging it with another, the Department of Community Development. (Yes, this post is getting duller by the minute, but it'’s sort of important if you’re into your neighborhood, so try to stop nodding off while we explain this, m'’kay?) This merger plan was widely seen — fairly or not — as a way to bring the often rowdy councils to heel and bury them in another city department.
The neighborhood activists beat back that plan but realized they needed to come up with their own to fend off the dogs at City Hall. Plus, everyone pretty much agrees the current setup has problems. The folks at DONE are supposed to be examining 90 sets of books, acting as a watchdog, while also trying to be advocates for these neighborhood folks. Doesn'’t work. Plus, with the cuts, they’re badly understaffed.
So the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils — the Valley councils fancy themselves as taking on the downtown Death Star and have bandied together — proposed this: Divide up the city into regions, sort of like the planning districts. Each district would have a group of volunteer commissioners who would oversee and help the neighborhood councils in their respective district. So civic activists with experience in this kind of thing would sit on a regional commission, and offer advice and guidance to the 15 or 20 neighborhood councils in his or her district, and watch their spending to make sure it’'s proper.
This way, City Hall gets more accountability and gets it for little cost, and the councils are appeased because City Hall isn'’t involved. Everybody wins.
Lydia Drew Mather, who heads the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, told the Weekly that the plan “is a “conceptual framework for bottom-up, regional government. It was met with relief and surprise. And there was positive response.””
Bottom-up, regional government. That's dog-whistle politics, a Valley activist telling people around the city who are fed up with City Hall that this is a step — however minor — toward devolving power away from downtown.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who is the chair of Education and Neighborhoods Committee and a big supporter of the councils, sent a statement to the Weekly. After a mini-paean to neighborhood councils as having strengthened neighborhoods and given voice to the voiceless, he concluded, “”The regional concept, born of the creativity and uniqueness that has shaped the neighborhood council movement, has a tremendous amount of potential. Going forward, I look forward to exploring this idea to ensure the continued vitality of neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles.”