The decision by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday to merge the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment into another city agency has raised concern over the future of the city’s decade-old experiment with grass-roots democracy.
To Villaraigosa and many city and neighborhood council leaders, the proposal – which will eliminate some two dozen positions and save an estimated $2 million – will help chip away the bureaucracy at City Hall.
“The consolidation effort will not only create cost savings, but will serve to take the bureaucracy out of community empowerment,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “This consolidation is an opportunity to create the volunteer opportunities that engage communities and foster participation.”
But leaders of several neighborhood councils said the mayor’s proposal and funding cutbacks would gut the councils, and expressed fear that that’s the aim of city leaders.
“If this is the beginning of killing neighborhood councils, it’s a terrible loss,” said Dennis DeYoung, president of the Northridge West Neighborhood Council. “The whole idea of neighborhood councils is a good one, and I think it’s been a success. … Neighborhood councils represent such a tiny fraction of the city budget. They’re taking their eye off the ball.”
`Diluting the department’
Villaraigosa’s plan would make DONE part of the Community Development Department, with its general manager, Richard Benbow, taking on responsibility for both agencies.
BH Kim, who has been DONE’s manager for three years, said he will resign his post on June 30, when the merger is expected to be completed.
“I do have concerns that this will give the perception of diluting the department,” Kim said. “Putting DONE in such a large department will have an impact.
“We are the department that was involved in building relationships with the neighborhood councils. That’s our job, to work with the neighborhood councils and step in when we have to when there are disputes.”
Al Abrams, vice chairman of the Board of Neighborhood Commissions, said he is not bothered by merging the department into the Community Development Department.
“I think most of the neighborhood councils will see this as a boost and giving them more freedom,” Abrams said. “What I am concerned about is whether we are allowed to go ahead with this year’s elections.
“A lot of them are scheduled for next week, and it’s a big deal to the neighborhood councils and the hundreds of people across the city who have made the decision to get involved. It is not something that is easy. They are putting their names out there, making speeches and campaigning and spending their own money. I just think it would be unfair to stop that process now.”
Councilman Dennis Zine, who was on the Appointed Charter Reform Commission that created the neighborhood council system in 1999, said he wants to allow the elections to go ahead.
“Most of the ($1.5 million) budgeted for the elections has been spent,” Zine said. “We made a promise and we should keep it. And we can look at how we should change the system next year.”
The amount the consolidation of the department will save is just a tiny fraction of the city’s $212 million budget shortfall this year. Next year, the gap will widen to $484 million out of the city’s total budget of $7.01 billion.
“But it’s a step in saving money,” said Councilman Bernard Parks, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee. “And, it will be an annual savings.”
Skepticism over motives
Mike O’Gara, president of the Sun Valley Neighborhood Council, said he was “shocked” by the news that came out over the weekend about Villaraigosa’s proposal.
He said he thinks neighborhood councils – established in the new City Charter approved by voters in 1999 – are less popular with city leaders “as we mature, and more and more we show up at city council hearings and say we’d like changes.”
Ken Draper, publisher of CityWatch LA, which reports on the neighborhood council issues, said he is concerned not about the loss of a separate department but about the message it sends to neighborhood councils.
“There’s a lot of hysteria out there and some confusion,” Draper said. “What people have to remember is that DONE and the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners exist to serve the neighborhood councils.
“I think once the neighborhood councils see how it’s working, it will give the neighborhood councils more freedom,” Draper said.
Zine said he believes the city also needed to change the funding mechanism for neighborhood councils. For several years, each of the neighborhood councils – the city now has 90 – received $50,000 a year for programs or services they wanted in their communities. Last year, it was dropped to $45,000, and it has been proposed that be cut in half, to $22,500 for this coming year.
Zine said all the money should be put in one account with the neighborhood councils putting in their funding requests through the commission for approval.
Garth Carlson, a board member and past chairman of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, said most councils would be willing to take a small cut in funding but that the proposal is unreasonable.
Neighborhood council leaders said they’ll try to aim public pressure at City Hall.
Said Carlson: “Whenever the neighborhood councils have reacted to bad decisions by the city and made a large clamor, the city has turned around and stopped.”