27
Tue, Feb

D.O.N.E. Keeps On Digging

GELFAND'S WORLD

GELFAND’S WORLD - In the previous column of Feb 16, 2023, we discussed problems at the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) and the wholesale resignation of the board of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council (HSDNC) in protest of DONE actions. Nine out of the eleven HSDNC board members have now quit. Their reason for quitting was DONE's gross misconduct with respect to their neighborhood council, which involved the inappropriate expenditure of $4000 as well as additional threats by DONE's representative against them. For example, the board members were ordered to attend a private event to be held outside of their district, or else be thrown off their board by DONE. 

Since the publishing of that column, DONE has dug itself deeper into the hole of its own making, this time in the form of a memo written and circulated by DONE's General Manager Raquel Beltran. More about that memo and its surprising implications a little further below. 

Remember that DONE had asserted its right to take over and manage the HSDNC through the process they call "exhaustive efforts," or EE for short. This process allows DONE to forbid the council from holding meetings on its own; rather, meetings are planned and run by DONE staff according to an agenda set by DONE. The ostensible reason for EE is that the council has violated some rule and has to be brought into compliance with city or state law or with the rules that the city of Los Angeles has made for its neighborhood councils. 

Under EE, neighborhood council board meetings are run by somebody from DONE rather than by the neighborhood council's own elected officials. In this case, the DONE representative was Mario Hernandez, an experienced DONE staffer who has recently served as what DONE calls an NEA, which stands for neighborhood empowerment advocate. It was Hernandez who announced to the HSDNC board that they would be spending $4000 on the Sheriff's Youth Foundation (regardless of their wishes in the matter) and not only that, but they were all required to attend the Youth Foundation event or be kicked off the HSDNC board. 

I will temporarily refrain from pointing out how hypocritical and toxic this decree was. Suffice it to say that you won't teach people democracy by being a dictator, as Hernandez was doing. Under DONE's instruction, the HSDNC board was told in effect that they did not have the human rights that every other resident of Los Angeles has. 

One might say, only a bit tongue in cheek, that DONE always lives in 1864. To them, involuntary servitude is just the work requirement to be released from exhaustive efforts. 

There was no reason at the time to believe that Hernandez's actions were anything but the officially determined policy of the DONE management. We can credibly believe that Hernandez was acting in conjunction with conversations and instructions he had received from his direct supervisor and from higher up the management ladder. 

The Beltran memo 

Over the weekend, DONE's General Manager Raquel Beltran sent out a memo that seems to have been received by the whole neighborhood council system and, we may assume, other members of city government. To call it a bombshell would be correct. To call it a gross mistake might be more accurate. 

To allow for completeness of the record, we have attached the entire memo below. But it would not be premature to provide a few comments about that memo and its implications first. 

Beltran throws Mario Hernandez under the bus: 

Raquel Beltran begins with some weasel words: "The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment was disappointed and saddened to learn about the resignations. It is always concerning when a board member leaves the neighborhood council system, whatever the reason." To me, this looks like the kind of "thoughts and prayers" language we get from the gun lobby in response to a mass shooting. 

But the memo goes on, starting with some wording suggesting that however bad the actions of DONE were, maybe they didn't mean it after all: 

"Specific to this situation, the Department is reviewing the circumstances associated with their decision to resign. According to the attached letters, the resigning members expressed strong objections over a decision made by the neighborhood empowerment advocate relative to an outreach event. After conducting an internal review and interviewing the employee(s) involved, a final determination will be made in the coming weeks." 

Beltran pretends that the 9 board members resigned solely due to the $4000 expenditure. I suspect that this was just part of the problem. I have to think that it was the entire situation, including the forced servitude. It is possible for board members to come to the conclusion that the whole thing (neighborhood council participation) isn't worth it, particularly when the government you are supposedly a part of is doing the best it can to put roadblocks in front of your shins. 

And now let's cut to the chase. Here is paragraph 11, in full: 

" An appeal to the director overseeing the HSDNC could have been made. The decision of the staff member could have been overruled by the director had the request been made. There was sufficient time to appeal to the director between the February 8 meeting and February 15, when the Department received the resignations. The board members had ample time to present their objections directly to the Department. The first step is communicating concerns with the employee's supervisor (director). If there is no satisfaction at that level, they are encouraged to contact the director of administrative services or the general manager." 

As many years as I have watched the governmental process unfold, this was a new one. Here is my summary of what Raquel Beltran's words mean: 

1) You don't have to take seriously what my employees tell you, because anything and everything that they tell you is subject to a multistep appeal process, even if DONE has never communicated this fact to you before. 

2) I, as General Manager, do not support the efforts of my neighborhood empowerment advocate Mario Hernandez, and you as the neighborhood council board can disregard what he says for whatever indefinite period you take to follow the appeal process. 

3) By implication, neighborhood council members and boards don't have to take anything else we say seriously, whether told to you by the NEA or by any other DONE staff member. 

4) To DONE staffers: The General Manager does not have your backs.

5) Also, we are not very good at this process of undercutting our own staff members, nor of conducting investigations, since I, as General Manager, state that a decision will only be forthcoming in "the coming weeks." 

6) With regard to (5) above, it is also obvious that the General Manager would like to stall in order to do damage control and hope that the scandal blows over. 

And that's just one paragraph in the G.M.'s memo. I'd like to mention one additional paragraph in the memo before turning the whole thing over to you at the bottom. 

Here is paragraph 8 in the entirety, where NC means the neighborhood council: 

" The NC must complete the EE work plan to return to regular status. The work plan was sent to the board on January 27 and reviewed with them at the February 8, 2023, board meeting. The work plan informs the board of the requirement to attend meetings during EE status and possible removal if requirements are not met. The work plan also specified requirements to engage in outreach activities and ensure inclusive engagement in their NC. These are only a few of the HSDNC's EE Work Plan elements." 

Without writing another list, may I point out how incredibly arrogant this paragraph is. It defines DONE as a city department which can order Los Angeles residents around like children, including defining a "work plan" which must be accomplished not only by the board as a whole, but attendance by all board members at events to be determined by DONE, under penalty of termination. I notice that DONE is not offering to compensate for transportation expenses including gasoline, nor is there any recognition that free people have the right to determine how they use their free time. 

There is one other issue, which is what DONE calls "outreach," and the rest of us would refer to as advertising. It is the need neighborhood councils have, to get their story out to the public. It is the need for us to tell you that we exist and that you should attend our meetings. I would like to suggest that the responsibility for outreach falls on city government as a whole, as opposed to individual neighborhood councils. Blaming HSDNC for failed outreach is an exercise in blaming the victim. But this is a subject for another time. 

This may be an auspicious moment in the history of neighborhood councils, what with the existence of a new mayor and the simultaneous development of the HSDNC scandal. We'll see. In any event, here is the Beltran Memo in full. May I suggest that you read paragraph 3 carefully ("However, one most confusing item we are trying to understand . . . ") and decide for yourself whether you believe that the statements in that paragraph are credible. As a long time neighborhood council member, my opinion is that they are not. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].) 

 


 Dear Neighborhood Council Leaders: 

On February 15, 2023, the Department became aware of the resignation of several board members serving on the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council (HSDNC) (see attached letters). The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment was disappointed and saddened to learn about the resignations. It is always concerning when a board member leaves the neighborhood council system, whatever the reason.  

Specific to this situation, the Department is reviewing the circumstances associated with their decision to resign. According to the attached letters, the resigning members expressed strong objections over a decision made by the neighborhood empowerment advocate relative to an outreach event. After conducting an internal review and interviewing the employee(s) involved, a final determination will be made in the coming weeks.  

However, one most confusing item we are trying to understand is why the board members did not appeal the neighborhood empowerment advocate's decision to the director who oversees the neighborhood council, as is our protocol. Several of these board members have reached out to us in the past and know we are accessible and responsive. Their decision to not contact the supervisor is particularly confusing considering the employee had been serving the neighborhood council well, having worked closely and collaboratively with the board to support their struggles while in exhaustive effort status approximately a year ago. We would have liked to have had an opportunity to work with them to resolve the matter. 

For context, in January, the HSDNC was placed into Exhaustive Efforts (EE) for the second time after having been released from EE for the same challenges that caused them to fall into EE the last time, failing to meet the expectations of neighborhood councils as prescribed in The Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils. More information about the exhaustive effort process is provided below. 

In the first instance of EE, with the assistance of the neighborhood empowerment advocate charged with providing direct neighborhood council support, they complied with the requirements of the EE work plan to create outreach and strategic goals. Implementing a successful outreach plan is essential to an NC's EE work plan.

With the Department's assistance in 2022, the HSDNC executed the outreach plan's deliverables and contributed $35,000 to 5 organizations for the Paul Williams week of service, which consisted of community cleanups, as one example. 

After being released from EE status on July 20, 2022, the HSDNC returned to facing the same challenges. Unfortunately, in the seven months following, the HSDNC could convene only two public meetings, July 2022 and September 2022, primarily because board members didn't show up or could not commit to attending meetings. 

Under Los Angeles Administrative Code Section 22.810.1(e), the Department may place a neighborhood council board into Exhaustive Efforts (EE) by taking over all powers vested in the neighborhood council board to bring the neighborhood council or its members into compliance with applicable law, rule or regulation. Such actions may involve freezing of NC funds, and the Department may run board meetings, revise and update operating rules such as bylaws and/or standing rules, and mandate board training and/or staffing to focus on specific problems at the neighborhood council's expense. Every situation is different; as such, no one solution fits all. 

The NC must complete the EE work plan to return to regular status. The work plan was sent to the board on January 27 and reviewed with them at the February 8, 2023, board meeting. The work plan informs the board of the requirement to attend meetings during EE status and possible removal if requirements are not met. The work plan also specified requirements to engage in outreach activities and ensure inclusive engagement in their NC. These are only a few of the HSDNC's EE Work Plan elements. 

The Department used its judgment to identify opportunities to reach as many people as possible. The Sheriff's Youth Foundation regional event, to which the resigning board members objected, would have allowed the NC to promote itself with at-risk children and low-income families, who usually do not participate in the neighborhood council. Also, participation in this event was previously recommended by the board member serving as outreach chair. It is our understanding that no objections were raised about participating at that time.  

Also, the upcoming elections are an opportunity to create awareness about the NC and get people involved and interested in board service. Therefore, the staff, using the Department's authority prescribed in the administrative code while an NC is in exhaustive effort, expended funds to design, produce and mail a call for candidates mailer sent in English and Spanish to approximately 5,000 stakeholders w/in the NCs jurisdiction. This successful Department-initiated effort delivered most of the new people who will soon lead this neighborhood council along with those remaining.  

An appeal to the director overseeing the HSDNC could have been made. The decision of the staff member could have been overruled by the director had the request been made. There was sufficient time to appeal to the director between the February 8 meeting and February 15, when the Department received the resignations. The board members had ample time to present their objections directly to the Department. The first step is communicating concerns with the employee's supervisor (director). If there is no satisfaction at that level, they are encouraged to contact the director of administrative services or the general manager.  

At this point, we are working with the remaining board members and preparing the board to receive the new stakeholders who will be affirmed in the coming weeks. In addition, we are continuing to assess whether the Sheriff Youth Foundation event is an appropriate event in which to participate and will work with the current and new board members on the subject. 

The most important focus should be to increase awareness and engagement of stakeholders with the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council.  

Raquel Beltrán

Raquel Beltran (she/her)

General Manager

Department of Neighborhood Empowerment

200 N. Spring Street, Suite 2005

Los Angeles, CA 90012

Office | 213-978-1551

Email | [email protected] Web | www.EmpowerLA.org 

SEEK, SHARE, AND STAY SAFE

Why pronouns matter