DONE WATCH-The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) administratively and illegally has removed a board member from the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council (VNNC).
As you know, we have been researching “exhaustive efforts (EE)” for months, trying to get our heads around just how far off the rails DONE has gone.
What we found was a mechanism in which DONE can force their “enemies” to toe the line through a “processless” torture chamber of ever-changing criteria, including misguided (or flat out wrong) advice rife with retaliation in an epic abuse of power.
The intended purpose of EE was to help NC Boards get back on track. Standard issues; not meeting quorum, infighting, bylaws, etc.
Our research revealed every single NC placed into EE had some political or internal board member disagreement issue aggravated 1,000% by DONE. In every case, instead of taking a common-sense approach, the entire board was placed into EE with what essentially amounts to a subjectively motivated accusation. Also, of note, large sweeps of unused funding moved directly into the Grayce rainy day fund. Boards in EE are known for not being able to “spend funds,” primarily because the funding is frozen with zero recourse.
The same requests were made by all boards placed in EE: what are the accusations? Who made them? When were they made? And where's the documentation (copy of complaint, etc.)? In every case, nothing was provided.
Per The Plan, there is a very specific process for addressing "grievances" (see items 5 & 6) and what the path is for landing in exhaustive efforts. But then there should be no surprise as to why confusion exists when a similar back-door document was executed in March 2016 that is not called the plan and is not stamped by amendments. It has far more serious language, was secretly amended in April 2018 (see metadata image), and sits on the DONE website.
Even with the City Attorney and DONE’s attempts at misdirection, not one of the items listed in EITHER document was conducted for any of the Boards placed in EE.
At the forefront of the EE chaos is Semee Park.
Park’s rise in the department is a bit odd, as is her history. Her title has changed no less than six times just since my tenure in the NC system. She transitioned from Mitch Englander’s office into the Department right around the time sexual harassment charges were filed with the City of Los Angeles. Park claims a masters from Cal State Northridge in Public Administration which we are currently verifying.
Park quickly mastered the faux response style of GM Grayce Liu, by not answering questions and serving said crap in a saccharin-sweetened pile of BS. Her petty and retaliatory behavior has become both legendary and bolder with each passing month. When her edicts or overarching statements are questioned by board members, they garner her wrath.
Several boards and/or board members have fought back but attempts to agendize formal letters calling out these kinds of abuses of power have been met with DONE pushback such as, “That agenda item does not fit within the boundaries of an NC.” Huh?
Dictator-in-Charge Semee Park has essentially weaponized exhaustive efforts to force “rogue" board members to bend to her will. Consistent and deliberate removal of “rebel” Board Members from email threads by Park has been an ongoing tactic as well as the outright ignoring of repeated requests to answer questions. Other tactics include stymying board members authorized expenditure reimbursements. And these examples are from what was actually placed in writing.
In the case of Richard Hopp of the VNNC, it is unclear where and when Ms. Park decided to target him specifically with her retaliatory efforts, but that decision was carried out with a vengeance and a clear goal to “make him go away.” It seems they had somewhat of an adversarial relationship early on, again based on her inability to provide consistent and clear responses -- or any responses at all.
On Wednesday October 10, the following letter was sent to DONE Watch an hour before the VNNC General Board meeting. The letter, as noted, was DONE's administrative removal of a seated Board Member on the VNNC. It cites the following code as a justification:
What is so strange about this removal, aside from the fact the cited code has literally NOTHING to do with NC governance -- nor is it applicable to non-employed members of the public formally serving their communities or maybe it’s a straight-up failure of due process -- is that the reasons for EE cited have NOTHING whatsoever to do with Board Member Richard Hopp.
Our team has reviewed almost 2,000 documents related to EE with over half coming from PRA requests; the rest were provided by board members and interviews. In all the correspondence between Hopp and Park we could not find a single instance of bullying or threatening by Hopp. What is very quickly apparent is the moving target haphazardness of DONE’s ire. Over the course of the last two years, targeting Hopp became the sole reason for DONE keeping VNNC in EE.
While DONE provided no specific reason to Board Members in their letter (and to date not a single detail of the complaints that have been produced by DONE), offline they were told that their board was sentenced to EE because of a board member’s violence against another board member; this was prior to Mr. Hopp being duly elected to the Board.
That same board member, a Valley land use attorney, somehow managed to deflect any culpability for himself by firing off ranting emails about Hopp and the board to Park. It worked. No investigation, no follow-up occurred, and the other assailed board member resigned in disgust.
So, how did Richard Hopp draw Ms. Park's ire? Perhaps calling DONE on its BS over, and over, and over again, particularly on, Semee Park and then DONE Staffer Jose Galdamez. One of the final verbal exchanges that took place between Hopp and Park was her telling him that she would do everything in her power to remove all Republicans from office. Huh? How is that relevant for a Neighborhood Council? Hopp finally required that all communication with Ms. Park and DONE staff be conducted in writing; he had to sue to get his personally outlaid money back from the city.
Not to be out maneuvered, Ms. Park intimidated and bullied board members both at public meetings and behind closed doors. VNNC board members reported two of Ms. Park's attempts at dividing and coercing board members into voting to remove Hopp from their board. A third attempt to remove Hopp was accompanied by “undecided” board members being told Richard Hopp was a known pedophile in another state!
When Ms. Park’s divide-and-conquer tactics failed, she took the legal tack with the help of Grayce Liu and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, city attorneys Elise Rudin and Darren Martinez. Imagine the cackling in the room as this brain trust concocted a scheme to tie NC Board members to City of Los Angeles labor relations issues as a justification to silence the ones talking sense.
Enter Vivienne Swanigan, a 27 year veteran of the City Attorney’s office, who sued the City for harassment discrimination while she defended Englander Chief of Staff John Lee. The PRA requests and emails provided implicate Ms. Park and Ms. Swanigan in manufacturing a labor harassment case against Hopp that sounds like its only real purpose was to exact some sort of "gotcha" retribution to help heal old personal wounds.
In their initial requests, DONE told Hopp he could not have legal counsel present at any meeting. He offered an open and public meeting with support from his board, but this was refused. He requested to be provided with the specific discussion topics but was told they were "confidential." He requested a court reporter and document service to be paid by the City, which was agreed to and then rejected by Park by blocking it from VNNC's meeting agenda. This back and forth has continued for a year and to date no meeting has been scheduled.
"My investigation…" Really? Who is it that deemed Richard Hopp a "person of interest?” Is this DONE's new "internal affairs" division?
Which brings us back to the October 10th Meeting.
Board Members and even DONE's administrative hired gun Terrance Gomes were blindsided by this edict. Amidst the flurry of horrified board members, Park slithered around the meeting area giving verbal instructions to LAPD. When she made attempts to sit with the board she was quietly hustled off.
As the meeting progressed, Gomes announced that board was officially out of EE.
It was clear that board members and the public would not be allowed to comment until the end of the meeting. Park’s final petty move for the evening was when Senator Hertzberg arrived to give out certificates to the board. Park went to LAPD and stated that Mr. Hopp could not receive his. The LAPD officer looked her squarely in the face and said, “I’m sorry ma’am. I will not prevent him from accepting…” Ouch.
As the meeting drew to a close and public comment was about to commence, Park made a beeline for the exit. I asked her outside if she would care to provide comments for this article. She refused.
The saga of EE and Park’s behavior is the kind of thing that in most worlds is cause for termination or reassignment.
The bullying and intimidation attempts, not to mention the questionable removal of a seated board member with zero due process by Park, Liu, and the Deputy City Attorneys would be grounds for dismissal in any other universe. The irony that Mr. Hopp is being accused of bullying when it is clear the Department is the one doing the bullying has not been lost on our team.
I personally hope Richard files a complaint with the office of personnel and sues the crap out of the City naming Park and the rest of the usual suspects in the suit. Maybe then our electeds might actually do something about this egregious behavior and relegate these giant bureaucratic wastrels to positions where they have as little interaction with the public as humanly possible. As you contemplate this true tale of local governmental dysfunction, think of it as the same kind of malignancy we see in our Commander in Chief:
I am in Charge. I am above the law. And I will bully you into submission.
As a reminder, DONE's role as defined in the City Charter is “to assist” the Neighborhood Councils. THAT'S IT!
One last note, does anyone else think it's strange our PRA requests from DONE arrive electronically contaminated?
(This advertorial was paid for by the DONE Watch Coalition, founded by Laura Velkei and supported by a coalition of Los Angeles neighborhood council activists.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.