LA’s Neighborhood Councils Are Gettin’ BONC’d and DONE In

EASTSIDER-I am always amazed at the rank hypocrisy of City Hall. The City and the City Attorney’s Office allows the LA City Council to figuratively get away with murder, while they hamstring Neighborhood Councils, who are helpless and without resources to fight back.

As Richard Lee Abrams noted last week in CityWatch, the City Council system of Vote Trading smacks of old fashioned corruption that brought in the Progressive era and muckraking journalists. And it’s not legal, according to Mr. Abrams. 

He is joined in his concerns by another City Hall critic, Scott Zwartz. In a recent blog post, Mr. Zwartz pointed to the Orwellian voting system of City Hall where “non-votes” count as “Yes” votes; he also characterized the system as illegal vote trading. 

To make all of these practices appear proper and legal, the City spends big bucks on staffing all their Boards and Commissions and City Council with full-time City employees and a City Attorney who is present at each meeting of all the above. Yes sir, they prepare agendas, field questions and correspondence, staff the actual meetings, and prepare minutes and the forwarding of official actions. Some even say they carefully edit the minutes. And the City Attorney, if asked, will provide legal advice at each of these meetings. 

As near as I can tell, all that these lawyers do at these meetings is sit and play with themselves. Oh, once in a great while they might indicate that a discussion or action could raise questions, but it is a rarity for them to step up and advice against an action on legal grounds. This is important, because, if an elected body acts against the advice of counsel, it can be personally liable for their actions. I wish. 

Then there are the peons … those of us in the Neighborhood Council System. 

Gettin’ BONC’d 

Let’s contrast how the City Attorney operates with City Hall, how they and the City family work with the Neighborhood Council system – this includes BONC (the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners), DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) and the some 95 individual Neighborhood Councils. 

So let’s take a look at the Charter -- there is only one small section about BONC in the City Charter: 

Sec. 902. Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. 

  • There shall be a board of seven commissioners to be known as the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (board). Commissioners shall be appointed by the Mayor, and shall be from diverse geographic areas, as further specified by ordinance. Appointment and removal of commissioners shall otherwise be in accordance with Section 502. 
  • The board shall be responsible for policy setting and policy oversight, including the approval of contracts and leases and the promulgation of rules and regulations, but shall not be responsible for day-to-day management. 
  • The board shall operate in accordance with Sections through and of the Charter. 

That’s it. The only other specific references to BONC have to do with establishing Neighborhood Council boundaries, and overseeing the certification and decertification of Neighborhood Councils. BONC is essentially a throwaway Commission, and both the City and the City Attorney treat them as such. 

Whereas real Boards and Commissions are fully staffed, and the City Attorney has a passive role, BONC has no staff, and the City Attorney runs the Commission by telling them what they can do, including what can be on an Agenda. 

A prime example would be what I called the “Kool-Aid Caper,” where the City Attorney told BONC that the Neighborhood Councils couldn’t give grants to a local school if any Board member had a child in school. After I wrote an admittedly scathing CityWatch article about the City Attorney Sippin’ That Special Kool-Aid, they magically repealed that bit of odious persiflage. 

How the City Attorney treats Neighborhood Councils, however, remains true. They aren’t even really practicing law -- nowhere is the City Attorney mentioned in the Charter Amendment or Plan as the attorney for BONC, and for that matter, exactly what statutory authority BONC has over the Neighborhood Councils is highly unclear. 

To see who’s supposed to be in control of the Neighborhood Council system, you just need to look at the purpose of the Neighborhood Council system as specified in the Charter: 

Sec. 900. Purpose. 

To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs, a citywide system of neighborhood councils, and a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is created. Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood. 

There is an inherent conflict between the entire purpose of Neighborhood Councils as opposed to the limited role BONC is supposed to play in effectuating that purpose. The Neighborhood Councils were the reason for the Charter Amendments; BONC was a secondary appendage. And for the first few years, BONC only dealt with certifying Neighborhood Councils. Over time, the City started to clamp down on the unruly Neighborhood Councils. Clearly they forgot to read the purpose clause of the Charter Amendments. 

So, when the City of Los Angeles refuses to provide staff to BONC itself, and when the City Attorney blithely uses the Commission to tell Neighborhood Councils what they cannot do, instead of what they can do to make government more responsive to local needs, they are abrogating the very purpose of the Charter amendments. 

For those with analytic bent, you can read the current full ‘Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils here.  

And Then We Were DONE 

I will try to be kind to the Department Of Neighborhood Empowerment. After all, the City has deliberately starved them of funding and straight jacketed them with a puny staff of around a dozen. Heck, every individual City Council Member has more staff members than DONE does, and the Council staff make a whole bunch more money. 

With something like a dozen folks to staff 95 Neighborhood Councils who meet each month, you do the math. It’s impossible. Morale is low, turnover abounds, and the Neighborhood Councils are essentially left to deliberately flounder. Each Council is required to somehow produce pdf agendas for every meeting, which are supposedly to be sent in and ‘vetted’ by DONE, who then reserves the right to tell them what items they can and cannot discuss. They are expected to produce minutes without any staff support. 

At the same time the City requires DONE to account for every penny spent by each of the 95 Neighborhood Councils. This must be done without any accounting staff to speak of -- I think there may be one or two people to handle all of this huge amount of work. Add to this the fact that grants voted on by each of the Neighborhood Councils have to go through a broken, Byzantine process before they ever get paid. It is no wonder that Neighborhood Councils don’t spend all of their allocated funds -- the City won’t approve the money and pay the bills! Then, at the end of the year the City Council can beat up on the Neighborhood Councils for failing to use their allocated funds. The result of this is that they ‘sweep’ the unused balances into the City’s General Fund. 

I say, let’s apply the same process to each of the 15 Council Offices and see how they like it. I think folks are still waiting to find out about the slush funds of the City Councilmembers. 

To end on a positive note, there is a solution. I wrote in CityWatch about a “Five-Step Plan” to take back our Neighborhood Councils some time ago.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.