Bill Boyarsky
 
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February 22, 2008

Neighborhood councils show some muscle

The City Council seems to be listening to the neighborhood councils and the City Ethics Commission.

The council is considering a proposal that would require stringent financial disclosure by neighborhood council members. The disclosure would be mandated when a neighborhood council proposed legislation, which in city hall is known as a council file. Any member of a neighborhood council which introduces a file would have to fill out the same disclosure form required of all city officials, including commissioners.

The neighborhood councils objected to the disclosure proposal, introduced by Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Greg Smith. Neighborhood council members felt that the stringent requirements for volunteers would discourage people from participating in the councils. The ethics commission agreed.

Faced with such opposition, the City Council put off a decision. Instead, the council referred the disclosure issue to its Education and Neighborhoods Committee. Later, the committee members unanimously indicated support for a modification of the Garcetti-Smith proposal. The committee probably won't make a decision until sometime in March.

The Garcetti-Smith plan doesn't make sense. We commissioners and other city officials have power to take action so we should disclose our financial holdings. But neighborhood councils are advisory. Even if a neighborhood council introduces legislation, the council can ignore it.

We ethics commissioners strongly made that point in a letter to the city council signed by our executive director, LeeAnn Pelham, but reflecting all of our sentiments

We said that we understood the need for "some level of disclosure." But "the commission also expressed its concerns that any proposed disclosure requirements be proportional and balanced so as not to inadvertently chill public participation in the neighborhood council system, which is still in the nascent stage."

The letter also said " a neighborhood council's ability to introduce a council file does not imbue it with any decision making authority over any matter of public policy affecting either its own interests or those of other city residents…the city council retains complete discretion and authority to decline consideration of any proposed council file."

I hope that argument will resonate with every city council member while the neighborhood councils fight for a more practical system of disclosure.


February 13, 2008

Power battle at the ethics commission


You wouldn't know it from our polite manner of speaking, but there is a lot going on at the ethics commission.

One issue involves neighborhood councils. The other is about enforcement of campaign contribution laws. Together, they constitute the great LA power battle: City Hall versus the neighborhoods, campaign contributors and their recipients versus the Los Angeles residents who want to continue our strict regulation.

These issues were at the center of the Valley secession movement. It failed, but one legacy was a network of neighborhood councils, a small attempt to shift power from downtown to the neighborhoods, which are the heart and soul of the city. The councils are advisory. They have no legislative power. But their very existence is too much for the City Council. So the council is trying to shut them up,

This all came before us at the ethics commission on Tuesday, February 12, a day that used to be called Lincoln's Birthday, a holiday named for a politician who had strong things to say about "the government of the people, by the people, for the people…"

First, the neighborhood councils.

A commission was created to improve the system of councils--groups of interested people who discuss neighborhood problems. The commission proposed giving these advisory groups a bit of power, permitting them to propose measures to the city council. Not vote on them, mind you, just propose them by introducing an ordinance.

That was too much for the city hall crowd. City Council President Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Greg Smith want each neighborhood council member to fill out a long and detailed form listing all the family's incomes, investments, loans and gifts. Obviously, this was to discover any conflict of interest. The Central City Association, the voice of downtown business, supports the city council members.

All of us appointed commissioners make such disclosures. We should. Commissioners have power to make zoning decisions, award harbor and airport contracts, supervise of the police and fire departments and, in our case, enforce campaign finance laws. We have power and should reveal our financial affairs to assure the public we have no conflicts.

But such disclosure is a lot to ask of a neighborhood volunteer who has no power and who, in the spirit of good citizenship, joins an advisory body. Be a volunteer and tell the world every detail of your family financial life. Most volunteers will probably opt out and the neighborhood councils will grow even weaker as good people drift away.


My fellow commissioner Michael Camunez said such a rule could drive people away from neighborhood council participation. The rest of us agreed. Hopefully, the city council will listen to us.

On campaign contribution laws, lawyers representing City Council members and other elected officials are trying to weaken our tough enforcement mechanism.
We discussed the matter briefly this month, but the real battle will be fought next month.

Check our web site, http://ethics.lacity.org/, for the agenda for next month's meeting. Get the report on prosecutorial discretion in ethics commission enforcement. It's all there in the report; if you agree, or disagree, tell us and your city council representative.


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