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Neighborhood Councils, Steep Learning Curve

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

Los Angeles neighborhood councils were intended to make city government more accessible to citizens, with hope that they evolve into a bicameral governing system similar to New York City’s borough system. But two Central and Coastal Neighborhood Councils meetings this past month showed the growing pains of realizing such a system.

Coastal Neighborhood Council

Coastal Neighborhood Council president James Baeza (left in above photo) resigned from the board last month following a reprimand from the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment for “non-compliance with the laws, regulations, policies and rules that apply to the governance of the council.”

Baeza’s resignation followed a meeting with, and subsequent letter from, the Department’s outreach and communications director, Stephen Box.

The letter addressed illegal council actions, which including:

  • Holding a meeting that was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Failure to comply with a public records request despite being supplied with the information.
  • Violating the Brown Act in several different ways.
  • Violating its own bylaws and standing rules at the October Agenda setting meeting.
  • And, creating a hostile work environment in which board members and the public felt bullied, harassed, intimidated or stalked by members of the board.

At the Oct. 17 Coastal San Pedro stakeholder meeting, Baeza used the public comment period to air his complaints against Box and Octaviano Rios, another DONE representative, who were present at Baeza’s moment in the woodshed.

“I thought I was being invited down there to figure out a way to fix it …make it better. To take stock of the mistakes we made and to improve upon ourselves to make something better than what we have.”

He called the meeting a one-sided recap of a list of complaints that have been lodged against the council—complaints with which the council has been most familiar.

He admitted to the ADA violation, but noted the council corrected the mistake.

Baeza strongly disputed charges of anti-Semitism in reference to the fact that the stakeholder meeting was held on the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

Baeza noted that no one in DONE warned the council of the holiday and allowed the meeting to go on anyway.

The Coast Council president chalked it up as another tactic by opponents on the council to stall votes they didn’t like.

“Does anyone know that today is the first day of Sukkot?” Baeza asked the audience. No one knows because nobody brought it up. No one wanted to stall this meeting.”

“These are the things I spent my time dealing with as president of this council,” Baeza continued. “I have not spent any of my time dealing with community improvement projects and I have not spent any of my time dealing with neighborhood purpose grants.”

Baeza accused DONE of being more interested in protecting their jobs than assisting the council, saying that the department could have stopped the meeting.

“I can’t continue doing this anymore. I am out,” Baeza said. “This is cronyism and founders syndrome. This is the city of L.A. making an established bureaucracy.”

Baeza took note of the salaries of the officials that are at the head of DONE, saying the general manager earns $130,000 to $140,000 a year and the next person in line earns $100,000 a year.

“They are just there protecting their jobs. They are not in fact assisting this council,” Baeza said.

According to records by Los Angeles Controller’s office, DONE General Manager Grayce Liu actually earns a salary of nearly $180,000 when benefits are factored in.

It’s worth noting that Baeza emerged at the end of another Coastal president’s term, Dave Behar. Back then, council members attempted to officially reprimand Behar on the grounds of self dealing and lack of transparency in council business dealings overall.

Baeza resignation was similar to the way Behar announced he was not going to run for the council again three years ago.

Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council

On Oct. 18, Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council held a special board meeting prior to the 6:30 p.m. stakeholder meeting to discuss the proposed Navigation Center on Pacific Avenue.

This was the council’s first meeting after Councilman Joe Buscaino’s Oct. 4 town hall meeting where he and his homeless task force were taken to task by residents angry about the lack of outreach and proposed placement of the center.

The board voted to oppose the proposed location of the Navigation Center, but amended the proposal so they council could forward recommendations to go along with the council’s community impact statement.

The amendment was surprising since Danielle Sandoval and Donald Galaz were most insistent in ensuring that recommendations were offered with their rejection of the center. Those two council members were most intimately involved with the Sept. 25 rally.

Before the vote, Sandoval spent several minutes recalling how much she learned while on the council’s homeless committee and working on the issue while on the council’s board. She related her own experience with homelessness as a young single mother, recalling the proliferation of liquor stores and drug addiction.

She described today’s homeless situation  as different from what she experienced, one marked by widespread untreated mental health problems amongst the homeless and few resources to address it.

During the regular stakeholder meeting, however, Sandoval took a few moments to call out this newspaper in objection to being connected to the flyer that drew Barton Hill residents to the Sept. 25 rally.

“There was an article printed in Random Lengths,” Sandoval said. “I wanted the board to know that I never conducted an interview and I never said that I was a member of this neighborhood council and I never took responsibility for passing out the flyer… I never created the flyer nor did I pass it out to the community in reference to the Navigation Center. Elise was very upset with me asking “why did I put her name on that flyer, why did I put her phone number in that flyer.” My words were misconstrued and I just wanted to make sure I was on record.”

Galaz and Sandoval thought they could exchange their neighborhood council hats for community activist hats and that the two roles would never meet. They had to learn the hard way that elected officials cannot turn off their status as public leaders whenever they want.

In the cases of both Baeza at Coastal and Sandoval and Galaz at Central, the learning curve of running a system of government in a pluralist society is steep, and living up to the ideals of the neighborhood council is not always easy.

Click below to listen the recording of her remarks in regards to her involvement with the Sept. 25 rally.
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/292459978″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

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