Updated on March 27, 2012.
A year after being taken over by the city, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council appears to be on its way to regaining control of its operations and funds. Now it remains to be seen whether it can become, once and for all, a viable forum for the community it is supposed to represent.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the arm of City Hall that oversees neighborhood councils, has told the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council that it should soon be able to access its operating funds and resume normal operations.
“We have reportedly completed all required training from DONE, but we are waiting to receive their letter for an official clearance,” Council President Edward Padilla said in an e-mail to the Boyle Heights Beat.
On March 22, the BHNC regained full control of its operations. In a letter sent by email to the council and obtained by the Boyle Heights Beat, DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim wrote: “As a result of the efforts of the BHNC, the Department is declaring the BHNC out of Exhaustive Efforts and effective immeditely we are restoring full funding for the Board to continue the important work of supporting and providing a voice for the community.”
A year ago, the neighborhood council was placed into “exhaustive efforts” ”“ a probationary status that provides a council with a last chance to clean up its act or lose its certification. The public sanction took place after years of what DONE described in a letter as “continuous allegations and concerns from stakeholders” over potential violations of the state’s open meeting law, funding policies, and the council’s own bylaws. The department cited the group for consistently failing to have a quorum of board members ”“ necessary to take legally binding actions — and for what it termed a lack of “cohesive board leadership.”
The 2011 disciplinary warning came after a majority of the board failed to attend a training retreat DONE scheduled on March 19, 2011. At a reportedly contentious meeting later that month, the president and most of the executive committee resigned.
A History of Dysfunction
DONE’s disciplinary action capped a period of reported infighting, personal struggles, and a clear division among competing factions. In published reports and interviews with current and former board members, the council has been described as “dysfunctional” since its creation.
The council was created in 2002 as part of a citywide effort to give Los Angeles neighborhoods more say in their governance. There are about 90 councils operating in the city, each assigned a yearly budget of up to $45,000 that can be used for operational expenses or community projects.
“We’re like a mini city hall for our community,” said Terry Marquez, a longtime board member. At best, said Marquez, the neighborhood council has influenced Los Angeles City Council decisions on issues ranging from zoning and pollution to water rates.
The Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council represents nearly 90,000 residents who live in a geographic area of 6.52 square miles, the largest neighborhood council constituency in the system, according to DONE’s general manager, BongHwan Kim.
The founding members of the council divided it into four geographic areas that were to manage and report local issues to the full board. But they struggled to find members who would attend council meetings consistently. The board’s size has been reduced twice ”“first from the original 54 to 35 members, and then in September 2011 to 19 members””in an attempt to make a quorum achievable.
The council “would work wonderfully if you had the right people managing it,” said Juan Romero, a longtime council member who served as president from 2008-2010. Romero said that meeting quorum was not an issue during his tenure, an assertion disputed by Kim, who oversees all L.A. neighborhood councils, as well as by other board members.
“A lot of people, when they go in, they’re passionate about their problem, [but they] forget about the big picture: the city problems, the city issues,” said Romero, a city grants administrator assigned to the Boyle Heights Technology Center.
Romero ticked off his successes while president, including attracting will.i.am, a famous rapper and hometown hero, to a 2008 community parade that cost less than a similar event the previous year. Romero said he left the council to concentrate on running a new business, the Primera Taza coffee shop on First Street.
Romero said that since his departure, the council has been unable to attract young professionals because of poor outreach. Marquez, who chairs the council’s bylaws committee, agreed that many board members lacked the professional background required to understand some of the issues, but said that DONE shares some of the responsibility for the council’s failures. DONE is responsible for training board members on ethics and parliamentary procedure.
DONE itself faced the threat of dissolution in July 2010 and, like most city departments, has seen its budget cut and its staff severely reduced. A January 2010 audit found that the department’s failure to manage the councils resulted in rampant citywide violations of spending policies. The audit specifically cited cash advance and split purchase violations by the Boyle Heights council in 2008 and 2009.
But the council’s troubles came to a head during the recent tenure of José Aguilar, who resigned as president last year after accusing board members of being more interested in planning events than in tackling the community’s most pressing issues. At the March 30, 2011 meeting, Aguilar told Eastern Group Publications that several board members were intentionally sabotaging the council by choosing not to attend the meetings.
Aguilar did not respond to several email requests for comments for this story.
Padilla, who became president in October, said one of the council’s first actions under his tenure was to rewrite the bylaws to address chronic absenteeism by board members. “We’re making sure that we meet quorum and that we get people that are caring enough to be active, be present,” he said in an interview.
“In some sense,” said Padilla, the probationary status “has allowed us to strengthen the council and to get board members that care enough about the community to be involved even during this challenge.”
The Neighborhood Council is encouraging residents and Boyle Heights business owners to apply for leadership roles and vacant seats on the board. Recently the council upgraded its website and added an application link. Current board members choose new board members.
Bridging Boyle Heights’ Divides
Padilla, a Boyle Heights resident who is president of Casa 0101 Theater, says that one of his goals is to bridge the cultural, technological, and linguistic divides among Boyle Heights residents.
“There’s a substantial amount of residents that don’t have access to computer or smart phones or any way of receiving information that way,” he said. “I think that communication is extremely important. We have to consider the diversity of communication [needed for outreach], whether it’s language, whether it’s technology, whether it’s footwork.”
Funding for such services as professional Spanish-language translation during meetings has been impossible, since the council has been unable to spend any of its funds during the probationary period.
The council closed out fiscal year 2010-11 unable to use part of its allotted budget of $15,616 and has been unable to touch the funds for fiscal 2011-12, which ends in June. City rules prohibit unused funds from transferring from one year to the next.
Lisette Covarrubias, a project coordinator for DONE who has been overseeing the council, expects that the group will soon be able to access funds. The council “has fulfilled all requirements, and we are hoping that they will be out of exhaustive efforts quite soon,” she wrote in a March 3 email to the council.