By Ian Lovett, 7/08/2010
The Los Angeles City Council re-created the position of general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the city’s neighborhood councils.
Bong Hwan Kim had resigned as general manager of the department following Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s announcement that he intended to merge DONE with the Community Development Department (CDD), as part of the plan to close the $485 million budget gap. The general manager position had not been included in the budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In June, however, the city council nixed the mayor’s proposed merger, instead choosing to keep DONE as a stand-alone department.
Councilmember Paul Krekorian, 2nd District, who chairs the Education and Neighborhoods committee, led the charge to stop the merge of DONE with CDD.
“Over the course of their ten-year history, neighborhood councils have led the way in bringing greater democratization and neighborhood empowerment to this city’s governance,” Krekorian said. “Going forward, I will continue to fight to ensure the vitality of neighborhood empowerment while also implementing appropriate reforms to ensure efficiency and accountability.”
According to Jeremy Oberstein, Krekorian expects the mayor to appoint Kim as interim general manager of the department. Kim will continue to lead DONE while the city council works to restructure the department for the long-term.
Layoffs earlier this year cut DONE’s staffing to half of what it had been, with just 18 employees remaining to help oversee the city’s 91 neighborhood councils.
Kim would not take a position on whether he thought maintaining DONE as a stand-alone department would benefit the neighborhood council system. However, he said it was not realistic to expect the department to provide the same level of service that it had before the staff layoffs.
“The face-to-face support we were providing to neighborhood council boards will be pretty much cut back,” Kim said. “We’ll only be responding to requests from councils for service, and even that may be cut back or eliminated.”
Kim said most of the requests he gets from councils involve requests for help running meets, navigating city hall, and especially navigating the budget process. He said he hoped his department would still be able to streamline the budget process, whether through the department, or by outsourcing to a non-profit organization, as Villaraigosa had suggested.
“The city’s financial management system can be extremely complex,” Kim said. “Neibghborhood council board members are volunteers, and for a lot of them, it can be extremely overwhelming. A streamlined process would hopefully make it possible for them to access funds as responsibly and easily as possible.”
Stephen Box, who helped organize a number of neighborhood councils into Budget LA, a group designed to advocate for neighborhood councils, said that by retaining Kim as interim general manager, the city council had continued to avoid defining DONE’s purpose.
“I think it’s what can be expected from a city government that’s meandering through the process of solving a major budget crisis,” Box said. “What’s the purpose of DONE? If it’s to support the neighborhood councils, they have to decide what that support looks like. That is what’s missing is an affirmative and strong stand on what this department is there for. It’s time for a big change, which makes this a big opportunity.”
Box cited a recent DONE staff report, which suggested standardizing bylaws across all of the neighborhood councils, as evidence of the department’s lack of purpose. Currently, each council writes its own bylaws.
Jeff Jacobberger, chair of the Mid-City West Community Council, said he too wondered whether DONE was going to be able to provide the necessary logistical support to the neighborhood councils.
“I don’t care so much about whether DONE is a stand-alone department or merged with another department,” Jacobberger said. “I care about things like if we want to spend money and sponsor an event, can we get checks sent in a reasonable amount of time, or when we spend money will the vendor have to wait three months for payment? I just want the department to be efficient and serving our needs.”
Jacobberger remained confident that the neighborhood council system itself was not in jeopardy of collapse. However, he worried inefficiency from DONE could affect some councils more than others.
“As long as we continue to get some base level of funding that allows us to operate, and we have a funding system that makes that possible, I don’t think the neighborhood council system is going away,” Jacobberger said. “My concern is that some parts of the city, or neighborhoods that need more assistance from the city to be effective, won’t be getting that assistance. I think Mid-City West is functioning pretty well in part because we’re in a relatively affluent neighborhood where we have a lot of professionals and people who have a lot of expertise. I’m not sure DONE has ever done a particularly good job of really empowering and working to make all neighborhood councils really high functioning. And like everything else, with the cuts, I’m worried we’ll be left with the gaps between the haves-and the have nots growing even bigger.”
Kim shares Jacobberger’s concern, and worries that if neighborhood councils in low-income areas start to collapse, it could threaten the heart of the neighborhood council system.
“That’s slowly starting to play out as some neighborhood councils in South L.A. are experiencing problems recruiting enough candidates to fill board seats,” Kim said. “I think the neighborhood councils in the underserved communities are most at risk, if you think about viability of the city-wide system resting on the fact that all geographic areas are represented. It does represent a threat.”