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A Call for Open and Transparent Government in LA

Editor’s Note: This contribution came from community activist Gary Baratta who urged
people to write, email or call their City Council member regarding the imposition on Neighborhood Council members of financial disclosure requirements as the price of opening legislative files for City Council consideration. Baratta is chairman of the
planning, land use, housing and transportation committee for the Mid-town North Hollywood Neighborhood Council.
The Power of One
By Gary Baratta

I had the privilege of fulfilling my ethics training on Saturday March 21st at the Van Nuys government center.  Tom Griego made everything crystal clear as to the do’s and don’ts of volunteerism as respects city government.
This ethics training is the law by which the neighborhood councils live on a daily basis.  As Tom produced screen after screen of the financial limitations on gifts, and elucidated on all the ways in which we as voluntary advisors could somehow become embroiled in a conflict of interest; I was struck by this thought:
How could members of City Council not become embroiled in conflicts of interest on a daily basis?  That’s a thoughtful discussion I’ll have on another occasion.
After the Valley Secession movement was defeated, the L.A. City Council decided to create a system of neighborhood councils which would “advise” them as watchdogs of the public trust.  Independent and free of special interest influence, they would be allowed to tell “truth” to the corridors of power.
Fast forward to 2009.  The City Council has for the first time passed an initiative allowing the NCs to actually open a file for their City “elders” perusal and adjudication.  It must be seconded by another council (since we’re not that independent).
Enter City Council and before you know it, we’re required to fill out Form 54 in order to have this “privilege”.  For those of you who don’t know what this form contains, I’ll be happy to forward it to you on request.  It’s a complete financial history of you, your spouse and/or registered partner!  Further, according to the ethics commission; this is public information and will be given to anyone who calls and asks for it!
This is punitive, onerous and a complete violation of our rights to advise.  A deputy city attorney once told me that in law school the first thing you’re taught to do is look at the intent.  What other intention can we glean from this blatant attempt to silence our exercise in participatory democracy?!
I spoke against this in public forums before both the City Council, LANCC, BONC and anyone else who would listen.  My entreaties fell on deaf ears.  In each case, they knew what I would say and after allowing others to speak at length; just before I step to the microphone I’m told to be “brief”!
Now, it’s the law.  Will you stand up now?!  Will you simply give up this right without a fight?!  Will you now be silent?!  Will you quit the council system as they’re betting you will?!
These council files didn’t really mean anything until City Council took this action.  These files could have been tabled, delayed and ignored interminably.  Instead, they had to show us that if we truly wanted this to be “participatory”, we would have to be held to a standard even they are unwilling to abide by.
I want the Form 700′s made public on all City Councilmen, as well as Department GMs.  I want a transparent government.  Our policy will be Reaganesque “Trust but Verify”!
I want to know every donation to a campaign from a developer, real estate magnate or corporate entity.  I want the new City Controller to audit every vote taken over just the last year to determine if there is a single instance of conflict of interest.
When was the last time a City Council member recused themselves from a vote because of an obvious conflict?
Why are IEA’s considered “academic exercises”?  Why has there not been an infrastructure study done since 1998 when the City Charter mandates them yearly?  Why is the City Controller told that the mayor and city attorney are immune to such studies of their effectiveness?
Are we dogs to be beat down, chained and muzzled?!
I, for one; will not be silenced.
Will, but one of you; join me in protest?!  If ONE joins me and then ONE joins with you………………………………..

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7 Responses to A Call for Open and Transparent Government in LA

  1. Anonymous says:

    Gary, typical mind control technique. People resist telling others their personal business and rightfully so – so it is a prime target when a group wants to destroy another group and will do everything to accomplish it. I do not think the City Council thought that neighborhood councils would become a power – rather thought that there establishment would take some of the hear off themselves. One tool they use is to
    get them to qualify for a $50,000 cash amount. I have attended the local nc and believe me, under the rules set forth by the city council “GUARDIAN” cannot remember his name, our hands were tied. So what would the $59K be for anyway? People, do I have this right? If I do, now let us use the neighborhood councils THE WAY WE WANT TO USE THEM – AS REAL TOWN MEETINGS.. TH

  2. david r2b says:

    Mr. Baratta -
    I don’t think this should come as a surprise to anyone. The concept of the Neighborhood Councils and the fact that they exist is a real pain to the City Council. They want no oversight, no recommendations and certainly no advice on how to run our City for us. If they can throw some type of stumbling block in front of you, to keep you quiet and out of their way, of course they’ll do it. Revealing personal finances is the most logical approach to shut you up.
    As far as the Councilmember’s revealing their financial happenings and what they receive would create a firestorm for City Hall. I’m sure fortunes are made and extremely well hidden. They would never fill out the Form 700. As far as the infrastructure study/report, Lucille has filed a Law Suit and every road block possible has been thrown at her. As I understand it, there is a report, however it’s in “draft form” and therefore confidential and can not be released. Only final reports are publishable, even if it takes forty years to finish. If and when the report is ever released, City Hall is cooked again. The Citizens will find out just how poorly our City has been allowed to deteriorate, from the infrastructure stand point. Special interests won’t have any new projects for decades until the infrastructure is brought up to proper strength.
    The only logical conclusion is to go back to the City Charter. The Council found out long ago that they could do what they want by changing the Charter as needed for their purposes. Bit by bit by bit. Prop R to give themselves another four years in office, a phony phone tax discount so they can boost the revenues, “solar energy & green jobs” so they could monopolize a whole segment of electricity creation and bill what they want…. NO sorry, they lost on that one but only barely and now they’re considering changing the Charter again to allow the Police Chief to be there forever if wanted. But he’s doing such a great job….well the Christopher Commission did a great job and they said 8 to 10 years is enough. Do you think it’s proper for the Chief, in full dress uniform, to be doing 30 second political spots to inform us how to vote? Yes the Chief can vote for his choice but I believe the Christopher Commission felt that the Police Department should stay neutral in elections. I’m sure if we look hard enough, the LAPD has someone in-house that could be the next Chief of Police.
    The City is due to review and re-evaluate the Charter and attempt to make those needed changes. The NC’s will never be respected until the Charter says and gives them authority. The infrastructure status report will never be released until people start loosing their jobs. Let’s have a City Charter Convention, a “C3″, and start the process of taking our City back.
    Sorry Sir, I wasn’t brief.

  3. Chris Rowe says:

    Mr. Baratta,
    I want you to know that I have also sent my comments to President Garcetti and some other Council members on Form 54.
    And I would also like to see the Council members file a Form 700 every time that they vote on every item. Would that ever slow down those automatic “Yes’ votes in City Council?
    It’s time for a real “Clean Money Campaign” discussion in Los Angeles.
    What can we do to make that happen?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Elected officials already file more extensive forms than 700 for fairness sake, and take a lot of crap from everyone and insults and abuse. So at least know WHAT you’re talking about when you jabber on about how unfairly you’re being treated, boo-hoo. In fact Greig Smith’s point was that if you want to be able to open Council files you should have Some, a small amount, of the flip side of what they have to go through.

  5. anonymous says:

    Ron, I like your blog and agree with most of your stances. On this topic, I disagree.
    The writer almost contradicts himself. By suggesting Councilmembers do not recuse themselves (when they should) as a reason why NC’s shouldn’t have to file like forms lacks the basic logic. Public disclosure of potential conflicts of interests should apply to anyone who has the privilege of representing a set number of tax payers. Whether it is enforced is another issue.
    I agree with the writer; that elected officials might not be recusing themsleves (when they should) should be a separate discussion (“occasion”). It’s a very important topic.
    If NC’s want the power and privilege, they should be held to the same standards as elected officials and appointed commissioners (paid and non paid).
    Consider this: What if an NC member owns stock in a digital billboard company, or is a developer?
    By showing one does not have a hidden agenda gives NC’s the legitimacy they deserve. It doesn’t silence. It says you have every right to be loud and that you are truly representing your community….not your personal financial interests.
    No…I am not a third floor spinner. I’m a citizen that would like to know that what an NC has discussed, voted on and recommended to Council was for the welfare of the people and not of the individual member(s) only.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, neighborhood councils, as practiced under the iron fist of Rocky Delgadillo and Antonio Villaraigosa, are almost meaningless. In our area, we watched the formation of the neighborhood council go from “exciting” to “a bureaucratic morass.”
    The whole call for secession was triggered by a sense that City Hall ignored the concerns of RESIDENTS and SMALL BUSINESSES. These were the voices who lacked the money “to be heard” at City Hall. But did they create neighborhood councils that address the specific problem? Hell, no. The last thing the Mayor and City Attorney wanted was for residents and small businesses to have a meaningful mechanism for “being heard.”
    Instead, the not-so-secret goal of City Hall was to weaken the potential of neighborhood councils. The single and easiest way was to broaden the definition of “stakeholder” so that literally any protoplasm with a pulse would qualify in any neighborhood council area. The Charter says neighborhood councils should include people who live, work, or own property in the area. The “Plan,” written in a back room in City Hall, that implemented the Charter EXPANDED the Charter definition to include people who shop, people who belong to a church or non-profit, people who “self-declare” they are a stakeholder.
    That was the end of the significance of the neighborhood council as a force. Any developer could organize its workers and friends to run for office and review its own project. Instead of a meaningful way to counterbalance the extraordinary influence of developers, this loosening of who was given a voice at City Hall has enabled a magnification of the power of developers. They could get their buds on the local NC and then prevent an adverse position on their development project or water it down.
    During Charter Reform and secession, it was residents and small business owners coming to the meetings and demanding a voice at the table — not persons who are random members of non-profits, workers at businesses in a particular area, or my favorite: children in the area.
    Council is afraid of residents and small businesses getting organized. So they paid LIP SERVICE in the creation of neighborhood councils and immediately screwed those without the voice at City Hall by allowing “drive by” stakeholders to flood the list of registered stakeholders and voters for the neighborhood council board.
    Example: Over here on the westside, Playa Vista sent a busload of construction workers to vote in the local NC election and then go across the street for a company paid dinner. Ask yourself if Playa Vista, represented by Latham & Watkins lobbyist George Mihlstein, lacks a voice at City Hall so much that it needs to have representatives on the local NC. Of course not. The broad definition of stakeholder, implemented by Rocky Delgadillo and Antonio Villaraigosa, was INTENDED to give developers an opportunity to screw with the NC. To neutralize it. To capture it. To control it.
    SMART people have rejected the City’s NC system in favor of continuing or building the most powerful PRIVATE resident’s associations and local chambers possible. Who needs $50,000 play money with all kinds of strings on it when you can more efficiently spend your time organizing OUTSIDE the NC system?
    Instead of imposing financial disclosure on little old ladies and retired folks who are struggling in the neighborhood council system, I would support a code of ethical disclosure that simply required disclosure of financial and membership interests in business, non-profits, or other entities that might benefit from a NC introduced Council file matter. The disclosure would be required as part of the opening of the file.
    Of course, a better result would be to go back to the stakeholder definition in the City Charter and restrict stakeholdership to those who live, own property, or operate a business in the area. Those are the people who are truly invested in a neighborhood to the point that they should have City help having their voice heard at City Hall.
    But this City Hall will never give that power. We have to take it from them.

  7. david r2b says:

    To Anon 821 -
    Excellent letter to Mr. Kaye and all of the Citizens of Los Angeles. Your last paragraph really hit me hard and reaffirmed what I had said in my comment posted at 454 to Mr. Baratta. I will cut & paste it here:
    “Of course, a better result would be to go back to the stakeholder definition in the City Charter and restrict stakeholdership to those who live, own property, or operate a business in the area. Those are the people who are truly invested in a neighborhood to the point that they should have City help having their voice heard at City Hall.”
    The folks who are aware of Neighborhood Councils, their powers, their authorities, their duties, OR their lack of such abilities, should organize and start talking about solutions. Obviously, the Mayor and the Council want as much control as possible and the dilution of NC’s works well. Then go back to the Charter and redefine stakeholder so these back room deals can’t be made.
    I’m sure if asked, a few of the major LA Blogs/Columns wouldn’t mind being a rallying point for conversation regarding Charter change and hold a “C3″, a City Charter Convention if there is enough support. Maybe there is only one necessary Charter change: stakeholder definition. Maybe there are a few others. Lets find out.

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