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The LA City Official At Center Of Criticism About Forced Spending By A Neighborhood Council Has Resigned

A view of Los Angeles from behind the Hollywood sign, toward sunset.
All but two members of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council resigned after a dispute with a city official over funding for an event.
(Caleb George
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Update Saturday, March 4:
  • The Los Angeles mayor's office has confirmed to LAist that Raquel Beltran, general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, has resigned. Beltran had come under increasing criticism for how she managed the city's 99 neighborhood councils, including the controversy covered in this story, which was published Feb. 16.

Nine members of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council board say they have resigned after a city official forced them to spend $4,000 to sponsor an event held by the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation and threatened them with removal from the board if they failed to attend the event.

The mass exodus has left only two members on the board and sparked angry criticism of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the city’s 99 neighborhood councils.

Why they resigned

A resignation letter signed by eight of the board members said they:

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“Vehemently objected to sponsoring or participating in this event because of the violent, white-supremacist, criminal gang activity historically and currently perpetrated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”

The letter said that when they raised their concerns to Mario Hernandez, the DONE official who announced the decision at a Feb. 8 meeting, he told them the matter was “not open for negotiation.”

The response

Raquel Beltran, general manger of DONE, said in an email that her agency "is disappointed and sad about the board members' decision to resign."

She defended DONE's action, saying the event and the foundation were "a recommended partner in a previous discussion of the board, and no objections were raised about participating at that time."

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass’ office said she has no comment.

Why neighborhood councils matter

As my colleague Brianna Lee reported this week in a comprehensive guide to L.A.'s neighborhood councils:

Neighborhood councils are advisory groups for city officials. They can’t pass laws or compel officials to do anything, but they can weigh in on neighborhood priorities and legislation or programs that affect the area. Think of them as a collective voice for the neighborhood with a direct line of communication to your city councilmember’s office.
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They're also about as local as local government gets — and they're not strangers to, as Brianna put it, "infighting, personal animosities, pettiness, power trips, deadlocked meetings that last for hours, and even harassment."

The Neighborhood Council system was established in 1999 “as a way of ensuring that the City government remains responsive to the different needs and lifestyles of Los Angeles’ rich variety of communities,” according to DONE’s website. Perhaps more important in that moment, it was an attempt ease tensions with San Fernando Valley residents threatening to secede from L.A.

This controversy's backstory

In January, the Hollywood Studio District council asked DONE to temporarily step in and take control of its operations as the council struggled to build its board, according to former board Chair Michael Tessler. Only 11 of its 20 open seats were filled, and under its bylaws the council needed nine people for a quorum to vote on new members. Allowing DONE to exercise authority over the council permitted it to lower the quorum to six and make it easier to add board members.

Tessler said he never thought Hernandez, who served as the council’s advocate at DONE, would dictate spending without taking board members’ opinions into consideration — although he knew DONE had that authority since it had been asked to temporarily run the council.

“He had taken it upon himself to pre-allocate our funds without a vote, without a dialogue or conversation, without public input.” Tessler said. He said Hernandez suggested the event would be a good place to recruit new board members.

Objections to funding sheriff's program

His objections went beyond the fact that DONE made a unilateral decision or that the event was being sponsored by an organization tied to the Sheriff’s Department. The nonprofit Sheriff’s Youth Foundation runs an explorer program as well as provides sports and other activities to at-risk youth.

In what world does it make any sense for us to take taxpayer dollars that are allocated for the Hollywood Studio District and spend them on an event that is ... not even in our city.
— Michael Tessler, former Hollywood Studio District council chair

Tessler raised questions about why the money was being spent on an agency not affiliated with the city of L.A. for an event outside the neighborhood council’s borders, in the city of West Hollywood. The council’s boundaries run from near the West Hollywood border east to Thai Town and from Sunset Boulevard to south of Santa Monica Boulevard.

“In what world does it make any sense for us to take taxpayer dollars that are allocated for the Hollywood Studio District and spend them on an event that is ... not even in our city,” Tessler said.

DONE's justification

Beltran said the council had not come up with enough recommendations for outreach events, so DONE "used its judgment to identify opportunities to reach as many people as possible." She said the foundation event "would have allowed the [council] to promote itself with low-income families, who normally do not participate in the neighborhood council."

DONE allocates up to $32,000 to each neighborhood council annually. That’s about how much money the Hollywood Studio District had when Hernandez made his decision, according to Tessler. That means DONE was forcing the council to spend more than 10% of its annual budget on the sheriff’s West Hollywood event.

“No warning, no discussion, no conversation, no vote,” said Damien Burke, who also resigned from the council. He served as its secretary.

“I’m angry,” Burke said. “It goes counter to everything the neighborhood councils stand for in terms of community involvement, community decision-making.”

Have you run for a seat on your neighborhood council, or are you considering running? We'd love to hear from you!

More widespread concern

Terrence Gomes, the chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, said in a letter to DONE that he is “very concerned” about the expenditure. “It seems from the information provided that Mr. Hernandez was allegedly bullying the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council … into funding this event,” Gomes said.

He noted the event was a poor place to recruit new board members for the council, given it was outside its boundaries. Spending $4,000 "to potentially outreach to the attendees for a Board position that they may not qualify for seems extreme and wasteful," Gomes said.

On behalf of the coalition, Gomes requested payment to the sheriff’s foundation be suspended “until a full investigation of the incident be completed.”

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Updated February 17, 2023 at 10:48 AM PST
This article was updated with some additional context about the role of neighborhood councils.
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