Friday, May 15, 2009

OPINION: Councils Show They’re Unified, Strong and Grown Up

By Doug Epperhart

The first two neighborhood councils in the city of Los Angeles were born in the Harbor Area on December 11, 2001. They and their 87 siblings came of age this week when they united to demand their rightful place in government.

On Tuesday, about 120 neighborhood council activists from all over L.A. descended on city hall. They were there to tell the city council’s budget and finance committee that a proposed 78-percent budget cut was unacceptable.

The last time the economy was this bad, Franklin Roosevelt was president. The city is facing a half-billion-dollar deficit and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has asked for a 10-percent “shared sacrifice” reduction in all areas of municipal government. Neighborhood councils quickly agreed to take a $5,000 cut in their annual $50,000 allotment.

But, last week, Councilman Greig Smith got the committee to slash funding to only $11,000 per neighborhood council. Meanwhile, Smith’s city council colleagues would continue to get their annual $100,000 discretionary funds.

Within hours of the committee’s action, there were dozens of emails flying back and forth among the city’s neighborhood council leaders. Most viewed the move as an attempt to cripple, if not outright kill, the community advisory groups. Smith and Councilman Bernard Parks, who chairs the budget committee, are considered to be anti-neighborhood council.

On Monday, the mayor met with neighborhood council budget representatives to discuss the situation. The group agreed unanimously they would stand firm at $45,000 per council and demand that the councils be permitted to hold on to any funds not spent from previous years. They also said they’d accept additional cuts only if the city council reduced its budget by like amounts. Villaraigosa was in on the deal and agreed to the $45,000 figure and no “sweeping” of the “rollover” funds.

The following day, the budget and finance committee met for nearly three hours and listened as 80 or 90 grassroots leaders explained why neighborhood councils are L.A.’s best bargain. The neighborhood council members and supporters talked about the tens of thousands of volunteer hours donated to the city. They talked about the services funded by neighborhood councils. They talked, too, about the city council members’ failure to lead by example and the poor job the city has done when it comes to managing its finances.

In all the years I’ve been involved in this movement, I’ve never witnessed such a dramatic expression of the diverse, passionate and eloquent people who serve (unpaid) on neighborhood councils. To quote Winston Churchill, “this was their finest hour.”

Thanks to these people, the committee agreed to fully fund the councils at $45,000 per year and leave the “rollover” funds in the councils’ accounts. It remains for the full city council to adopt a budget that reflects the committee’s position, but it would be surprising if they did anything other than endorse neighborhood councils’ ability to keep serving the people of Los Angeles.
Doug Epperhart is a San Pedro business owner, community leader and member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.

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