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Clear Away the Slush Funds

May 07, 2003

The Los Angeles City Council, after questioning whether Mayor James K. Hahn's budget for the coming fiscal year is austere enough to get the city through shaky times, is now grumbling about one program the budget does cut: council slush funds.

Each council office now gets $270,000 a year in what is officially called neighborhood improvement or general city purpose funds. Council members can spend this money on virtually any "community activity," with few if any questions asked.

Sure, some of the money allocated since 2001 (when the council boosted the accounts from a modest $20,000 a year) has probably gone to good causes. As reported in Monday's Times, for example, Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose downtown and South Los Angeles district is one of the poorest in the city, uses her account for heartbreaking basics: She helps pay for funerals of homicide victims.

But the grants don't need council approval and, as long as they are under $5,000, they don't trigger city oversight at all, which some council members exploit by making multiple small grants to the same organization.

The lack of accountability invites abuse. Councilman Nick Pacheco drew attention to the little-noticed accounts this spring when he gave money to a group that used the same address as a political committee supporting his reelection. Pacheco and the two groups deny that any of the grant was used in that losing campaign. But access to such easily juggled cash clearly compromised Pacheco's judgment, if not his integrity.

Likewise, taxpayers have ample reason to question Councilman Hal Bernson's $70,000 grant of their money to the American Film Institute to help fund a scholarship in the name of his late daughter, who had studied there. Some council members have transferred the money in their community accounts to their office salary accounts and used the money to award bonuses, boost staff salaries or add staff.

Others, still shopping for the right project, have parked the money in their salary accounts to keep it from reverting back to the city general fund at the end of the fiscal year.

The accounts, they say, simply allow them to circumvent bureaucratic annoyances. In truth, the accounts make trickery too tempting.

Councilman Jack Weiss has proposed reforms. But the mayor questions why the accounts should be continued at all now that neighborhood councils will each receive $50,000 a year for community projects. Answer: They shouldn't.

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