Reaching into academia to try to increase citizen involvement in local government, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday appointed Carol Baker Tharp as the new chief of the city agency that oversees the city's neighborhood council system.
Tharp is deputy director of the Civic Engagement Initiative at USC and is the former executive director of the local chapter of Coro, a leadership-training organization. The City Council still must approve her appointment.
If approved, Tharp would become the fourth general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in the past seven years. The agency, commonly known as DONE, has overseen the neighborhood council system since it was created by charter reform in the late 1990s, partially in response to threats of secession in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of the city.
While the system was created to give citizens a say in Los Angeles government, there remains debate over just how much power they should have and how they should wield it.
Most councils meet at least once a month and opine on various matters, ranging from community beautification projects to whether certain new developments would be acceptable or not. The City Council can take heed of their recommendations or choose to ignore them.
But the coordinating agency has been beset by numerous problems.
An audit by City Controller Laura Chick said that the agency had managed to get 86 neighborhood councils up and running across the city, but needed to do a better job of getting more people involved.
The second report, by the Civic Engagement Initiative, said much the same and noted that councils had been hindered by infighting.
"There has been a lot of focus on the process" during the start-up period of neighborhood councils, Tharp said. "I'd like to start seeing some outcomes."
In particular, Tharp said that she would like to increase awareness of the councils, help them find better ways to resolve neighborhood problems and use the agency's website to track neighborhood council votes.
Villaraigosa also took the unusual step of appointing an assistant general manager for the agency Monday. That job, which does not require council approval, goes to BongHwan Kim, executive director of Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in the San Gabriel Valley.
The mayor said that Tharp and Kim were his top choices, respectively, and also matched the selection of a panel of city officials and neighborhood council members who interviewed applicants. At a press conference at City Hall, Tharp and Kim said they expect to work well together.
The last full-time Department of Neighborhood Empowerment chief, Greg Nelson, resigned under pressure from Villaraigosa last March and was replaced on an interim basis by Lisa Sarno, a former deputy to Villaraigosa when he served in the state Assembly and on the council. Sarno had been criticized by some neighborhood council members for a heavy-handed approach when it came to training groups in ethics.
Villaraigosa thanked her Monday for her service -- she will now work on his million-tree planting program -- and said that she had the tough task of putting sound practices in place for the agency.
"What impressed me about them" -- Tharp and Kim -- "was that they don't want to create another bureaucracy," said Jill Banks Barad, chairwoman of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. "It's really burdensome to the members who are just volunteering, and it means a lot of good people who aren't going to run again" for a board position.
The neighborhood council system is undergoing a review by a citywide commission that is expected to issue recommendations later this year.