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Antigang programs assailed

L.A.'s controller wants the mayor's office to provide oversight and to work more closely with other agencies.

February 14, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Even as Los Angeles leaders pledge to combat gang violence, a dysfunctional city bureaucracy is spending millions of dollars on unproven programs and is failing to coordinate with schools, law enforcement and social agencies, according to a report set for release today.

Produced by City Controller Laura Chick, the report assails the city for taking a hodgepodge approach to youth and gang services. The city scatters oversight across more than a dozen departments that duplicate efforts and award contracts to antigang programs without establishing goals or objectives, the report says.

At a press conference this morning, Chick will call for a bureaucratic shake-up at City Hall that she admits could be politically difficult to execute.

The controller urges the city to place everything under a single entity in the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would have the authority and visibility to bring about change while bearing direct responsibility for progress. Such a move could reduce the City Council's influence over how programs are managed and which communities receive attention.

In the report, made available Wednesday, Chick did not call for new spending but for the city to redirect $19 million currently doled out by the Community Development Department to programs and agencies that do not necessarily work on gang prevention.

And she called for the city to work more closely with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and other organizations.

"The city hasn't been doing this right," Chick said in an interview. "We have to completely change. It's fragmented. It's not focused. We're not directing the money to the places that need it the most."

Chick's audit echoes the findings of another city-sponsored report last year by the Advancement Project, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, which called for the city to mount a $1-billion Marshall Plan-like effort to attack the spread of gangs through jobs and other alternatives.

Villaraigosa built on parts of that plan in 2007 when he appointed a gang czar in his office and announced plans to step up law enforcement and intervention programs in eight "gang reduction zones" in South Los Angeles, the Eastside, northeast San Fernando Valley and other areas.

Police say they have gained the upper hand, for the time being: Gang-related killings dropped 27% in 2007 from the year before.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, said that police had done an effective job of suppressing gang crime but that the city had fumbled in efforts to provide alternatives to gang life.

"We have a failed strategy," Rice said. "It's gross incompetence."

Villaraigosa's gang czar, Jeff Carr, embraced Chick's findings, saying the lack of a centralized gang operation had undercut the city's ability to deliver effective prevention programs.

"The way we're doing business now isn't working" Carr said. We need to do better for kids and families in our city."

Chick singled out the Community Development Department in her report, saying it spends millions of dollars on programs with little justification for how the money is spent or whether community-based groups achieve any goals.

As a result, Chick recommended that $19 million be reallocated and that the city negotiate new contracts with community-based gang-prevention groups.

"Some agencies are not going to get money anymore," she said. "Any agency that has been receiving money from the city should run the gauntlet of performance-based measures. Anything less than that is a disservice to the taxpayers."

Chick also questioned the effectiveness of L.A. Bridges, a gang prevention program that has been criticized for failing to track how many youths it keeps out of gangs and for not adequately coordinating with schools and police. Chick said in her report that city officials appeared to have lost confidence in it.

But one gang prevention worker defended the program as a vital tool for steering young people away from gang life.

"Our work speaks for itself," said William "Blinky" Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools, a Valley group that receives funding through the Bridges program. "This work needs to continue to be funded no matter under what auspices."

Chick's report, prepared for her by Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting, received mixed reviews among City Council members.

"There is no question that we need more accountability and better results from our antigang programs," said Council President Eric Garcetti.

But Councilman Tony Cardenas, who heads the council's ad hoc committee on gangs and youth, said it was premature to consolidate antigang programs in the mayor's office.

"That [recommendation], to me, ladies and gentlemen, is politics," Cardenas told the council Wednesday.

Villaraigosa said in a statement that he would work closely with other city leaders. "I fully embrace the controller's report and am committed to working with our partners on the City Council to implement the kind of coordination and accountability necessary for success," said the mayor.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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