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Looting the neighborhood

When insiders on local political councils help themselves to hundreds of thousands in city money, some restructuring is in order.

October 12, 2009

When one Los Angeles neighborhood council treasurer makes off with thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, he's a bad apple. When two do it, it starts to look like a troubling pattern. When half a dozen council insiders mishandle up to $250,000 in public funds, it's clear that the system has some structural problems.

The city's lax financial oversight of its neighborhood councils came into focus with a recent report by Times staff writer Maeve Reston, who revealed six police probes of spending improprieties -- four of which have resulted in felony charges. Neighborhood council officials, who are unelected and unpaid, have spent city money on clothing, restaurants and cable TV bills, and the former chairman and treasurer of the Empowerment Congress Southwest Area Neighborhood Development Council turned out to be a previously convicted felon whose expenditures are now under investigation. He was never subjected to a credit or background check.

L.A.'s 89 neighborhood councils each get $50,000 a year in city money to spend as they please. Some have made very good use of it, upgrading business districts, buying playground equipment, planting greenery in medians or removing graffiti. Others have spent it on block parties, which at least improve neighborhood cohesion. And individuals at some councils treated the city money as personal expense accounts, ignoring rules that each expenditure be approved by the full council and submitting faked ledgers to city auditors.

Neighborhood councils are volunteer organizations created in 1999 as a way of empowering communities and enhancing public participation in a metropolis where City Hall can seem as remote as the national Capitol. Yet few participants are fully satisfied with the experiment in grass-roots democracy, in large part because the councils are constrained by many of the same rules as elected bodies but have none of their powers. Some have emerged as key players in city politics despite the fact that their rulings are purely advisory, while others are so roiled by internal dissent that they have ceased to function.

Solving the many problems that have arisen with neighborhood councils will be a challenge. But keeping a closer eye on their books shouldn't be. Requiring background checks of officers who handle the money would be a good start. The city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is also considering common-sense measures such as creating a formalized system for the councils to approve each transaction; that's clearly needed and overdue.

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