In Defense Of Counting Neighborhood Councils As City Agencies In The Context Of The Municipal Lobbying Ordinance

As you may well know, the City Ethics Commission is in the process of revising the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance. The CEC’s policy staff, led by heroic and long-suffering director Arman Tarzi, has compiled a fantastically useful report on the proposals, and a series of three interested persons meetings are scheduled starting tomorrow to gather even more input.

Right now it looks like at least four of five Commissioners are leaning towards giving the lobbyists whatever random nonsense they request, so your comments and input are essential to the future of the City at this point. Whether or not you can attend any of the meetings, I hope you will be able to send comments to, probably before October 17, which is when the Commission is scheduled to discuss the matter. And I’m also writing posts on particular parts of the proposal which seem important. This one, on including neighborhood councils as City agencies for lobbying disclosure purposes, is the third in the series, and the other two are:

And read on for a description of the proposal and reasons to support it!

The issue here is that right now Neighborhood Councils do not count as City agencies under the terms of the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance at LAMC §48.02:

“Agency” means the City of Los Angeles or any department, bureau, office, board, commission, other agency of the City, or any other government agency, required to adopt a conflict of interest code subject to City Council approval, and includes the City’s Community Redevelopment Agency and the Los Angeles City Housing Authority.

The problem is that members of neighborhood councils aren’t required to adopt a conflict of interest code.1

Of course, neighborhood councils are presently lobbied mercilessly, mostly with respect to real estate development. Probably DLANC more so than any of them given the vast amounts of money involved in real estate downtown, but all of them to one degree or another. Not only had NCs not yet been invented when the MLO was adopted, but their role has evolved far beyond whatever it was originally. Now they serve as “one stop shops” for developers seeking community support for their building projects.

We all know that Councilmembers spend a lot of time looking for ways to justify approving big money developments while maintaining plausible deniability with respect to their role in the process. NCs are an integral part of this system because, with NC approval, a CM can plausibly claim that the putative community is in favor of a given project. This is one reason why it’s not possible to understand how massive projects get shaped and approved in Los Angeles without understanding how NCs are lobbied by developers, and this fact alone is enough to justify requiring disclosure of lobbying activities directed at NCs.

But there’s more! The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which was mostly created to facilitate the work of NCs, has essentially turned to pimping out access to NCs for business interests. Just for instance, consider this June 2017 email from DONE employee John Darnell to every business improvement district in Los Angeles advertising this workshop for businesses interested in working with NCs.

In any case, whatever the role of NCs in City government might be evolving toward, right now they are intimately involved in influencing City decisions. If a Councilmember is ambivalent about something and one of his or her NCs feels strongly about it, well, they have the CM’s ear and why wouldn’t the CM listen to them? So if a lobbyist can get an NC on the client’s side it’s a big victory. If you’re planning to write to the Ethics Commission or speak at an upcoming meeting about the MLO revisions, I hope you’ll consider encouraging them to adopt this particular aspect of the proposals.

Here is the full report. And here is the full section discussed:

Currently, the MLO’s definition of “agency” includes the any department, bureau, office, board, commission, or body that is required to adopt a conflict of interests code subject City Council approval. LAMC § 48.02. This definition does not capture neighborhood councils, which are exempt from adopting a conflict of interest code. See Los Angeles Administrative Code (LAAC) §§ 2.20.1–2.20.2.

We recommend including neighborhood councils in the MLO’s definition of “agency”. See proposed LAMC § 48.02(A); Attachment A, p. 1; Attachment D, p. 1. The neighborhood council system is vast. As of January 2017, the City had 96 individual neighborhood councils, each representing an average of 38,000 residents. Since its inception in 1999, the system has taken on an increasingly significant role in City processes. Neighborhood councils receive advance notice of City issues so that they can weigh in with their opinions. They hold public hearings about matters before the City Council and submit community impact statements on those matters. Charter § 908. They are entitled to address any City body regarding official business. They have the authority to spend public funds. Charter § 911. They are actively involved in the City’s budget process each year and meet with the Mayor and City Council regarding the neighborhood council budget priorities. Charter § 909. They also monitor City services in their respective areas. Charter § 910.

The members of each neighborhood council, numbering more than 1,500 individuals, are public officials who are subject to state governmental ethics laws such as gift limits and the requirement that they disqualify themselves from participating in City decisions in which they have a financial interest. See, e.g., Cal. Gov’t Code § 87100. In addition, some City employees, including staff in elected City offices, have been members of neighborhood councils.

When the MLO was adopted, the neighborhood council system did not exist. There was no decision to exclude neighborhood councils from the definition of “agency”—they simply were not part of the City framework. Because they are now, we believe it is important for the public to be informed when significant levels of lobbying activity are invested with them.

Image of Arman Tarzi is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org

  1. This is an entirely separate but also crucially important problem. As far as I’m concerned there is absolutely no justification for excluding NCs from adopting such a code and also filing financial disclosures, which they are also not required to do by the City. There’s some procedure through the Fair Political Practices Commission to force local agencies, such as the City of Los Angeles, to require subagencies, such as NCs, to do this even if they don’t want to, but I haven’t had time to look into it at all and it seems pretty complex and NCs are not my first priority. If you’re interested in trying to do this shoot me an email and I’ll tell you everything I know about it.

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