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Councils Wait And Wait for Cash to Come

Councils Wait And Wait for Cash to Come By JACQUELINE FOX Staff Reporter Although its been more than two years since guidelines for establishing neighborhood councils were formalized, not one of the 18 San Fernando Valley councils that have been certified have received any city funding. Four other councils have yet to be certified, and at least one has had its paperwork rejected. In addition, some Valley council directors say the information pipeline from city hall continues to be disappointing, leaving many newly created council organizers to rely on the more senior ones for help with questions about writing bylaws, sketching out budgets and training requirements for their treasurers, for example. The thirst for assistance and information is so great that Jill Banks Barad, executive director of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, along with the assistance of a handful of other council leaders, has established the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. The group held its first meeting in December, which turned out to be a standing-room only event, Barad said. “It was amazing,” said Barad. “We expected about 150 people, but I think about 300 showed up and the energy in the room was just incredible. The people who are trying to set up these councils clearly needed and wanted to find a central source for information that they weren’t getting otherwise.” Once up and running, the neighborhood councils will be charged with bringing the concerns and wishes of the local areas they represent to the city. In addition to networking, having a local alliance, Barad said, would provide a forum for dealing with issues that directly relate to the Valley. “I didn’t support secession, but we need a Valley voice for the councils,” Barad said. “And together we are stronger and able to get more details to those councils that are still in the early formation stages.” Barad said the chief concern raised at the inaugural meeting was about funding, specifically the time it’s taking to get it. Each council is supposed to receive $50,000 a year in quarterly increments of $12,500 to cover the cost of supplies, media and neighborhood outreach programs and other administrative expenses. But the question many have is how many hoops does a council committee have to jump through before it can get the money, because many have been relying on their own pocketbooks to establish their councils, some for almost a year. “Just how far away from here are they going to advance the finish line,” said Sandy Endfield, chairwoman of the Woodland Hills/Warner Center Neighborhood Council, which was certified in March of 2002 and elected its full board of directors in June. Endfield said she understands that because the process is so new there are bound to be setbacks. But she adds that she’s already spent roughly $1,200 of her own money getting established so far, and, pending a decision by the city attorney’s office, she may or may not be reimbursed. “This is just becoming a joke,” said Endfield. “It’s a joke. But it’s a sad joke. We keep thinking we’ve done everything we need to do, and then the city comes back and adds another roadblock. We just want to get funded so we can start launching projects.” According to Greg Nelson, general manager for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the council program, funding can’t be released until a council’s board of directors holds a public meeting outlining its budget plans, and its treasurer can show a record of completing a mandatory budget training session. He added that funding guidelines were also changed mid-year of 2002, which created delays. “At about halfway through the year, the one thing we told (council representatives) was we didn’t think they would want to go by city hall policy when applying for funding,” said Nelson. “That process is too arduous and complicated. So we decided to design a brand new plan for streamlining the funding application process, and we gave every one of the councils an opportunity to provide feedback on that process.” One of those changes includes a kind of credit card, which councils can use for products and services at local vendors that have been approved. Those charges would then be billed directly to the city. In other words, said Nelson, “they can’t use the card for anything they want, like a massage.” Councils will also have the option of sending vendor invoices directly to the city for payment and setting up petty cash accounts for small purchases. Nonetheless, the first treasurer training session wasn’t offered until December, about the same time Enfield said she first became aware of the new requirement to hold public budget meetings. Nelson said the sessions couldn’t begin until the new funding program was approved. And approval wasn’t received until November because Los Angeles City Council members asked for additional changes, such as a list of items that council funding can’t be used for. Despite the setbacks, Nelson maintains that he and his staff have run a diligent campaign to inform council leaders of every change and requirement along the way. He points out that he, too, is trying to manage a system that, because of its newness, is bound to create frustration for everyone involved. “I’m just as frustrated as they are,” said Nelson. ” But I try to work from the premise that this has never been done in our city before and we don’t want anyone to make a financial mistake because that would be embarrassing. A lot of (the council directors) would like to just be handed their money and told to do whatever it is they want to do with it. But remember, a lot of the people now involved in forming these councils were part of the secession movement, and they didn’t like what the city was doing with their money. Now, it’s their turn to figure out how to do this, and it needs to be looked at through the same eyes that they view the city hall process.” One thing Nelson and Endfield do agree on is the idea of the Valley alliance. In fact, Nelson was asked to speak at the first meeting, and he said Mayor James Hahn has since requested that directors from each of his seven TeamWork L.A. districts form a similar group. Although still in the planning stages, Hahn’s Federation of Neighborhood Councils will conduct public meetings where neighborhood council directors and the residents and business owners in their jurisdictions can meet directly with a member of Hahn’s staff. “That was the whole idea behind these neighborhood councils from the start,” said Nelson. “To create closer ties to downtown. And, what Jill’s alliance is doing is actually one step ahead of the mayor, if you think about it. But they are all on the same frequency, and what she is doing will be encouraged and promoted by the city.”

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