CD4 Spending Oversight a Work in Progress
Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu’s first action when he took office last year at this time, was to rescind over $600,000 in last minute discretionary fund transfers his predecessor, Tom LaBonge made just before leaving office June 30, 2015.
The issue of how Council District’s 4 discretionary funds were spent in the final years of LaBonge’s time in office was a major component that fueled Ryu, in part, to beat LaBonge’s former Chief of Staff, Carolyn Ramsay in the 2015 election for his council seat.
During the 2015 campaign, Ryu promised more transparency regarding how he would use his discretionary spending, what some have often referred to as a councilmember’s personal ATM or “slush” account.
Each of the city’s 15 councilmembers divide revenue the city receives from a handful of sources like the Street Furniture Fund. That particular fund is made up of money the city receives from advertisers on such “street furniture” as kiosks and bus shelters throughout the city.
Ryu delivered on his promise and created the city’s first-ever “Discretionary Funds Task Force” to review such spending.
Formed last October, the task force has been meeting every two months since and will soon release a spreadsheet of Ryu’s discretionary spending since he took office on the city’s open data website.
But some of the nine appointed members to the task force say they have recently been taken aback when asked to review a slew of discretionary fund spending by Ryu retroactively.
According to the council office, it received, from seven different sources, just over $1.2 million in such discretionary funds to spend since last July 1, 2015.
According to an analysis by the Ledger, Ryu, during his first year in office, spent 95% of those funds—just over $1.1 million—but only a miniscule amount, $58,700, was approved by the task force in advance, all of which were those funds promised by LaBonge, but rescinded by Ryu at the start of his term.
At a recent task force meeting, the committee was advised Ryu had spent—without their input or prior review—$250,000 for the purchase of land near Mt. Lee, $300,000 for repair of Hancock Park concrete streets, $25,000 for signage along Museum Row and $10,000 for a Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce Street Fair occurring next October.
“That was a big surprise to us,” said Anastasia Mann, with the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, and chair of the task force. “I questioned [that Sherman Oaks] expenditure,” she said, because the event is a big revenue generator. “Why didn’t this come to us before?”
Even though the task force expressed concern over the promise of funds to Sherman Oaks, according to Nick Greif—Ryu’s director of policy and legislation and overseer of the task force—that does not mean Ryu will renege on his promise. Instead, Greif said, the council office will take the task force’s input into consideration the next time such a request is made.
“They express their concerns to us,” Greif said. “We will be doing this year after year. It’s a process….Then when something like that comes up again, next time we can make a different decision.”
To that end, the group has been working on guidelines to assist Ryu in making future spending decisions, for things such as requests for funding for block parties, for example.
All involved said the task force is a work in progress.
“I would love for [the task force] to see all the requests for funding first,” said Ryu in an interview. But, he said, so far it has not been possible, due to timing restraints. Further, he said, the task force is required to operate under the Brown Act, which requires meetings be public and agendized.
That is a good thing, Ryu said, but it has made the task force “less nimble.” For instance, he said, “[The task force] can’t approve of discretionary spending by email.”
Still, everyone involved said it’s better than what was done before.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Greif. “[Constituents] never knew where the money was going before. The people can now hold us accountable to where their money is going.”
In an unusual move, the full Los Angeles City Council approved Ryu’s motion last July to rescind LaBonge, their former colleague’s, last-minute spending handouts.
But some, like task force member Cindy Chvatal, with the Hancock Park Homeowners’ Assoc. is questioning why those other 14 councilmembers haven’t taken Ryu’s lead on discretionary spending transparency.
“Why is no one else doing this? Tom [LaBonge] was just giving out money to whomever he felt like,” she said. “What are [the other councilmembers] afraid of?”
Bob Anderson, also a task force member, said he thinks when other active community members in Los Angeles see the work the task force has done, they might require the same of their councilmember.
“When everything gets posted [online] so all can see line-by-line what the councilmember has approved, then others will start to say let’s do it too. People in other districts might start to ask” the same of their councilmember.
Posted June 29, 2016 at 6:00 a.m.