VIEWPOINT: LA Controller’s Demo Reboots Neighborhood Council Questions

By Joseph Mailander, Contributing Writer

When City of Los Angeles controller Mark Galperin came to speak before the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC) on February 10, some community members and City Hall watchers were skeptical of the timing of the visit. After all, the host organization, led by its president, Mark Seigel, recently had been kicked out of its longstanding, amply outfitted digs at the city’s own venue at North Valley City Hall in Tujunga and forced to find a meeting space for a fee at a private community venue, the Elk’s Lodge, also in Tujunga.

But in a community where LA City Hall has long supposed to be overly supportive of a small cadre of locals who often appear to act more in City Hall’s interest than in the community’s interest, the timing of the visit raised a lot of questions. So what was going on? Was the controller glad to make his own rounds? Was he offering consolation for the eviction? Was the incumbent neighborhood council looking for a boost from the perception of access to an important City Hall representative?

“He’s running for re-election, making the rounds,” STNC board member Gail Carlson guessed on Facebook of Galperin’s intentions. Not true, the controller’s office insists. And Seigel also says it’s not true. “I saw his presentation of the ‘Control Panel’ website at his talk at a VANC (Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils) meeting in the middle of last year,” Seigel told me in an email regarding the controller’s visit. “I loved the work he had done on building the website and making the data available to everyone in the City, something that should have been done by the Controllers Office during some previous administration and that had not been done. I asked him if he would present it to our Neighborhood Council, and he replied that he would be pleased to do that.”

It is true enough that both Galperin and Seigel are facing reelections. Galperin’s won’t come until 2017. But Seigel’s own STNC is having elections on April 2, with Seigel further down the ballot and with a new slate of largely unknown candidates that poses the largest threat to unseat the old guard that the STNC has seen in its 12 year history.

The last neighborhood council election in Sunland-Tujunga, in 2014, provoked some cries of foul play, and a lawsuit. Phil Jennerjahn, a would-be candidate for Seigel’s top position, has claimed to a federal court in Los Angeles that he was denied due process when the LA City Clerk first accepted, then suddenly reversed itself and denied Jennerjahn’s candidacy for Seigel’s office. While Jennerjahn, who has no attorney, has a tough row to hoe in a difficult courtroom to work, the magistrate presiding on the case has expressed sustained interest in Jennerjahn’s case, especially as a “void for vagueness” due process challenge, owing to some seemingly discretionary language in the city ordinance governing elections.

At the February 10 STNC meeting, Galperin ultimately demonstrated to the STNC and other onlookers that ControlPanel LA adds some online functionality to checking up on the kind of fiscal matters that has been difficult for ordinary citizens with tight work schedules to access.

But if your hope is to research the STNC itself, it’s also worth noting that no new data retrieval ability regarding the local neighborhood council before 2011—data that was once available online but has since been taken offline—is not available. When I asked the controller’s office about ControlPanel LA’s shortcomings, Deputy Controller Monique Earl issued the following statement through email:

“The ControlPanel is based on the City’s Financial Management System (FMS), which was implemented in 2012. Information prior to 2012, which was contained on the City’s older Financial Management Information System (FMIS), is not represented on the ControlPanel because it exists in an older archaic computer format which cannot be ported to ControlPanel at this time….Our office’s goal has always been to bring transparency and ease of use to the City’s finances. But some technological problems stand in our way—at least at this time. It is our hope that technological changes in the near future will allow us to put even more data on our website.”

Interested parties no longer have the ability to reference, for instance, any entries regarding over $30,000 in cash advances taken by the STNC over a five-year period between 2004 and 2009, expenditures Department of Neighborhood Empowerment general manager Grayce Liu once assured me she would check into but never has. (The controller’s office recently told me I could check up with EmpowerLA’s Stephen Box regarding any questions I had).

Anecdotal theories abound in the community about the purpose of these sustained cash advances; many of the same persons who served as board members then are still involved with the STNC and community politics today. The expenditures were always withdrawn at the maximum possible increment of $500 per month, never a sum less than that, and sometimes with a hefty cash-advance expense fee assessed for the privilege.

“Those were the days!” Denyse Selesnick, a neighborhood council enthusiast, once gushed in a column at CityWatch regarding the cash advances.

ControlPanel LA does not help either when looking at the city’s more recent, and exotic, housing funding arrangements, especially gap financing loans for the type of City Hall–driven affordable-housing developments that often impact the foothills communities. For instance, when the city’s housing department made a loan to the $10-million-plus homeless housing complex on Tujunga’s Day Street—a complex that cost more to build per unit than some luxury condos do, and for which Seigel cut the ribbon on during its grand opening—there was little debate in the community about whether or not the city was going to get a good return on the money it lent the project. The STNC, in fact, voted to back Day Street unanimously.

The homeless housing complex at Day Street is ironically owned and operated by LA Family Housing (LAFH), one of the para-government agencies that took over the STNC’s old space when the STNC was evicted by City Councilman Felipe Fuentes, with City Hall’s blessings.

Two years after opening, Day Street, which critics contend has become a lure rather than a cure for local homelessness, is near capacity, yet the problem of homelessness in the community has become even more acute. And Galperin’s ControlPanel LA does not help a user examine hard economic data regarding this type of investment, nor show if LAFH has met its gap-funding payments—generously spread out over 55 years, through 2068—in a timely manner.

Whether or not Galperin’s office (or Greuel’s controller’s office before it) has shown any special favor to the present neighborhood council members, or wished to promote long-standing incumbents within the community in any way, a source in the controller’s office has indeed confirmed on another matter that a City of Los Angeles contract for $25,000 involving the Sunland-Tujunga Chamber of Commerce was investigated by the controller’s office pursuant to a complaint regarding it.

The original city contract with the chamber called for three monument signs to be built at community entrances, and the contract money to be payable on delivery. The signs have yet to be completed even 18 months after the ending date of the most recent contract extension, which had already exceeded the original contract completion date by two years.

“Per the City Administrative Code and the City Attorney, we are required to keep the investigation and the report confidential,” the source in the controller’s office tells me. “What I can tell you is that at the time of the investigation this office found no intentional misrepresentation of fact, nor any individual obtaining a personal financial benefit using city funds.”

While Jennerjahn’s federal lawsuit remains pending, and whether or not the controller’s office’s investigation into the Chamber of Commerce expenditure provokes the city to take any new action on the unfulfilled part of its contract with the chamber, there is no question that the city has shown demonstrable favor to a small cadre of citizens in Sunland-Tujunga since the inception of the community’s neighborhood council. The community will now choose again, and is invited to consider the history as weighed against the returns the community has gleaned from the special favor shown to this small cadre.

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