City Forcibly Routes Taxpayer Money to LASD Nonprofit
Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s Mario Hernandez allegedly forced elected members of a Neighborhood Council to spend $4,000 on a fundraiser for the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation.
Update: On March 4, Knock LA confirmed that Raquel Beltrán — formerly general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) — resigned from her position, according to Zach Seidl, a spokesperson for Mayor Karen Bass. Elizabeth Chou of Los Angeles Public Press reported that Beltrán had been “invited to resign” by Chris Thompson, the Chief of Staff for Mayor Bass’ office.
Prior to the resignation, Knock LA reported that multiple Neighborhood Councils had written letters to the Mayor’s office and LA City Council calling for Beltrán to be removed, specifically citing overreach by the DONE with regards to how they forced the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council to spend its money.
The entire executive committee of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council (HSDNC) has resigned after Mario Hernandez of LA’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) — which oversees the neighborhood council system — allegedly forced their council to spend $4,000 to sponsor a fundraiser for t
he Sheriff’s Youth Foundation. Nine of the 11 total board members of the neighborhood council have resigned.
On the DONE website Hernandez is listed as being responsible for “supporting Neighborhood Council Boards with capacity building, training, and organizing skills that Empower LA and engage the community.”
The Sheriff’s Youth Foundation — a 501(c)3 nonprofit that describes itself as operating in a “unique collaboration partnership with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” — first reached out to Hernandez on February 1 to request the council sponsor an annual youth empowerment event on March 25. They said their focus is on “leadership skills, building good character and self-esteem that will help youth to formulate a positive view of their own future and gain the confidence they need to resist the negative influences of alcohol, drugs, violence, and gangs.”
The Sheriff’s Youth Foundation ended the correspondence with a request for $4,000.
According to the city clerk, the payment from the HSDNC to the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation was processed for that amount on February 13.
That same day, a $3,500 payment to the Los Angeles Parks Foundation was also processed without the approval of the HSDNC board.
According to a letter signed by eight HSDNC board members, Hernandez informed the Neighborhood Council on February 8 that they would be sponsoring the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation event. He said that any board members who did not attend the fundraiser would be removed from the board, and that the arrangement was “not open for negotiation.”
The letter also says that “board members and stakeholders present vehemently objected to sponsoring or participating in this event because of the violent, white-supremacist, criminal gang activity historically and currently perpetrated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”
Mario Hernandez did not respond for comment.
Vanessa Serrano, director of civil leadership at DONE, told Knock LA, “our department is currently looking at the correspondence on this issue and has no comment at this time.”
“I found it deeply upsetting that DONE would allocate any of our funds without board consideration and approval … especially for organizations outside of the district,” said former HSDNC chair Michael Tessler.
Knock LA has requested a video recording of the meeting, but has not yet obtained it. The meeting minutes show that Hernandez presided over the meeting on February 8 and spoke on multiple topics.
“How does DONE believe that funds allocated for the Hollywood Studio District are best spent outside of the district without the actual consent of community stakeholders?” asked Tessler. “Where in city law does it allow for DONE to force a board member to attend an event that goes against their principles? Expulsion for standing up for your beliefs hardly seems democratic or aligned with the values of Los Angeles.”
Tessler also noted that Hernandez previously resigned as a San Fernando city councilmember after having an affair with a fellow councilmember and being accused of domestic violence.
Hernandez and the other councilmember filed restraining orders against each other, with Hernandez also accusing the other councilmember of slapping and choking him, as well as destroying his property. Bizarrely, a judge filed to dismiss Hernandez’s case when he did not show up to court to testify, despite a warrant being issued for his arrest.
Hernandez has denied any allegations of domestic violence, saying: “The only thing I will say is I have never raised my hand against her at any time, nor any other woman in my entire life.”. He added, “those that mock this private issue, shame on them, because domestic violence is not a laughing matter.”
“It surprises me … given his record, that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment would name him to such an important position,” said Tessler, who also pointed out that the former HSDNC board found out about the allegations recently. “How is he supposed to advocate for our board and teach ethics when he himself faced a recall and forced resignation for unethical behavior?”
Tessler wrote a letter of resignation on February 15, saying that “it is reprehensible that DONE would force public officials, including Black members, to choose between expulsion or attending an event hosted by law enforcement,” ending his letter with “Black Lives Matter.” He also said that the HSDNC had offered Hernandez alternatives for youth events separate from ones involving the LASD, and said that Hernandez “refused to budge.”
One former member of the HSDNC — Damien Burke — said that, for volunteers who are trying to navigate a government bureaucracy, the process of maintaining a neighborhood council is “complicated, technical, and onerous.” He said that the city’s assistance is limited to a “neighborhood empowerment” advocate who supports multiple councils, and that they are generally unavailable and unhelpful.
As an example, Burke said he had been trying to get Hernandez to make an overdue payment to HSDNC’s email provider, as their access to their inbox has been cut off. Hernandez has still not made that payment.
The HSDNC is currently involved in a process called “exhaustive efforts,” wherein a neighborhood council that is not in compliance with all the laws governing the neighborhood council system ostensibly receives assistance from DONE to ensure they’re following city law.
Burke said the HSDNC had requested this assistance because they had been unable to hold a meeting for three months, due to difficulty maintaining a quorum. Tessler’s resignation letter states explicitly that several board members had moved out of the district, and that the request for assistance was to help recruit new members.
According to the bylaws of the exhaustive efforts process, DONE can take over “all powers vested in the Neighborhood Council Board” in order to bring the council into compliance. This would include control over the neighborhood council’s expenditures.
In a January 27 letter to the HSDNC, DONE stated that “the Department will work with the Office of the City Clerk Funding team to make proxy payments on behalf of the Board. (Neighborhood Council funds are frozen when placed in Exhaustive Efforts).”
It’s unclear how the donation to the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation assisted the HSDNC in their goal of maintaining a quorum.
Last year, PICO Neighborhood Council (PNC) was placed in exhaustive efforts, and its members expressed concern in February 2022 that DONE had spent over $4,000 on postcards to recruit new members. PNC had been wanting to recruit new board members, but they had plans to do outreach at a lesser cost.
City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto — who was a board member of PNC at the time — asked why DONE had spent the money without board approval, and said she didn’t know why the printing had been sourced to a non-union shop.
A PNC board member who chose to remain anonymous told Knock LA that DONE had “zero results” with its expensive outreach based on “outdated election information” and described DONE’s actions as an “abuse of power” and a “misuse of City funds.”