Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hawthorne, CA Budget Woes

Budget issues have gone from bad to worse in Hawthorne.

First, the proposed budget for the year increased spending. Three members of the city council voted for it.

Then the City council, on another three-two vote, removed their former City Manager, and now the discover a looming budget deficit.

I read about this unsettling turn of events in the morning paper. I started talking with a fellow Torrance resident about the lapse in attention, integrity, and judgment of city councils.

Hawthorne residents deserve better -- or do they?

From a few of the remarks reported in the Daily Breeze, one has to wonder which councilmembers have the best interests of the city in mind, and which are just out for political maneuvering.

Hawthorne official admits budget deficit cover-up that misled public, officials

By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze
In a stunning revelation Thursday night, Hawthorne’s finance chief admitted he misled officials about the city’s solvency and used millions of dollars in reserve funds to plug huge budget gaps.
Finance Director Rickey Manbahal confirmed the city’s dire fiscal picture just a week after the Daily Breeze published an article about inconsistent financial statements and unexplained fluctuations in reserve funds in the past few years.

Contrary to the complaints of Torrance City leaders, the Daily Breeze is not supposed to be in the business of reporting only good news. No local paper should be an easy propaganda machine for any city government or administration.

Hawthorne's fiscal house did not appear to be in order, and the revelation of these budget concerns moved the city council to take action. They fired the city manager, but were they expecting the city manager to have all the answers and present them a straight report every time?

The same resident I mentioned above found this reaction a little underwhelming: "They always react," she commented. I have noticed that a number of local leaders, whether in the school board or in city hall, do exactly that. They are not looking for problems to cut them off. No proactive leadership is taking place. A fiscal problem shows up, and elected officials, looking to protect their reputation and their future political chances, will seek out a scapegoat or look for a short-term fix.

When will local leaders take initiative to lead and set up long-term fiscal discipline and promote economic opportunity? Hawthorne has had three mayors, the previous two already convicted of crimes, and the third under severe pressure to resign for questionable expenditures, plus delinquent payments.

The same mayor, Chris Brown, shared the following at the special session first mentioned above:

“It sounds like, since management has changed, (budget) projections have changed,” Brown said. “Employees are sick of it. We hired a finance director and the budget he has presented was thrown out the window.”

The "employees" are sick of what? What about the rest of the Hawthorne community? What about th men and women who live and try to thrive (or at least survive?) in the City of Good Neighbors? How interesting that Brown mentions the city employees, and the employees only. Does he owe them something?

English criticized this newspaper for reporting “negative” news and said city officials should move forward with cuts to balance the budget.

Angie English criticizes the Daily Breeze for informing the public that something is wrong with the city finances. The newspaper already earned a Pulitzer Prize for exposing mismanaged monetary priorities at Centinela Valley Union High School District. More reporting like this is essential for lean and accountable municipal government.

“We’re here now. It’s done,” English said. “So, moving forward, I hope our department heads can ... look to see what we can do better. Not focus on anything else that’s negative in the paper.”

Perhaps city staffers should consult with the Daily Breeze researchers and writers, and go along with whatever their research turns up.

Councilmen Alex Vargas and Nilo Michelin have expressed concern for months about the city’s finances. They both voted against the current budget because of about $2 million in increased spending, but Brown, English and Councilwoman Olivia Valentine supported it.

Valentine recently became concerned about inconsistent financial reports and voted with Michelin and Vargas to fire Goodson.

“I voted against the budget because it was clear to anybody that something was wrong with it,” Michelin said. “Hawthorne residents and employees have been let down. It’s time to move forward in a fiscally conservative way.”

"Fiscally conservative"? Finally, someone is talking sense in Hawthorne. Will it last long enough, however, for the city to recoup some of its lost prestige and integrity?

Hawthorne must shoulder some responsibility for the poor state of civic affairs in their city. They elected mayor Chris Brown, and those who did not vote basically endorsed the outcomes in November, 2013. Brown has been a disappointment, and more residents are clamoring for his ouster. Another city resident informed me that more residents want the entire city council removed. That kind of thinking is sentimental, irrational, and hurried. Why throw out one slate of elected officials to install another, just as uninformed or uninterested as the current council?

Voters should at least keep Nilo Michelin and Alex Vargas on the City Council. Ms. Valentine has changed her mind on the budget and the personnel matters. She voted with the other two to remove Mike Goodson. Will those members commit to taking a strong look at the city's books?

Final Reflection

Elected officials do not take office just to have their name on plaques and preen for cameras. Operating a city requires more than cutting ribbons, shaking hands, and posing for the local newspaper photo-ops.

Mayors and councilmembers are expected to know what is going on in the city's personnel and financial departments. However, it seems that many city councils throughout the South Bay are content to allow city staffers and bureaucrats make key decisions and present their opinions to the council for an up or down vote.

That process is not proactive governing, and the consequences of it, viz. Hawthorne's current budget woes, make it clear why reactive decision-making is not acceptable.

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