Los Angeles City Council candidate David Ryu took aim Tuesday at what he called "secret slush funds" for Councilman Tom LaBonge, vowing that if elected he would seek reforms in how council discretionary money is spent.
Ryu, one of two candidates vying to replace LaBonge, said he would create a task force of community leaders to identify and prioritize projects worthy of council discretionary funds, which have drawn a recent flurry of scrutiny from neighborhood activists.
Such funds “should not be spent secretly, arbitrarily or wastefully,” Ryu said in a statement, adding, “Instead of being used to pad staff salaries or bankroll pet personal projects, they should be used for the benefit of the community."
Each council member is allowed to use discretionary money, which includes multiple funds that come from different sources, to use on community needs as they see fit.
LaBonge said Tuesday that he had used such money for the good of District 4 and the city. "Transparency is very important to me, which is why I have followed all rules and procedures to the letter of the law, without exception. Funds used within City Council offices must be approved by the City Clerk and Controller’s office," LaBonge said in a written statement.
Ryu, a community health center development director, is competing against former LaBonge Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay to represent an area ranging from Sherman Oaks to the Miracle Mile.
As they gear up for the May runoff, Ryu has positioned himself as a City Hall outsider, saying that a vote for him is a vote against the status quo. Ramsay, in turn, has played up her experience in the community and the council office as an asset for getting things done.
In the insider-versus-outsider race, the question of how LaBonge spent council discretionary money has pestered Ramsay on the campaign trail, with some critics complaining that the soon-to-be termed-out councilman she worked for devoted $100,000 to stringing holiday lights around the Los Angeles Zoo, among other disputed expenditures.
Putting up lights at the zoo “is a nice thing to have,” said Hancock Park resident Jon Vein, calling the zoo “a treasure for the city.” However, “we need the basics to be taken care of beforehand.”
Ramsay campaign strategist Doug Herman said in a statement that the Tuesday pledge was "another gimmick from David Ryu," comparing it to an earlier Ryu pledge to forgo campaign money from developers, which Herman argued was hollow because Ryu had earlier profited from selling his home to a developer.
"Carolyn Ramsay stands by her commitment to make discretionary funding completely transparent and help residents hold City Hall accountable by posting on the council website when and how those funds are being used," Herman concluded.
At a forum Sunday in the Hollywood Hills, Ramsay said that any questions about how discretionary money had been spent by the council office should go to LaBonge.
She stressed that she had been on leave as his chief of staff for nearly a year. “I am not Tom LaBonge,” she said at the Sunday forum. “I am my own person.”
Hancock Park residents who are upset that there has not been swifter action to fix its historic streets with concrete have pressed for emails and other documents detailing how LaBonge spent a particular stream of those discretionary funds.
Documents provided by the city clerk show a range of uses for the money in recent years, including refurbishing the Griffith Park merry-go-round, travel for an exchange program with the Berlin Zoo, providing trash cans for Larchmont Village and assisting nonprofits such as Homeboy Industries. Some was transferred into a fund used for council offices.
LaBonge has also faced criticism over spending on his office staff, including money shifted from council discretionary funds. Last year, his office spent more on total earnings for its office staffers than that of any other council member except Council President Herb Wesson, according to a Times analysis of city records posted online.
LaBonge defended spending on the zoo lights, saying projects like it were "absolutely important." When asked about the added staff, LaBonge said his office had hired people to run a truck that picks up debris around his district.
LaBonge aides also said his office has staffers who go on weekends to Beachwood Canyon to redirect tourists to other places to view the Hollywood sign, and that it has a number of senior employees because of the long tenure LaBonge has held in City Hall.
Ryu campaign spokeswoman Rachel Estrada questioned whether the truck could account for the added spending by the LaBonge office and argued that Ramsay was responsible, having "approved all of these actions as chief of staff."
The two candidates will face each other in a runoff election May 19.
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