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Policymaker Profile: Belen Bernal – City of South Gate

Bernal participates in the 2015 Latino Policy Forum at Cal State-LA.

South Gate Council Member Maria Belen Bernal started her career as a representative for Assemblyman Marco A. Firebaugh, who represented South Gate in the state legislature. As she learned more about Southeast Los Angeles communities, her commitment and enthusiasm to be of service to others grew.
A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Council Member Bernal also holds a Master of Business Administration from California State University, Long Beach.
Council Woman Bernal was born in East Los Angeles and has been a resident of South Gate for 29 years. She was raised on the West side of the City and attended Stanford and Montara Avenue Elementary schools, South Gate Middle and South Gate High School. She resides in South Gate with her husband Juan and their two children.

Who was your political mentor?

I decided to run for elected office in March of 2009 when a co-worker, and South Gate resident at the time asked me to consider running for City Treasurer. She stated that it would be great to have someone who was raised in our community, earned a degree, and had decided to stay local; run for office. After thinking about this for a few weeks I decided to meet with Council Members who I met during my time as a field representative for Assembly Member Marco A. Firebaugh years prior. I was fortunate to have the support of four, out of the five council members, and decided to pursue this opportunity to serve and learn more about my community and local government.

I soon reached out to an old work colleague, Edgar Aranda, who worked as a political consultant. During this early stage of my political involvement, Edgar provided a much needed introduction to what a campaign process entailed, and explained how voter history and patterns were important to consider. I sincerely appreciate his support, and honest guidance very early on.

After serving as Treasurer for six years, I was asked by an outgoing Council Member to consider running for a seat on the City Council. At the time, Mayor Henry Gonzalez extended his full support, and held various conversations about how the campaign process for this position would be much more extensive. Given Mr. Gonzalez’s 25+ years of service as a local City Council Member, I trusted his intentions as a public servant, and enjoyed listening to his stories about how the City of South Gate came to be what it is today. In retrospect, I see how my conversations with Mr. Gonzalez remind me of the annual visits I had with my grandparents, and where I learned that there is much wisdom in those who have lived much longer than us, and who speak from experience.

Lastly, my parents have been my strongest mentors, it is they who instilled the core values of integrity, and a strong and humble work ethic that have provided me with the will power to make tough, and even unpopular, decisions when needed.

 

What was the one thing no one told you about being an elected official that you wish you’d known before you were elected?

Believe it or not, because I didn’t run for a Council seat early on, I was shocked to learn about how much money goes to running a campaign. I come from a non-profit sector background and think, “Imagine what $20-30,000 can do to help provide additional services to our communities?”

I always knew that there would be times when the public or others would not agree on every issue, but I never thought that being elected/appointed official meant that you had to allow others to create stories about you, and sometimes deal with criticism from strangers. I have always been someone who opts to explain processes, and provide a context to better understand situations, yet as an official you are not always given the opportunity to respond to every criticism. I have found it crucial to rely on my values of integrity and ethics, and have my actions align with the hope that the community will become informed before making statements.

Describe a project you spearheaded or supported that you’re proud of. Why was it successful (what did it do for residents) and what did you learn from it that helped you be a better policymaker?

Maybe because I served as Treasurer prior to being on the Council, or because I like to understand the “numbers” that help measure an organization’s efficiency, I have asked staff to continue to present as much detail to my Council colleagues and I about our finances, and accounts on a regular basis. Reports on the status of our City’s General Fund are now provided on a Quarterly basis per my request.

In addition, I asked staff to present ways in which we can create a fiscal task force in order to involve residents in the budget, and contract review process. This is one goal that I would like to see come to fruition during my next two years on the City Council.

Lastly, our outgoing Mayor Bill DeWitt was kind enough to work on my request to invite our School District Superintendent Michelle King who will provide a “State of our Schools” address- specifically to learn more about the performance students and schools in South Gate, this Thursday. This is another project that I want to continue to host, and work closely on, with my colleagues and the school district in the next couple of years.

As an elected official you must balance your job, your duties as an elected official and family obligations, not to mention trying to find personal time for yourself. How do you balance all these duties and obligations?

I am blessed to share my life with my husband and our two children, and agree that balance is needed between these important priorities and obligations. During the last two years on Council, I had the opportunity to work as an operations management consultant which provided a flexible schedule, and the opportunity to become acquainted with my new role on Council.

Most recently I accepted a full-time position, and have definitely experience the difference, and make it a point to have my schedule reflect my priorities both with the City, my career, and my family.

Although there are residents who may want to see me at every-single event, I make it a point to do my due diligence and read Council agenda items first. I very much enjoy attending events that provide me with good feel for the pulse of the community, and will continue to attend outside of my regular full-time work hours, while keeping key family commitments as well.

What was the most memorable day of your life?

The days when my children were born. I began as an elected official, when still single, and no children. During my time in elected office, I got married, completed an MBA, and was blessed with two beautiful children. There have been many memorable days in my life, and now that I have my children, I honestly see how the parent perspective allows me to contribute in new ways on similar issues that stood before us in the past.

Ethics Advisor

Seven Billion Dollars Soon to Hit the Streets in Disadvantaged Communities Across the U.S.

New Markets Tax Credits – the Best Kept Secret in Financing Public Projects

By: Ruben Duran

Right before Thanksgiving 2016, the federal government announced the release of $7 billion of tax credits aimed at spurring private equity investment into projects in low income communities. Administered through the U.S. Treasury’s CFDI Fund, the tax credits are known as “New Markets Tax Credits,” and have proven to be a flexible and powerful tool for development in underserved communities across the country.

If you’ve never heard of New Markets Tax Credits, also known as “NMTC,” don’t feel bad. Many public officials and their staffs, although they might have seen the term somewhere, don’t really know a lot about the program. That’s a shame, because under the right circumstances, NMTC can and does provide significant capital for qualified projects, ranging from community centers and sports facilities to charter schools and retail developments.

The NMTC was authorized in the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 as part of a bi-partisan effort to stimulate investment and economic growth in low income neighborhoods and rural communities that lack access to the capital needed to support and grow businesses, create jobs, and sustain healthy local economies.

The NMTC program attracts capital to low income communities by providing private investors with a federal tax credit for investments made in businesses or economic development projects located in some of the most distressed communities in the nation – census tracts where the individual poverty rate is at least 20 percent or where median family income does not exceed 80 percent of the area median.

California public agencies, including cities, counties and special districts, can use NMTC to provide significant cash contributions to qualified projects in qualified areas, and NMTC presents a meaningful opportunity to leverage funding and assets that public agencies already own or anticipate receiving for individual projects.

Public agencies throughout the nation regularly sponsor qualified projects that successfully compete for and receive NMTC. A successful transaction will involve a project in a qualified census tract that produces community benefits such as the creation or retention of jobs, the provision of services to underserved populations and/or environmental benefits and improvements. The tax credits are provided through the participation of a Community Development Entity (“CDE”) that has received an allocation of tax credits from the CDFI Fund. A public agency seeking to use NMTC will first need to identify qualified projects and then enlist the support and participation of a CDE with NMTC allocation.

Proceeds from a NMTC transaction may be used for a wide range of project costs, from pre-development expenses to construction (including infrastructure), purchase of supplies and equipment and provision of services to qualified communities. Infrastructure costs are generally only funded to the extent they are part of a larger qualified project and can be directly tied to the community benefits attributable to the project.

Although the program is highly competitive and can be complex, over the last several years I have successfully closed two NMTC deals for public agencies. The first was for a city-sponsored state-of-the-art health and wellness facility and the other for a port infrastructure project plus a mobile pantry bringing healthy food and nutrition education to needy communities. These two examples show the breadth and flexibility of the program; only a handful of projects cannot use NMTC, including strictly residential (though mixed-use projects do qualify), massage parlors, racetracks, and liquor stores.

NMTC has been used for YMCAs, office and retail, hotels, industrial development and many other types of projects. The main restriction is ensuring that the tax credits are deployed in a qualified census tract. To find out whether a project in your jurisdiction qualifies and NMTC can be used to attract private investment dollars, contact me anytime.

Ruben Duran is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Best Best & Krieger, LLP. He serves as the Southern California Latino Policy Center’s Ethics Advisor and represents cities, school districts and special districts throughout California. He helped his clients the City of Desert Hot Springs and the Oxnard Harbor District use New Markets Tax Credits to fund exciting, high-impact projects.

ruben.duran@bbklaw.com
@BBKRubenDuran
(213) 787-2569

From the Editor

What Does it Mean to be an Ethical Leader?

By: Victor Abalos

imgresCalifornia headlines the past few weeks have featured a number of Latino political figures getting the kind of attention elected officials try very hard to avoid.

They probably learned the hard way there is such as a thing as “bad” publicity and after reading about their specific situations, it seemed there were several opportunities along the way they could have avoided ending up fodder for the news cycle.

Those missed opportunities are generating conversations among local elected officials about ethics.

imagesSome of these elected officials told me they’ve started asking themselves what they would have done in place of some of their less fortunate colleagues.  We’re not talking about those elected officials who were caught actually committing crimes – we’re talking about the ones who were “tripped up” by making poor decisions when faced with ethical considerations.

It reminded me of a workshop we organized for a group of policymakers from this region a couple of years ago.

Our friends at the Institute for Local Government sent a retired city attorney who gave the group a great little presentation on ethics. But when we went around the room getting feedback one thing became clear: The group had a hard time distinguishing between “what is legal” and “what is ethical.”

The consensus in the room seemed to be that as elected officials, as long as they weren’t breaking any laws or regulations, they could do whatever they needed to get things done.

All of this begs the question: What does it mean to be an Ethical Leader?

It presupposes, of course, that our leaders want to be ethical and based on the many local Latino elected officials we know and have worked with, I believe that to be true.

At the Southern California Latino Policy Center we believe ethical leadership is necessary. It’s why we have a blog dedicated to Ethics in our newsletter every month. Our policymakers must lead by example. At a time when so many resources are being focused on getting Latinos to the polls, reading another story about less-than-exceptional behavior by an elected official doesn’t help that cause.

So what is ethical leadership?

The ILG’s website under “Ethics and Transparency” sums it up with a couple of questions:

“…how does the conscientious public servant sort through competing considerations and determine ‘the right thing to do?’ When it comes to serving the public, how does one put one’s values into practice?”

Starting this week we will utilize social media to pose a series of questions – aimed specifically at Latino policymakers but encouraging others to join in the conversation. We hope our questions stimulate discussion. And perhaps more importantly, greater clarity that there is indeed a considerable difference between “what is legal” and “what is ethical.”

Resources:

Ethical leaders make ethics a clear and consistent part of their agendas, set standards, model appropriate behavior, and hold everyone accountable
(From a non-profit housed at NYU Stern’s Business and Society Program)

Want Different Results? Change Your Definition of Leadership
(Excellent HuffPost article by Kathleen Shafer)

The Personal Lives of Public Officials
(Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University)

Victor Abalos: Editor's Blog

Victor Abalos is Executive Director of the Southern California Latino Policy Center and Editor of the Latino Policy Connection.

 

 

Straight Outta Compton to Coding

Lucio

by Erika Maldonado

Lucio Villa, 28, creates web pages, sites and apps as a news applications developer for Hoy, part of the Chicago Tribune Media Group. Working in both web development and in photojournalism, he said it was difficult to find other people like him. He and his team at Latino Techies are working to solve this with what they call the first tech network for millennials in Chicago. They have already hosted the first Latino hackathon and bilingual tech fair in the city.

“Growing up in Compton made me realize the lack of resources within school and outside of it,” said Villa. “I didn’t feel challenged in school. I wish there were more computer science courses offered and I wish they offered more AP courses for students like me to be challenged.”

Hackathons, not to be confused with groups like the elusive Anonymous group or last year’s Sony controversy, have been growing in popularity as a vehicle to provide useful solutions for improving quality of life. From Los Angeles to the White House, web developers, engineers and people lacking technical skills, but are active in their communities are coming together to create websites or apps for social good.

Sabio and the Southern California Latino Policy Center’s January hackathon aimed to serve the needs of residents of Southeast Los Angeles, including Villa’s family who still live in Compton. Winning participants  earned more than $5,000 in prizes for creating solutions for traffic and congestion, more transparency and accountability in local government and lack of accessible open spaces.

Lucio-photo3Prizes aside, Sabio co-founder Liliana Monge says participating in hackathons are great for networking, can boost your resume and even land you a job.

Villa, who proudly describes himself as a nerd growing up has worked to expose youth from underserved communities to technology and motivate their curiosity. Since there weren’t any courses available for him to take during his time at Compton Unified School District schools, let alone a hackathon, he taught himself by checking out books on C++ programming and HTML from the library.

“Being in both worlds of journalism and technology, there’s a lack of diversity,” said Villa. “My goal is always to empower students, people of color and especially Latinos.”

Villa, who will be returning to California this year to join the San Francisco Chronicle as an interactive producer, says gentrification could be another issue tackled at the hackathon. Creating a website that tracks how median income, home prices and development in neighborhoods over a period of time have changed could predict patterns to identify the next gentrified community.

“I am not a math/stats wiz,” Villa said. “But I can see how neighborhood and community organizers could use this data to prepare residents for possible rent increases and empower them to fight against the pressure of being displaced.” Villa hopes to continue sharing his skills on accessing public data and creating communities for people of color to share the endless opportunities and possibilities technology has to offer.