L. A.’ s big­gest fan

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Man and boy, Tom LaBonge has been a fix­ture in Los An­ge­les’ City Hall for more than 40 years: a teenager on Mayor Tom Bradley’s youth coun­cil, com­mu­nity re­la­tions di­rec­tor at the Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power, right- hand man to coun­cil pow­er­house John Fer­raro, aide to Mayor Richard Rior­dan and, to his en­dur­ing de­light, elected in 2001 as coun­cil­man for the “great 4th” Dis­trict. For LaBonge, ev­ery­thing about L. A. is “great.” Well, maybe not that Tues­day is his last day in of­fice. LaBonge — who is loved for his puppy- dog en­thu­si­asm and his Wiki- mem­ory of all things L. A. but who also gets an eye- roll from some quar­ters for his lead­er­ship style — is termed out. L. A.’ s big­gest fan sits in one place long enough to size it all up. You’ve worked with five may­ors. Who was best?

I was on Mayor Tom Bradley’s youth coun­cil, and I ab­so­lutely be­lieve the best mayor of all was Tom Bradley. No dis­re­spect for Dick Rior­dan — I don’t think any­one could have done a bet­ter job fol­low­ing the tragedy of the ri­ots, which were not on his watch, then we had the earth­quake. And Jimmy Hahn, keep­ing the city to­gether, se­ces­sion was a big ugly thing; then Mr. Vil­laraigosa and his ef­forts; and I’m very proud of Mr. Garcetti too. How is City Hall dif­fer­ent now?

Back then there was al­ways a go- to guy, a go- to gal — I don’t know if I’ll have to go to HR if I say gal — and now there’s more lay­ers of peo­ple and more re­spon­si­bil­ity. We used to just go to peo­ple who did things and it got done. I’m not “Rain­man,” but I re­mem­bered ev­ery num­ber; 485 was our [ phone pre­fix] ex­change. You knew the [ City Hall] peo­ple, you go to the of­fices, and that’s how you meet the peo­ple. You got more done in the halls of City Hall than in [ the of­fices]. The peo­ple who work for me, their life is in the [ de­vice in the] palm of their left hand, in­stead of [ meet­ing] peo­ple. Now ev­ery­thing’s by email. What’s hard to leave be­hind?

The peo­ple who love public ser­vice. I’m pretty close to the san­i­ta­tion depart­ment. They named a trash truck af­ter me, a bulky- item truck, No. 29. The other day in Sil­ver Lake I looked across the street and there was the trash truck with my name un­der the city seal. And they named a sewer truck af­ter me. That was very nice.

[ A woman pass­ing by the win­dows of The Times’ cafe­te­ria rec­og­nizes LaBonge and comes close to the glass and waves; he leaps up and smooches the glass and waves back. He knew her as a girl and knows her kids now too.] A lot of neigh­bor­hoods in your dis­trict have be­come gen­tri­fied. What are the draw­backs?

That’s a word a lot of peo­ple are of­fended by. I call it sta­bi­liza­tion, be­cause I’ve seen a lot of neigh­bor­hoods that were very tough that now have a bal­ance. We need more di­rect help with the plan­ning and hous­ing de­part­ments; we need to build hous­ing. In the old [ con­fig­u­ra­tion of the] 4th Dis­trict, there’s a lot of den­sity along the Wil­shire cor­ri­dor; in the new 4th, you have Sher­man Oaks to Sil­ver Lake, [ where] peo­ple want neigh­bor­hood preser­va­tion. They don’t want these big boxy houses, the mini- man­sions, these mon­strosi­ties. I [ would build hous­ing] on the Wil­shire cor­ri­dor near the Wil­shire Cen­ter, in Kore­atown, where the sub­way’s com­ing.

In the Po­lice Depart­ment, they have a se­nior lead of­fi­cer. There should be se­nior lead plan­ners, for when you don’t know who to talk to and you get the City Hall shuff le when you try to f ind out what’s go­ing on. What else were you not able to get to?

I think our coun­cil dis­tricts are a lit­tle too large and pock­ets of neigh­bor­hoods never are go­ing to have po­lit­i­cal power. [ He picks up his cho­co­late chip cookie]. Cut this up 15 ways and you’ve got to­day’s coun­cil, but cut it up 21 ways, it’s a smaller piece. It’s health­ier for you be­cause it’s not as big. And Watts will have a shot to get a coun­cil per­son. So there’s em­pow­er­ment. With dis­clo­sures about mil­lions in non­profit trusts and a for­mer DWP tech­ni­cian ac­cused of mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing $ 4 mil­lion, what needs fix­ing at the Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power?

DWP has got to stand up and say, we’re a good agency, and hold them­selves ac­count­able to it. It’s not the money the em­ploy­ees get paid; it’s that some­times the rules pre­vent ef­fi­cien­cies. Brian D’Arcy is a very ef­fec­tive la­bor leader, but it’s not sus­tain­able to have [ rules where] ef­fi­cien­cies are not max­i­mum. They’ve got to bring them back to a way more ac­com­mo­dat­ing to the city’s needs. You hike ev­ery day in Grif­fith Park. Some peo­ple are livid about your plan to take out a pic­nic area and trees to put in base­ball fields on the east side of Grif­fith Park.

When I was a kid, the [ Golden State] Free­way came along and took all the sports f ields away. Un­for­tu­nately there are some peo­ple who do not like base­ball. They never heard of Vin Scully. Some­thing’s wrong with that. But it’s all go­ing to work out. And your en­cour­ag­ing tourism at the Hol­ly­wood sign hasn’t gone down well with peo­ple who live there.

The good peo­ple of Beach­wood Canyon don’t like me be­cause I welcome the stranger. I sup­port tourism. We’re putting in re­stricted park­ing. I be­lieve there should be vans to ac­cess [ the sign]. DWP has three large parcels there; I’d like a park­ing lot on the edge of those parcels, and peo­ple can hike across the public land to Grif­fith Park. Few peo­ple get as ex­cited as you about civic gov­er­nance. How do you get peo­ple to en­gage, and vote?

Look at vote by mail. Maybe we’ll have drive- through vot­ing in some places. When you turn 18, you should be reg­is­tered. And if you don’t vote, don’t com­plain.

I also think neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion [ lead­ers] don’t need to be [ elected]. Peo­ple on the [ ap­pointed] parks boards love parks, [ those] on the li­brary board love li­braries. Some of these neigh­bor­hood coun­cil [ lead­ers] don’t love any­thing other than be­ing able to say no to some­thing. It’s im­por­tant to get the pos­i­tive in ac­tion. How have An­ge­lenos changed?

Af­ter the Olympic Games, the world came to Los An­ge­les. I’m proud of the peo­ple from Bangladesh liv­ing near Third and Ver­mont; they wanted a sign that said “Lit­tle Bangladesh.” [ That] cut into the Kore­atown turf and those folks got up­set. So I met Korean and Bangladeshi peo­ple at Third and Ver­mont and we walked off [ the dis­puted blocks to agree]. [ Now there’s] a city seal on a big sign that says “Lit­tle Bangladesh” — they feel great. This is the promised land, to all the di­ver­sity of peo­ple who are here. You were crit­i­cized for spend­ing money from your dis­cre­tionary fund on things like hol­i­day lights around the zoo in­stead of, say, on pot­holes.

That was a bunch of horse---be­cause the zoo lights bring joy. The DWP years ago cre­ated the hol­i­day light­fest in Grif­fith Park. That $ 100,000 brought nearly 200,000 peo­ple to the zoo at night. Is it the city’s job to bring joy to peo­ple?

Ab­so­lutely, ab­so­lutely, ab­so­lutely, three times plus. Where there’s joy, there’s love, and if there’s love, there’s life. Af­ter more than 40 years at City Hall, now what?

I’m a free agent; I’m un­signed. I’m go­ing to take time off, travel with [ my wife] Brigid and get to know her, be­cause she’s a won­der­ful per­son, ev­ery­body tells me. I’m leav­ing City Hall but not leav­ing the city. What ad­vice for coun­cil col­leagues you leave be­hind?

I hope they en­joy the job as much as I have. And what­ever they want to see done for their dis­trict, do it, be­cause it goes by fast. This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited. patt. mor­ri­son@ latimes. com; Twit­ter: @ pattm­la­times

Glenn Koenig Los An­ge­les Times

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