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Around the Foothills

They planned the day's logistics with military-like teamwork.

June 16, 1988|DOUG SMITH

The Eagle Rock municipal building on Colorado Boulevard is one of those triumphs of public works style that somehow infuse cold concrete and institutional green paint with both grace and serenity.

And at 7 in the morning, the quietness of its well-tended garden deepens the tranquility.

So, it was startling Tuesday morning to walk through an open door at the rear, cross an empty social hall and enter a basement-like room in the very back that buzzed like a telephone boiler room operation.

Eight men sat at government-issue desks that filled the room. Phones rang ceaselessly. On the wall, a map of the city showed quadrants coded with a list of names: Botticelli, Stude, Starons, Beltrans, Acevedo, Frausto and Garcia.

The men, some wearing shirts and ties, some in jeans and open shirts, took notes, filled out forms, passed file folders back and forth and planned the day's logistics with military-like teamwork.

"We'll go out on this together," one man declared heavily after an across-the-room exchange of details with a colleague.

Within an hour, the room would be suddenly quiet. Only a supervisor and a runner would stay behind to coordinate and maintain communications. The rest of the men would hit the streets. They're the protectors of the city's building code in the northern half of the 14th Council District.

Until last November, they were based downtown with a large force of inspectors radiating from City Hall each day to all points in the city.

Their reassignment to Eagle Rock's otherwise placid city building is part of a decentralization of the Building and Safety Department designed to place inspectors closer to the communities they are responsible for, said principal inspector Richard Sanchez.

A 19-year veteran who began as a trainee and runner, Sanchez now manages nine district offices opened in the downtown region under the reorganization. The job has put 12,000 miles in six months on his spotless red pickup truck.

He once opposed the decentralization, but now says he was wrong.

"I'm completely sold on the program," he said.

Under it, the city's inspectors fanned out to field offices in each City Council district. Where possible, the offices were attached to council field offices because, as Sanchez pointed out candidly, in city government the council member is "king."

Also, council field deputies tend to be on the front line of response to public complaints about the deterioration and neglect afflicting older areas of the city.

In the Eagle Rock municipal building, deputies to Councilman Richard Alatorre can simply walk from their office down a hall to talk to the building inspector responsible for abating a problem.

That way, inspectors are usually able to react to complaints in only three days, Sanchez said.

In theory, anyway. One complaint form, concerning back yard refuse and dated in April, had just worked its way to an inspector's itinerary on Tuesday. It turned out that the action was complicated by the illegal occupancy of a garage at the same address. That matter was corrected but the trash remained.

As the inspectors headed for their jobs, Sanchez gave me a working tour of his territory, at its best and worst. He drove down the back streets of Highland Park, El Sereno and Boyle Heights to a second 14th District office in between a video rental store and a doughnut shop in a mini-mall.

In that office, an inspector assigned to monitor the safe installation of burglary bars had just conducted a survey of Griffin Avenue. It yielded a stack of about 100 orders for the installation of proper release latches.

Sanchez followed another inspector a couple of miles away to a once-handsome Victorian house behind a beauty shop. It had been converted, without permits, into three units. In a cursory walk-around, Sanchez pointed out exposed electrical wiring, open sewer pipe and a substandard water heater.

In Spanish, the inspector told a woman who answered the door, a baby in her arms, that he was ordering the building vacated in 30 days. He stapled copies of the notice to the outside wall beside the door. He chatted a few minutes, telling her the notice was for the owner, not for her. She smiled, seeming to comprehend.

Heading back toward Eagle Rock, Sanchez tried to define the new model of a building inspector.

"It takes a lot of human skills to accomplish our goals and not irritate the public," he said. "You try and be understanding. You listen a lot, explain a lot to them."

In the office, he found supervisor Al Garcia examining a stack of complaint forms just sent over by the council office. All of them had been filled out by one woman who scoured her neighborhood for blight and apparently found a lot. Garcia thought many of the complaints would fall under the doctrine of acceptability under neighborhood standards.

"What I'm going to do is go out and look at all of these and call her," Garcia said.

Explain a little, no doubt. And listen a lot.

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