BELL — Mayor George G. Mirabal kept a screwdriver within arm's reach--to use as a gavel--in case things got out of hand.
"One at a time," Mirabal said as he rapped the tool on the folding table. "It's coming too quick at me," he added, throwing his hands into the air during the onslaught of questions and comments.
Mirabal and the four other City Council members were sitting in a two-car garage at the Del Rio Mobile Home Park on Monday night, facing about 35 senior citizens, many of whom had never seen the council in action.
Six More to Come
The forum was the first of seven neighborhood gatherings, or "Town Hall" meetings, the council is holding during the next four months.
The meetings, a variation of the centuries-old New England town meetings, were started to give residents an opportunity to see how local government works, although the council does not vote on items or conduct official business.
The screwdriver, rows of metal folding chairs and a workbench behind the council members added to the informal flavor of the meeting.
Mirabal, who first proposed the idea for the Town Hall series in April, opened the forum with a simple question: "What do you like about, or don't like about, the city?"
The responses at times came fast and furiously.
One resident asked if the city could clean up the bike path that runs along the Los Angeles River bank. "When you go for walks, I mean (the bike path) stinks. It's getting to be like an outhouse," he said. The small mobile home park lies alongside the cement-lined riverbed.
Another resident griped about increased graffiti in the neighborhood. Others complained that their rents at the park have been raised four times in two years. Some residents in the park said they have seen monthly rent increases of more than $100 in a year. They wondered whether the city has the power to institute a rent control law to protect their fixed incomes.
Mayor Urges Caution
City Council members, although sympathizing with the residents, also urged caution, saying they did not necessarily "want to tie the hands" of local landowners. "That's not the American way," Mirabal told the crowd.
At one point, resident Eugene Mullin tried to rally his neighbors into pressuring the council to order more police patrols for the park, located on busy Florence Avenue.
"I have never seen a police car drive through here," Mullin said, complaining about a recent rash of thefts at the park. "You gotta chain things down around here." He then turned to the crowd packed into the small garage, and exhorted his neighbors to demand more police protection. "You gotta stand up. Here's your city councilmen," he shouted.
Bell-Cudahy Police Chief Manuel Ortega took notes and promised more patrols.
The meeting became heated at times, but at the end, residents applauded council members and thanked them for listening.
It 'Went Very Well'
Mirabal, in a telephone interview after the meeting, said that he thought the council's first endeavor "went very well. We had a good turnout. They expressed their concerns and they were all legitimate." Mirabal said that he would instruct the city staff to investigate the residents' concerns, and, if necessary, take action.
Councilman George Cole agreed that the first meeting was a success. "I really loved it. The communication was great. To me that's the purpose of being on the City Council. I'd like to have all the City Council meetings like that," he said.
The idea of taking the City Council to the neighborhoods came after surveys showed that most of the 28,000 residents of the 2.9-square-mile city do not know how their city government operates or the names of their City Hall representatives, Mirabal said. For example, only 1,600 of the city's estimated 4,500 registered voters went to the polls during the last municipal election.
Mirabal said that council members, in dealing with city business, often lose sight of what affects residents and what they want out of their local government.
"This is a chance for people to be heard," Mirabal said. "We're on a fact-finding mission."
Council members unanimously decided in June to conduct the meetings, and allocated $2,000 for advertising. City officials dropped flyers in the mobile home residents' mailboxes a week before the forum.
Mirabal said the next town hall meeting is scheduled Sept. 26 at the city's other mobile home park, Bell Trailer City, on Florence Avenue across the street from the Del Rio Mobile Home Park. Other forums will be scheduled in various elementary schools, churches and parks throughout the city.
"Different people in different parts of the city have different concerns," Mirabal said. "That's why we want to cover the whole city."