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Battle Lines Are Being Drawn in Area Code Split


Officials in nine cities are looking for ways to fight a telephone company plan that would split the cities in two, giving some--but not all--of their residents a new area code in 1992.

The result, they say, would be confusion that could clog emergency phone lines, damage businesses and sacrifice city unity for easy profits.

In Bell Gardens, for example, the current 213 and new 310 area codes would bisect the business district, forcing one bank to dial long-distance to reach its biggest customer across the street.

In Beverly Hills, homes on three streets would not be linked with their own prestigious community by area code, but with downtown Los Angeles, around which the new U-shaped 310 code wraps.

In Culver City, 12 addresses would be reached by dialing 213, while the rest of the city would be assigned to 310.

"The thing that angers us most is that nobody ever talked to us about this," said West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land, whose city would be split almost in half along La Cienega Boulevard. "The phone company made a decision and said, 'Live with it.' "

"I don't care which area code we get, we just want one," she added.

When announcing the plan last month, representatives from GTE California and Pacific Bell said the companies had no choice but to create two area codes out of the old 213 zone because they were running out of phone numbers.

They said their engineers had examined 20 options to find a plan under which very few cities would be divided by codes when the 310 area is formed in two years. The splitting of cities "was unavoidable . . . because telephone exchanges and city limits are not related," the companies maintained in a press release.

They emphasized that dialing an extra four digits to reach a neighbor might be an inconvenience but would carry no extra cost. And customers would keep their old seven-digit numbers.

But officials from South Gate to Inglewood to West Hollywood have fielded dozens of calls from residents and businesses about the phone companies' failure to shape the new 310 area code to match city borders.

Despite the phone companies' insistence that such a match is nearly impossible technically--and would be very costly if feasible--officials from most divided cities remain critical of the plan.

Some have demanded to know the precise cost of putting their cities into a single area code. (GTE now estimates the average cost at $1,854 per individual phone line.) Others have questioned the phone companies' statements of good intentions.

"What they did was take the (path) that was most cost-effective for them," Bell Gardens City Manager Claude Booker said. "I think they did one study--how to maximize profits."

In Bell Gardens, as in neighboring Commerce, the phone companies followed their own franchise lines, rather than forge new borders that would match the political boundaries of the two cities, the phone companies confirmed.

Booker said he has contacted all other divided cities--including neighboring Commerce, South Gate and Lynwood--in an effort to build a united front against the plan at the Public Utilities Commission, in the Legislature and possibly in court. The utilities commission has no authority to veto the plan, but Booker said appealing to the commission could generate pressure against splitting cities.

The Bell Gardens City Council declared its opposition to the split on Monday, saying in a resolution that the change "appears to be self-serving for two monopolies at the expense of our citizens."

Louis Shepard, city administrator of Commerce, agreed. "They're ignoring anything other than their own convenience," he said of the phone companies.

Interest in a coalition is also apparently building on the Westside and in the South Bay.

"I've spoken with council members from Inglewood and Beverly Hills, and they're angry too," said Land of West Hollywood, who maintains that a legal challenge to the plan is her city's final option.

Culver City Mayor Joselle Smith said she thinks "there will be a cooperative response by all the cities affected."

In Inglewood, Councilman Daniel Tabor's home would be in a different area code than his City Hall office.

"It's irritating, it's inconvenient and it's confusing," he said of the plan. "For example, I've got calls from people who want to know how they'd call the police in another area code."

Phone company officials say that citizens would still call 911 for emergency police and fire service in both area codes. But city officials say they are concerned that residents making non-emergency calls may clog the 911 line to avoid a long-distance call to police.

"We believe they will dial 911 because they can dial it quickly," Booker said. "You and I know it always registers extra money when you dial long-distance. And (residents) are going to continue to think that."

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