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Felicia Marcus : Fighting for the Environment From Inside the Establishment

September 02, 1990|Jane Fritsch | Jane Fritsch is City Hall reporter for The Times. She interviewed the Felicia Marcus on a rare Sunday afternoon when the commissioner was able to take time off from work

When Felicia Marcus went off to Harvard to major in East Asian studies, the echoes of 1960s activism had grown faint. It was the pre-yuppie mid-1970s, an unsettling time for young people who witnessed the passion of the Vietnam generation but arrived at adulthood too late to make a difference.

Marcus, now 34, followed an Establishment path: Harvard, Capitol Hill, New York University Law School. But she has emerged in recent years with a brand of activism that has taken her from the inside to the outside and back again.

Her agenda is the environment and she has spent most of her adult life on the outside, agitating for solutions to a range of air and water pollution problems, nudging bureaucracies through press conferences and lawsuits.

Now, Marcus is back inside again. Appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Environmental Quality Board 18 months ago, Marcus was plucked from the leadership of the environmental movement in a move intended to quell rising criticism that the board lacked commitment to environmental concerns. Last summer, Bradley appointed her to the Board of Public Works, the panel that oversees city construction as well as the sewage system.

Her resume made her both an impeccable and improbable choice. Marcus, who earned a degree in environmental law, was a founder of Heal the Bay, the organization credited with pressuring the city of Los Angeles to develop a plan to end the dumping of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay.

She lived in the San Fernando Valley before going east to attend Harvard. Later, a job in the Washington office of Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), gave her a chance to work on environmental issues. In 1983, after graduating from NYU, she returned to Los Angeles and worked as a clerk for a federal judge and an attorney for the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Well-spoken and sometimes eloquent, Marcus becomes almost tongue-tied when she is asked what she has been reading lately. With some embarrassment, she concedes that thick volumes on sewage systems and construction projects can usually be found on her night stand. A resident of Venice, she acknowledges that she rarely gets to the beach and repeats a pledge to her friends that she will take a weekend off, soon.

Question: Was there a point where you realized you were being taken seriously, that Heal the Bay had arrived or the environmental movement had arrived?

Answer: It's hard to pinpoint when it happened. I think we were taken seriously at the beginning because we had done our homework and were filing legal papers in the administrative proceeding that were pretty compelling. And we had the facts and the law on our side. But something happened at some point where different people arrived at City Hall. . . . The city had been trying since 1980 to not have to fully treat its sewage. Ruth Galanter was elected to the city council, an environmental proposition passed, the environmental movement started to become an issue. . . . We developed relationships over time through the battles with different people at City Hall and people realized that we were very serious, but also very hard-working and that our objectives were really just to clean up the bay.

Q: But this movement didn't attract a lot of dilettantes?

A: No, not too many. The core group has remained fairly stable, with new people coming in over time. . . . I think there have been times when certain members would have preferred to keep doing press conferences and dumping buckets of sludge in public rather than sitting down and negotiating, but the consensus was that if you can accomplish things by negotiating, it's better to do that because it's much more effective. You can get far more that way. Recognizing your friends is really an important thing.

Q: You've gone basically from the mainstream--Harvard and Capitol Hill--to the fringe of the environmental movement and then back to the center again at Cit y Hall. Are you comfortable where you are now?

A: Oh, I am. It's interesting, people ask me sometimes about that. I feel I've been totally consistent throughout in terms of my approach, in terms of trying to be helpful and get people to talk to each other and to focus. Certainly being a public-interest litigator and litigating against government, primarily, for all of my legal career, would seem to be fringe, but actually I've been blessed with clients who were really constructive clients. In this case, coming inside, I'm doing the same thing I was doing as a volunteer on the outside, except that I'm doing it full time on the inside. . . . (I) just try to find ways to make the process more responsive to environmental concerns and more sensible.

Q: Your position on the Board of Public Works involves overseeing a lot of mundane kinds of matters, construction contracts and things you might not have been interested in before. Are you making the best use of your time?

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