Compared to the past sallies of Department of Water and Power management into the hostile territory of Silver Lake, a visit by two top officials Monday evening was remarkably tame.
Until very near the end, everyone used respectful language, let others finish what they were trying to say and refrained from immediately shouting objections.
Such civility has been rare in the two years that residents of Silver Lake have been challenging the DWP's massive water-quality improvement project, part of which would entail covering reservoirs in Elysian Park and Silver Lake.
Through many a hostile confrontation, DWP officials have endured the derision of overflowing auditoriums as they asserted that the water in the reservoirs is perfectly safe already, but that it needs to be made safer still.
Only about 50 people attended Monday's joint meeting of the Silver Lake Residents Assn. and the Committee to Save Silver Lake's Reservoirs. Maybe that was because it was held in the Friendship Hall on Riverside Drive. But, more to the point was the DWP's recent change of management.
With three new commissioners and a new general manager, the agency seems to be trying to shed the air of technocratic aloofness that characterized its previous attempts to meet the public.
The meeting, in fact, began as a kind of celebration for the latest of those appointments, environmental lawyer Mary D. Nichols. A former parks commissioner, she was named to the DWP board last July by Mayor Tom Bradley to be its "third environmental vote."
Nichols did not disappoint. In what she described as her "maiden voyage" as a DWP commissioner, Nichols reported that the reservoir project is on hold, "where it belongs." She outlined her own perspective according to which the city's reservoirs are also valued as precious open space.
She promised "a long, hard struggle to change practices, to put the department on a different footing not only in planning and thinking about environmental issues, but also in the way that it relates to the community."
As if to illustrate the point, she was accompanied by Jim Wickser, the department's assistant general manager. He made a valiant effort to put on a conciliatory face.
"We feel that we were grossly inept at trying to communicate with the citizens on Silver Lake Reservoir as well as other reservoirs," Wickser said at one point.
"It's very important for us to try to open up some meaningful dialogue so that we can understand each other even if we can't agree."
To that end, he said, the department has engaged a professional mediator who is even now holding preliminary talks with community groups to learn what points can be negotiated.
"If both sides decide there is enough common ground, we'll start talking," Wickser said.
In perhaps too candid a moment, Nichols implored the audience not to look for DWP conspiracies.
"In my 20 years of working both in and outside of government, if there's one small piece of wisdom I've garnered, it is that government agencies are hardly ever deliberately guilty of disinforming the public," Nichols said. "They are not smart enough in their efforts to manipulate public opinion to do that sort of thing deliberately."
Her point was soon substantiated when someone in the audience asked the cost of mediation.
Wickser assured them that it was nominal.
"About a thousand," he guessed.
Nichols looked at him in disbelief.
"Twenty-five," she said. "Let me tell you $25,000 is hardly enough even to open a package of paper around here."
Later, Wickser drifted noticeably into DWP doublespeak when the question of midge flies in Silver Lake came up.
"Regrettably our treatment was not nearly as successful as we would have liked it to have been, but the water is drinkable, although it is aesthetically not very pleasing," he said. "A lot of people don't like to see midge fly larvae in their water."
From there on, old instincts reasserted themselves. A woman who said she was a microbiologist challenged Wickser to produce better data on the water quality of the Eagle Rock Reservoir, rumored to have deteriorated since a cover was installed.
"In regard to Eagle Rock Reservoir, there's been a lot of miscommunication on that," he said testily. "There's a lot of information correcting information that was originally delivered."
The evening ended with a snarling scene between Wickser and Dale Flanagan, whose Committee to Save Silver Lake's Reservoirs newsletter reported a recent bacterial bloom at Eagle Rock.
Wickser implied that Flanagan's style of journalism was hurting the prospects for mediation. "I'm asking if anything in this article is erroneous," Flanagan snapped.
"I'm not saying it's erroneous," Wickser snapped back. "I'm saying it's intellectually dishonest, because all you're doing is picking out one piece of information."
"That's a very flip thing to say, but that's exactly what your department did when . . . "
"So, you're getting even with us, right?"
And so it went. Clearly, this is more than a $25,000 job.