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Relief Funds Pit South L.A. Against Valley


The massive earthquake that rocked houses and businesses off their foundations Jan. 17 also shook the tenuous and sometimes volatile relationship between San Fernando Valley and South Los Angeles lawmakers.

The tension has been evident during a recent series of City Hall squabbles over how to divide limited recovery dollars between quake-ravaged Valley communities and South Los Angeles neighborhoods still reeling from the impact of the 1992 riots.

The squabbles have also exposed long-simmering resentment by several South Los Angeles lawmakers who say the disputes demonstrate that some Valley council members have less sympathy for riot victims than for quake victims.

Although the disputes involved relatively small amounts of funding and have been resolved without dramatic losses to either community, they have inflicted hard feelings that threaten to jeopardize future cooperation in City Hall.

"Personally, I have been offended by how some of this has come out," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a South Los Angeles representative who was harshly criticized by some Valley council members--criticism he called "virtually unforgivable."

Several community leaders warn that the disputes may also send the message that in a city as ethnically diverse as Los Angeles there is no harmony, even among its leaders.

"If we allow ourselves to be reduced to squabbling, it sets a bad example for the rest of the city," said Councilwoman Rita Walters, who represents sections of South-Central Los Angeles but has stayed clear of the debates.

Linda Griego, a former deputy mayor and current president of RLA, the riot recovery program, agreed. "All areas need help," she said. "Whether a building burned to the ground in 1992 or fell to the ground in 1994, it is still gone."

This cross-town rivalry is nothing new. For more than 20 years, Valley representatives have groused that taxes from their region pay for city services on the other side of town. Council members from the two communities have also locked horns in the past over such issues as water rates and police deployment strategies.

But longtime City Hall insiders say it have never gotten this bitter and personal.

One dispute centered on how to distribute $47 million for affordable housing. Another squabble focused on the allocation of $2.2 million for senior citizen services. The most recent dispute dealt with whether Valley transit stations should be included in a $1.6-million study on transit planning and economic development.

For their part, South Los Angeles lawmakers are resentful that Valley council members have begun demanding a share of funds once used primarily to solve inner-city problems such as the lack of affordable housing and senior citizen care.

"Sometimes I think that (Valley council members) have forgotten what happened prior to the quake," said Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose district includes Pico Union and Westlake.

There are also ill feelings among some South Los Angeles officials who say riot victims did not get the attention quake victims are now receiving.

"What I resent is the belief that the trauma experienced by the victims of the quake is more important than the trauma experienced by the victims of the civil disturbances," Ridley-Thomas said. "The politics that says 'I'm more important than you' is what led to the civil disturbances in the first place."

But Valley council members reject charges that they are unsympathetic to riot victims, saying they are simply asking for their fair share of recovery funds.

"When our needs became so acute it was necessary to stand up and say, 'We need our share,' " said Councilman Hal Bernson, whose Northridge-based district suffered a lion's share of the quake damage.

He added that Valley council members were supportive when South Los Angeles needed money to recover from the riots. But now, he said, it is the Valley's turn to ask for help.

Valley representatives acknowledge that the disputes have occurred when they have tried to tap funds traditionally used to solve inner-city problems.

"The earthquake has created a scenario where an area that specifically didn't have needs in the realm of affordable housing dollars, for example, is now having that need and is now creating a competition with other areas that have a longstanding need," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents areas of the northeast Valley.

But South Los Angeles lawmakers, particularly Councilwoman Rita Walters, have also been irked because they say the quake damage in their neighborhoods has been ignored.

"The perception is that the quake was only in the Valley," Walters said as she rattled off examples of quake damage in South Los Angeles. "The (quake-damaged) Coliseum was not in the Valley.

Although disputes are part of the political process, many community leaders who have witnessed the exchanges say that such divisiveness in the face of a crisis can only hurt the city's effort to rebuild.

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