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Caretaker of a Council Vision

Politics: As nonvoting 7th District representative, Alvin Kusumoto is happy carrying out Alarcon agenda.

December 21, 1998|PATRICK McGREEVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yanked from the obscurity of the city bureaucracy to serve as a "caretaker" for Los Angeles' 7th City Council District, Alvin Kusumoto has become a lightning rod for residents who believe they are being neglected.

Kusumoto, 38, has never stood for election. Yet the planning specialist will represent 230,000 residents at City Hall for the next four to six months.

With the election of Richard Alarcon to the state Senate, the soft-spoken Kusumoto, who was Alarcon's chief of staff the last eight months, has taken over as the day-to-day representative of his district until an election in the spring. Many see Alarcon's shadow in the choice of Kusumoto, who could be keeping the seat warm for Alarcon's wife, Corina, who is waging a campaign with her husband's backing to succeed him.

In fact, Alarcon remains in weekly contact with Kusumoto, talking over district issues.

For a man whose only previous electoral experience was serving as president of his high school band, Kusumoto's new prominence has opened his eyes to the perks and perils of elected office.

"People jokingly call me council member, but I say, 'No, I'm just a caretaker,' " said Kusumoto, who lives in Long Beach. "I like the role. I haven't had to be out in front on issues before, but I don't have any problem being out front and doing what is best for the district."

Part of the perceived weakness of Kusumoto--who will represent Sylmar, Pacoima, Van Nuys and North Hills until the election--is that he is serving in an advisory role only. He presides over a much-reduced office staff, and has no council vote.

A hint of Kusumoto's new duties came when a reporter called Alarcon's old council office earlier this week, and Kusumoto answered the telephone. Those tasks appear to be to field constituents' calls, make sure residents get services, advocate for district projects and supervise the skeleton staff that has not left to join Alarcon.

City Council President John Ferraro appointed Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton to serve as caretaker, but at Alarcon's request Deaton designated Kusumoto to serve as caretaker on a day-to-day basis. The appointment could have been made in a manner that would have given Kusumoto the power to vote, but Alarcon and Ferraro decided otherwise.

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That arrangement has sparked outrage in the 7th Council District, where community leaders say their area has been historically neglected.

"It's a disaster," said Frank Jacobs, a Sylmar businessman and past Mid-Valley Chamber of Commerce president.

"We need help, but when you look at the council down there, you see an empty chair for our district," Jacobs said. "There are a lot of projects out here that need attention."

A bachelor who serves as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, Kusumoto downplays his status, saying he believes he can effectively advocate for the district, even in an advisory role.

"The councilman [Alarcon] had a very strong vision of what he wanted to accomplish," Kusumoto said. "It's easy for me, when I'm dealing with other council offices, to advocate his stuff."

David Honda, a director of the Mid-Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Kusumoto is capable enough and knows the district, but he too would prefer a voting replacement for Alarcon.

"I think the district needs somebody who can vote," Honda said. "It needs a voice. He [Kusumoto] can advise the council, but they can vote the way they want."

Some also question whether Alarcon's maneuvering to keep Kusumoto in charge was an attempt by the new state senator to keep control of a council seat he would like to see his wife inherit.

Corina Alarcon is seen by many as the front-runner in a field of 10 candidates for the council seat in the April 13 special election.

Richard Alarcon and Kusumoto are meeting once a week to discuss district issues, which has some at City Hall wondering if the meetings will benefit the candidacy of Corina Alarcon by providing her with inside information about district issues.

Kusumoto finds himself thrust into the rough-and-tumble political arena at City Hall, where political clout and experience often make a difference between whether a council district is lavished with city resources or ignored by government agencies.

Others say Kusumoto should do fine, because he has good managerial skills. Alarcon agrees, citing Kusumoto's service as his chief of staff, and before that, as Alarcon's planning deputy for two years. Kusumoto holds degrees from USC in architecture and international relations. In his off hours he reads books about military history.

He started his career in city government working as a planner with the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"He has worked on a lot of economic development and planning issues," Alarcon said. "I felt it would provide for the smoothest transition. He's extremely competent and has worked harder than anyone I've ever worked with."

"I think my job is continuing some of the projects that Councilman Alarcon started but that have not been completed," Kusumoto said.

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