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Secessionists Tar L.A.'s Efforts to Fill Up Potholes

They see road ruts as a symbol of neglect, while city points to a rapid fix record.

October 14, 2002|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Tong was stunned the other morning when he walked out of his North Hollywood house and found two city workers in yellow hard hats neatly setting up orange cones around the little pothole that had been bugging him for months.

"Oh my God, is this even possible?" he said as he stood in his frontyard.

Tong hadn't called the city to complain, he said, but each time it rained the dirt-bottomed depression filled up with mud, and every day when his tires dipped into it, his car made an unhappy ca-thunk ca-thunk sound.

Now here was a crew, complete with a truck filled with hot asphalt. The workers jackhammered the old pavement, swept a coating of adhesive around the inside of the hole, filled it with steaming asphalt, then raked it and flattened it with a little yellow machine resembling a lawnmower. About 40 minutes later, they were stacking up the cones, sweeping up the debris and climbing back into the truck to head for the next hole.

Potholes are a constant in the lives of many Los Angeles residents, and a constant theme in the secession campaign. For secessionists, potholes have become both an issue in themselves and a metaphor for City Hall neglect--each unfixed pothole seen as evidence of a city too big to care about little things, to focus on the real troubles of neighborhoods.

The road crews are working harder than ever now, and with better funding, according to Los Angeles officials. But their efforts only seem to annoy secessionists more. Secessionists attribute any new maintenance zeal to politically motivated City Hall officials determined to make pre-election improvements in neighborhoods that have long been ignored. And they say no amount of window-dressing can change the fact that the city is too big to function efficiently.

"Potholes are a symbol of the poor delivery of so many city services," said Keith Richman, a Republican assemblyman from Northridge who is running for Valley mayor. "A pothole is not only a visual reminder, but a palpable reminder of the lack of city services. Every time you run over a pothole, it jars you and reminds you of that lack of city services."

City officials say they are tackling the pothole problem. If a citizen calls in a pothole complaint, the city aims to get a crew out to fix it by the next business day. The only exceptions occur if what looks like a pothole turns out to be a different problem, such as a hole left by a utility crew (which is responsible for fixing it), or if the city is in the middle of a severe rainstorm and has a huge spike in calls.

A recent test, a call about a series of potholes on a Chatsworth street, showed that the system works: The large holes, which stretched over several blocks, had been filled in by the next afternoon.

Such service doesn't soothe secessionists, who say they began noticing the city's street-repairing zeal only after secession measures in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood seemed destined to make the Nov. 5 ballot.

The Pothole Plot

To those long frustrated by Los Angeles city services, every patched pothole or repaved bit of city roadway is evidence of a city plot to seduce voters away from the secession measure with a short spurt of calculated service improvements. Many secessionists are convinced that such activity will come to a shrieking halt Nov. 6 if secession loses at the polls, and that the would-be independent areas will suffer worse than ever from neglect after that.

The city fills more than 200,000 potholes a year, said Bill Robertson, interim director of the city's Bureau of Street Services. But the place is too big for officials to know the location of each hole. A lot of the chronic complainers don't actually call the city with their complaints, while those who do get prompt service, he said.

Robertson argues that while potholes may rankle residents, Los Angeles' record at fixing them actually compares favorably to that of other big cities.

In New York, the stated goal is to respond to 65% of all pothole complaints within 30 days. Right now, New York has only about 1,000 pothole complaints outstanding, according to the city's Department of Transportation spokesman Keith Kalb, who added proudly, "We're doing really good." Los Angeles has no such backlog, fixing more than 99% of all potholes within a day after they're called in.

But even Robertson admits that filling potholes is sometimes like bailing out a sinking boat with a teaspoon. The city's streets are old and tired, and there is never enough money to repair enough of them to put the system in overall good condition.

"We all realize that there's not enough money out there to fix the need," he said.

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