Hal Bernson isn't today's typical politician. He's often gruff. He's impatient with schmoozing. He'd rather not hold a news conference. Outside the boundaries of his northwest Valley district far from downtown, the no-nonsense 72-year-old councilman, who retires Monday, may not be so well-known. Quietly, however, for nearly a quarter of a century, he's plugged away at complex citywide issues and left a lasting mark on Los Angeles.
He took much criticism for supporting Valley development, especially the thousands of homes built on what was once open space in Porter Ranch. But he also won widespread admiration for his relentless campaign to better prepare Los Angeles for earthquakes and to push for safety measures that would keep buildings standing and save lives when temblors struck.
"The people of Los Angeles who don't get killed in earthquakes in the next 100 years will largely have Hal to thank," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Bernson said he still remembers shaking in his high chair during the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.
As a relatively new council member, years before the Jan. 17, 1994, Northridge earthquake, he pushed to force the retrofitting of thousands of Los Angeles' oldest buildings. Seismic safety wasn't a popular issue until a quake happened. But thousands of people lived in buildings reinforced because of reforms he championed, and none of those buildings collapsed when the 6.7 Northridge quake walloped Bernson's district.
On a recent morning, asked to recount his achievements, Bernson briskly counted off a short list, from writing the city laws that protect oak trees and ban wood shingles to tightening the zoning rules for adult businesses. Then he said impatiently, "Next question."
When a staff member mentioned more of his successes -- including the open space he helped preserve at the Chatsworth Reservoir and Stoney Point -- he bridled.
A Thick Skin
He said he's learned through the years that "you've got to have a thick skin, and you better be prepared not to expect the adulation for the things you try to do. You've just gotta do what you gotta do and do what you feel right, and that's all you can do."
But even Bernson takes pride in his earthquake work, which also includes requiring automatic gas shut-off valves.
"I feel pretty good about that," he said. "If I didn't do anything else in the time I was here, that was important."
The new council member representing Bernson's 12th district is his own former chief of staff, Greig Smith. Smith will retain many of Bernson's long-serving staff members. But Bernson said he thinks a lot of other good candidates for office may not be coming forward these days because modern-day politics is such an intense business, and politicians are so heavily scrutinized.
Bernson was penalized numerous times by the city's Ethics Commission. In 2001, he agreed to pay $18,500 in a settlement for accepting 26 contributions above the allowed $500 per person limit. In 2000, he was fined $3,000 for accepting free legal representation from a lobbyist's law firm. He said he believes the commission's actions are often both political and extreme.
"These people who are involved in ethics, they're basically prosecutors," he said. "And you don't have to do much -- sometimes you don't have to do anything."
Term limits -- which prevent Bernson from running again -- also rile the veteran politician, who has lately served on a council with colleagues half of his age.
"I think it's a negative for the public because they're losing experience, and there's certain types of experience you can only get with doing," Bernson said. "And I don't care how bright you are -- and there's a lot of bright young people on the council -- until they go through it and learn it themselves, they won't know. And by that time now, they're gone."
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former council member, often was on the opposite side of issues from Bernson. But she said the two became friends soon after her election to the council in 1993, because Bernson readily offered to help her navigate the complexities of city planning.
"He's a master of planning and land-use management," she said. "There will never be, I do not believe, anybody on the council ever again who will understand the larger picture of the city of Los Angeles, in terms of planning, the way that Hal Bernson did. They won't have time. They just won't have time."
Bernson's support for the development of Porter Ranch raised the ire of many people in his district who wanted to see growth slowed in the northwest Valley.
More recently, he infuriated horse owners by supporting zoning changes to allow two housing developments that they said threatened their equestrian way of life.
"His approach to development has always been to welcome it with open arms, and that was usually the problem with him," said Walter Prince, head of Porter Ranch Is Developed Enough, and a longtime community activist.