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Los Angeles

Outspoken Activist Bids Farewell to Long Beach

Although Traci Wilson-Kleekamp was often at odds with city officials, they turn out for last goodbyes before she moves east.

March 20, 2004|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Before you read this, her family van will have pulled out of Long Beach for good.

Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, her husband and three children are moving east -- a relief to many Long Beach politicians she has needled, criticized, even sued, galvanizing an army of citizen gadflies.

So familiar is her mantra around this city of 461,000 that Councilwoman Tonya Reyes-Uranga, attending one of many farewell parties for Wilson-Kleekamp, presented her with a city proclamation.

It reads: "It's always the council's fault."

Love her or loathe her, the activist has left a mark on California's fifth-largest city, from land-use changes to turning away an emergency center at a residential park.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Park name -- An article in Saturday's California section about a Long Beach activist moving to Missouri stated that she helped keep an expanded emergency center out of Scherer Park. It was Stearns Champions Park.

"Some have chided Ms. Wilson-Kleekamp for being 'too negative,' but they have it wrong," wrote Bill Pearl, publisher of LBReport.com, an online watchdog. "Just as friends don't let friends drive drunk, those who love a city don't let it throttle into what they see as coming train wrecks. No one who felt negatively about Long Beach would have done as much as she did at her own time and expense to try to make the city better."

He summarized Wilson-Kleekamp's contributions to Long Beach: "Parks: better protected. Government: more open. Taxpayers: more alert. Neighborhoods: more savvy. LB media: more active."

Indeed, a new reporter to Long Beach was cold-called three years ago by Wilson-Kleekamp, who opened with the observation that some at City Hall viewed her as a "black psycho housewife."

Behind that good-humored bluster is a 39-year-old homemaker with a journalism degree from Cal State Long Beach who provides reporters with reams of public records, some on important but dull subjects they might prefer to dodge. But it's difficult for reporters to dodge the issue when they are presented with government documents that cost Wilson-Kleekamp hundreds of dollars to copy.

Wilson-Kleekamp finds time for her time-consuming projects within the margins of her "real life," in which the top priorities are her husband, Steve, and her three children -- Erin, 7, Evan, 11, and Ian, 13.

She created an Internet list serve, thislandlb.org, as a forum for citizen action. It has its share of ranters and venters, but has proved effective in alerting people to issues that may affect them.

Wilson-Kleekamp is still a big Long Beach fan, but says the family is moving to buy a bigger house in Columbia, Mo., and because it's a good place to raise kids.

Among the farewell tributes was a big party at Cohiba restaurant on Pine Avenue last week, at which community groups toasted her departure to Missouri with mixed feelings.

Other community activists heave a big sigh at the thought of trying to fill her shoes.

Even some with whom she's disagreed acknowledge her passion, if not her approach.

"I've always had a congenial relationship with Traci, even though she's been a little abrupt on occasion with others," said Mayor Beverly O'Neill. "There's a difference between criticism and having a relationship."

Speaking of which, one relationship has developed in recent months that most people don't know about, one that has softened the edge on Wilson-Kleekamp's demeanor when City Hall exasperated her.

Her daughter, Erin, who was dragged to civic gatherings and watched public access broadcasts of meetings, grew to idolize the mayor.

Erin was astonished that, with the exception of one boy, nobody else in her first grade class at Lowell Elementary knew who the mayor was. So Erin wrote the mayor a letter on a tissue paper heart, inviting her to visit her class. Did the mayor have a navy uniform to wear, she wanted to know, so they could dress like twins?

The mayor had no school uniform but did wear her signature suit during a visit. And so a relationship developed between the daughter and the mayor, who Wilson-Kleekamp believes has been too quick to cheerlead some city developments.

Wilson-Kleekamp and Erin visited the mayor one last time this week, sharing milk and cookies at City Hall. They recalled how, last Halloween, Erin wanted to dress as the mayor. Business suits for a first-grader are hard to come by, so Erin dressed instead as a cheerleader.

"Isn't that a hoot?" O'Neill said.

"Not that big of a difference after all," Wilson-Kleekamp said with a chuckle.

Zingers were still flying Friday, when Wilson-Kleekamp met on the eve of her departure with the Press-Telegram editor of the editorial pages to get in a few last points before hitting the road.

She marvels that when she and her husband moved into their first purchased home across from Scherer Park, neighbors said that others in the community were worried about a black person ruining the neighborhood. As it turned out, Wilson-Kleekamp saved the park across the street from a planned emergency center expansion, and many residents toasted her last Sunday for preserving the neighborhood.

When she drives away from the area, her teal Mercury Villager will be stuffed with travel toys and food, and certain irreplaceables.

Those will include a box of documents she got through the Freedom of Information Act for her lawsuit against the city for spending public funds without demanding receipts in some cases. Some of the papers were first reported by the city to not exist, and these copies are precious to her.

"I'm leaving," she said, "but I'm not going away."

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