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No Issue Too Small for L.A. Council

September 28, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

First came rules for strippers, to stop them from gyrating on people's laps. Next came an edict against urinating on city streets. And then last month, the Los Angeles City Council prohibited silly string in Hollywood on Halloween and even talked of extending the ban across the metropolis.

The council makes the laws for the nation's second-largest city, but these days, it seems there is no issue too small to catch its attention.

In its passion to fine-tune life here, the council has pushed a raft of new laws. Some are creative approaches to long-standing problems, such as illegal dumping. Others, such as the silly string ban, address such tiny issues that they have drawn ridicule.

In some respects, it's unremarkable the council members would be sensitive to such concerns; after all, that's their job.

But this council, with all but two of its 15 members elected in the last three years, is especially willing to heed neighborhood desires and citizen complaints.

Unlike earlier council members, who spent decades in office plugging away at issues, these officials are term-limited and have just eight years to impress voters before seeking another post. And they are governing in the shadow of secession, which threatened to tear Los Angeles apart because some residents were unhappy with city services.

"When I have office hours, people come in to talk about issues on their block," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, a former professor of diplomacy who pressed for a solution to the annual silly string mess.

"It's easy to mock these issues, but most Angelenos are concerned about their neighborhood and their quality of life."

The council has obliged with a steady output of laws aimed at encouraging appropriate behavior and spiffing up the city's appearance.

Among the targeted activities: prostitution in strip clubs and on city streets, urinating and defecating outdoors, smoking on the beach, hanging out in cyber-cafes instead of school, driving drunk and drag-racing, and snoozing on the steps of the city's libraries.

To clean up a city that is sometimes compared to a Third World capital, council members have tried to stop the dumping of debris in back alleys, restrict shopping carts to grocery parking lots, and prevent taco trucks from parking in one place for extended periods.

And they are putting the finishing touches on laws to fine people who staple signs on telephone poles and to make all newspaper racks ivy green.

One of the council's favorite enforcement devices is to seize the vehicles of lawbreakers, including those who race, dump trash, sell drugs or seek illicit sex. Councilman Greig Smith also wants to take cars from drunk drivers.

As if the council has not been busy enough improving the quality of life for people, it's now looking out for dogs. In August, council members directed the city attorney to write first-in-California rules to outlaw tethering Fido for extended periods and to mandate window flaps on his doghouse.

Next on the council's quality-of-life agenda: Smith plans to introduce a "good neighbor motion" to require residents to take care of their homes. By that, he means: no broken windows or junk on the lawn.

"People don't like the look and feel of the city, and they really want to see it spruced up a little," said Smith, who represents the northwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley, where support for secession was strongest.

Though some of these laws appear to be working, the trend has some policy experts concerned.

"I want to see more debate on how to deal with big issues," said Larry Berg, retired director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, citing the environment, transportation and infrastructure.

Los Angeles laws aimed at the smallest problems have tickled people around the world. When the council voted to prohibit silly string, it was reported across the nation and as far away as Europe. Last fall's vote to outlaw lap dancing was mocked on late-night shows and is still featured in the "Love & Sex" section of a website based in South Africa.

Some members agree that it's time for them to emphasize weightier issues on the council.

"We aren't looking as long-term as we need to," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who earned the nickname the "Pothole Queen" her first year in office. "We need to take risks."

Council members have not ignored more difficult endeavors. They voted to place a $500-million water bond issue on the November ballot and approved landmark hurdles that Wal-Mart and others must clear in order to build so-called superstores.

Greuel has also fought for years to eliminate taxes for small businesses in the city. Garcetti and Councilman Ed Reyes have been plugging away at zoning changes they think will create more affordable housing.

And this council has presided over the development of the city's neighborhood council system, inspiring some members to work with those panels to craft laws to address specific concerns.

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