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County HQ may give heave-ho to office `swap meet'

Vendors in the lobby of L.A. County's Hall of Administration could be asked to leave later this year. Some consider the shops an eyesore.

June 26, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

As they stroll into the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, the marble-edged fortress housing the nation's largest local government, the first thing that greets most visitors is -- purses.

And perfumes. And jewelry, sports memorabilia and racks of paintings for sale.

An element of Los Angeles County employees' charity fundraising, independent vendors jam the building's main lobby nearly every weekday, hawking discounted goods. But the bazaar soon could be a thing of the past. Concerned about the flea market atmosphere permeating the corridors of government, county officials expect to discontinue the practice later this year.

That won't sit well with those in county departments who raise money for the March of Dimes and five other county-approved charities, including the Asian Pacific Community Fund of Southern California and the United Way. Roughly 20% of the proceeds goes to the organizations.

So far this year, the county administrator's office has issued about 95 permits for vendors to sell their wares in the building, said Armida Franco, a staff assistant with the county administrator's real estate division who approves the permits.

But what started as a way for county employees to give back has turned into an eyesore, said Victoria Pipkin-Lane, director of the county administrator's workplace programs unit; she helps coordinate county employees' charitable giving.

"It just seems to be that we're having more vendors than we're comfortable with," Pipkin-Lane said. She said the administration was working with county counsel to draft a policy that would ban vendors from the hall's second-floor lobby.

Not only does the ad hoc mini-mall take workers from their jobs as they spritz themselves with Paris Hilton for Men, but it looks tacky, she said.

"We're the county seat of government; it's like our main house," Pipkin-Lane said. "I think it should look like the business of government is being conducted. We shouldn't look like a swap meet."

According to county code, it's legal to sell merchandise in a county government building only when the funds "are used solely in furtherance of programs ... deemed meritorious by the Board of Supervisors" or other officials.

Pipkin-Lane doesn't know when the second-floor retail operation started but said it has grown significantly over the last several years. County workers can go back to holding tamale sales and passing the hat around cubicles, Pipkin-Lane said. "I think it's very important for us to stay focused on what we do."

Although the county does not track how much money vendor sales bring in overall, county employees raised about $1.5 million for charity last year, she said. About 80% comes from payroll deductions.

Two visits to the building by an art seller and an accessories business this year raised more than $1,100 for nonprofit organizations, said Elaine Elizalde, program specialist with the county administrator's office. Banning vendors from the county building "would really cut into our donations," she said.

Eliminating the tables of earrings, wallets and Dodgers caps would be a "disaster" for the county's philanthropy, said Rose Acosta, 51, who has been selling lotion, cologne and perfume as a fundraiser for about three years.

On a recent spring day, Acosta packed up bottles of marked-down fragrances by J. Lo and Gucci; 15% of that day's sales was going to the March of Dimes.

"It gives the employees a chance to get away from their desks, break the daily monotony," Acosta said.

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

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