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Bureaucracy navigators fall to L.A. budget ax

The city is eliminating a department of seven field officers who help link disparate groups and direct city resources.

May 04, 2010|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

High school principal Cecil McLinn had equipment for a youth boxing program but no place to put it. Youth counselor Barry Bryant had access to an empty facility and a desire to help establish a boxing program, but didn't have the equipment.

This spring they found each other, and the Panthers Boxing Club, at long last, may have found a permanent home.

It represented a rare episode in such a diffuse city, a moment in which local government felt simple and accessible, and worked seamlessly. It was orchestrated by a bureaucrat named Francisco Ortega whose job, and department, is being eliminated as part of City Hall's effort to close a half-billion-dollar budget gap.

Ortega, 40, has worked since 2006 as one of seven field staff members of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. From the start it seemed clear that he and the others were viewed by City Hall as touchy-feely, "Kumbaya"-singing "fuzzies," he said with a laugh.

But in many pockets of Los Angeles, particularly in its hardened and fractious interior, the field staffers have served as valued mediators and advisors who have had a palpable impact over the years, often bringing together people who might otherwise not meet or communicate.

McLinn and Bryant, for instance, had long operated in the same gritty, depleted area, near the intersection of the 110 and 105 freeways. But their stars seemed unlikely to align. McLinn, 72, was the veteran principal of Duke Ellington Continuation School, a former college football player and a stern, buttoned-down guy. Bryant, 48, was a former gang member who spent much of the 1990s in jail.

In neighborhoods like this one, the City Hall cuts — the deepest in the city workforce in more than three decades — are already feared.

Earlier this month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa outlined his proposed $6.7-billion budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, as well as a plan to eliminate 3,500 positions as a means of carving into an estimated $485-million shortfall. The mayor had already announced the elimination of the department that includes the Human Relations Commission.

"The mayor has been clear that while he does not relish these decisions, they are necessary to preserve the fiscal health of the city," said Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.

The mayor has said he intends to have other offices absorb many of the services provided by the Human Services Department, but but many fear that something will be lost.

Ortega learned recently of his new and somewhat ironic assignment: He will join the city's "rapid response team" that provides advice and resources after private corporations announce plans to lay off large numbers of employees. He'll also provide assistance to City Hall employees whose positions are being eliminated.

He said he's determined to continue trying to help local communities. But he fears that some of those efforts — including organizing a weekly gathering of West Athens and Westmont educators, parents, law enforcement officers, religious leaders and social-service providers — could fall by the wayside because of his new duties.

It was at one such gathering that McLinn and Bryant realized they could create a home for the popular Panthers boxing program — no small matter when you consider that the program had been forced out of several venues in recent years, and that coaches had resorted to hanging punching bags from tree limbs.

In recent years, the commission's field staff has been instrumental in establishing community groups that help residents in some of the city's most impoverished and troubled neighborhoods stay in touch with local government.

The Watts Gang Task Force, for example, which Ortega has helped lead for more than three years, is credited with helping to usher in an era of relative calm in Watts, despite a spike in gang-related violence in recent months.

In Watts, Ortega has spent hours speaking with residents about the city's $1-billion proposal to tear down the Jordan Downs public housing development, replacing its 700 decaying apartments with a taller "urban village" that could include 2,100 units.

That proposal has fostered no small amount of angst in Watts. Ortega has worked to quell rumors that residents would be displaced and to soothe concerns that the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic balance of the area would change dramatically.

Ortega and his co-workers have also monitored demonstrations and marches to address simmering distrust between police and residents and have helped get kids safely to and from school. They've helped the city use street-level gang intervention to augment more traditional police tactics.

They have trained neighborhood councils, lecturing about the importance of conducting the public's business in public. They were instrumental in prompting the city to add an "exit strategy" for residents whose names were added without cause to gang-injunction court orders. They've helped nonprofit groups avoid duplicating services in neighborhoods with scant resources.

"It was a civics project," Ortega said with a smile and a shrug. And now, it appears it may be winding down.

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