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City Hall Is in Andrea Alarcon's blood

The daughter of City Councilman Richard Alarcon moves quickly into a prominent role in Los Angeles government.

August 30, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Andrea Alarcon, president of L.A.'s Board of Public Works, halted the Sunset Junction Street Fair earlier this month.
Andrea Alarcon, president of L.A.'s Board of Public Works, halted… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Andrea Alarcon began exploring the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall at age 8, tagging along with her father as he advised Mayor Tom Bradley on issues in the San Fernando Valley.

By the time she was in her teens, she was the girl with braces sitting behind the desk of her dad, City Councilman Richard Alarcon, listening to the speeches of such "big, powerful personalities" as council members Joel Wachs and Jackie Goldberg.

Now, as president of the powerful Board of Public Works, the Sylmar resident and single mother has stepped firmly out of her father's shadow. In the span of a week, Alarcon, 32, drew widespread attention for her handling of two political hot potatoes: the push to replace a much-criticized bus bench company and a dramatic showdown with the Sunset Junction Street Fair.

In doing so, she has emerged, somewhat unexpectedly, as the public face of a newer, more budget-conscious City Hall. Two weeks ago, Alarcon portrayed the city's existing bus bench contractor as less than forthcoming about its financial dealings — including bus-bench advertising revenue that, under certain scenarios, must be shared with taxpayers.

On Wednesday, Alarcon showed herself willing to shut down a 30-year-old music festival three days before it was to have occurred, amid a dispute over $260,000 in outstanding debts.

"In this fiscal crisis, I don't agree that it's the most responsible thing for us to waive any fees, and that's the position I took in Sunset Junction," she said. "We can't afford to not hold them accountable."

During both debates, the Georgetown University graduate demonstrated a tart tongue, a grasp of detail and a visible impatience with the city's inability to collect money she says is owed to it. Even before those issues came to the fore, Alarcon had been talked up as a possible successor to her father, who is simultaneously running for a seat in the state Assembly and fighting criminal charges of voter fraud in a case focused on whether he lives in the district he represents.

Regardless of the outcome in those two matters, term limits will force him out of his council office in 2013.

Alarcon said she remains focused on her new position at the Board of Public Works, which she has had for three months. But she does not rule out a run for her dad's seat, which would depend, in part, on the outcome of the upcoming redistricting. "It's definitely something of interest to me," she said.

Alarcon is one of five children, raised by a politician father and a mother who worked in insurance. Her youngest brother died at age 3 in a car accident. Her three adult siblings have shown little interest in either politics or policy, gravitating toward the arts and social work.

Alarcon, by contrast, took to public life and policy matters at an early age, spending entire days with her father while he was at work. "I was absorbing everything," she said. "I was a little sponge."

In 2006, at the age of 27, Alarcon was named by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the Transportation Commission, a panel with little power. While she was getting her law degree at Loyola Law School, Alarcon moved over to the Board of Taxicab Commissioners. And in 2009, Villaraigosa put her on the public works panel, where board members make $123,000 annually, as a replacement for Ernesto Cardenas, the brother of Councilman Tony Cardenas.

Soon after she took the job, an audit concluded that public works officials had overpaid a company hired to clean up hazardous waste. Alarcon responded by forming a committee to determine whether other street services vendors were complying with the terms of their contracts.

During that research, Alarcon could not find evidence that Norman Bench had ever shared ad revenue with taxpayers, even though it is required to do so under certain conditions. She sent the company a letter demanding financial information last year but never received it.

Last week, Alarcon persuaded the City Council to pick a new bus bench company, overcoming opposition from another Valley representative, Councilman Mitch Englander.

Ben Reznik, the lobbyist for Norman, refused to comment about Alarcon's actions. But Councilman Bill Rosendahl praised her handling of the matter, saying she deftly fielded questions from council members.

The fight over Sunset Junction was more explosive. Although she drew a hard line on unpaid fees, Alarcon said she reached that point only after more than a year of working with festival organizers on solutions. Last year, to make sure the 2010 festival would not be canceled, she hammered out an agreement while she was on vacation in Washington, D.C., that allowed organizers to pay their city fees once the event was over.

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