The Insider

An even grander place to play

August 14, 2014

The hard hats were pink, like Grand Park's benches, and the groundbreaking was kid-powered.

If you build it, they will play.  At downtown’s Grand Park, that has been the lesson so far when it comes to kids’ amenities.

From the park’s big, cartwheel-friendly lawns to its spouting splash pool, the wildly popular 2-year-old gathering space has been jammed constantly with children. So far, though, it has lacked one of the most fundamental attractions—a place for children to slide, climb and swing.

That’s about to change. This week, the park broke ground on a 3,700-square-foot, $1 million play area that’s intended to make Grand Park even more of a kid magnet.

Designed with a fanciful forest theme by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the park’s designers, the fenced play area will anchor the park segment known as Block Four, between Broadway and Spring Street, near City Hall and at the opposite end of the park from the splash pool and fountain.

“Grand Park strives to live up to its mission to be the ‘park for everyone’ in ways that engage, surprise and delight,” said Lucas Rivera, the park’s director. “Now with a children’s play area, we hope to exceed the expectations of even our smallest guests.”

The playground is expected to be completed by this November. That’s not a moment too soon for downtown’s residential community, which has become increasingly family-oriented and reliant on Grand Park for green space.

“I’ve been waiting for it,” said artist Lola Gayle, who was knitting in the park on Tuesday with her 9-year-old daughter, Milo Sandgren, as her 3½-year old son, Kian Sandgren, played in the water.

“How many years has Grand Park been open now? Let’s do it!”

In foreground, Lola Gayle relaxes with daughter Milo. Alyssa Ochoa grabs a quiet moment on the bench at left.

Park officials said the play area was in the park plans from the beginning, but had been postponed because of limited funding.

The playground is being jointly funded by First 5 LA, which is providing a grant of $500,000, and by Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is matching that amount with Proposition A/Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space District money.

Aimed at children aged 12 and under, the play area will include a 20-foot-high hardwood tree house with platforms and roller and tube slides. The area also will have berms with rock-climbing handles, a rope climber and a tunnel, and curved hardwood benches for parents and caregivers. Mature sycamore trees will frame the space and provide shade.

Though the playground is expected to take up only a small portion of the 12-acre park’s lawns, its supporters predict a big payoff.

“Grand Park serves, in essence, as L.A.’s Central Park, and one big piece that has been missing is a children’s play area,” said Jennifer Pippard, interim director of First 5 LA’s community investments department.

“We want to be about promoting physical health and good mental health and social interaction, and play areas like this provide those kinds of opportunities.”

Artist Gayle said the play area will make life easier for the growing constituency of young families who have populated downtown Los Angeles in recent years. She said that when she moved in 12½ years ago with her husband, also an artist, families with children were few and far between. “It was just dog parks,” she recalled.

Now, she said, at least five families in her building have kids and Grand Park provides an essential downtown gathering place.

“It’s brilliant, it’s a sense of community,” Gayle said. “I’ve met some really cool moms here.”

The park clientele’s diversity—economic, social, racial and otherwise—also is a big draw, she added.

As Gayle spoke, the sound of families chattering—in English and in Spanish—filled the air, along with the universal language of squealing wet kids. Some parents had driven to get to the park, while others, like Alyssa Ochoa, arrived via public transportation.

Ochoa said she first heard about Grand Park when she was staying at the Union Rescue Mission with her daughter, Nylah Green.

At first glance, they were underwhelmed.

“There was no playground, so I was disappointed,” Ochoa said. Then 2-year-old Nylah discovered the splash pad, and the park became one of their favorite attractions.

They have since moved to a women’s shelter in South Central but, whenever they travel downtown to pick up some free diapers, they make it a point to drop by Grand Park as well.

“When you don’t have any money,” Ochoa said, “you have to find something that’s free.”

The playground design features a tree house and tube slide. Image/Rios Clementi Hale Studios

Posted 7/30/14

Cracking the ER “Code”

August 13, 2014

The acclaimed Code Black captures the intensity and complexities of ER medicine at County-USC.

In the beginning, the idea was simply to produce some archival footage—a project pitched by a young medical student to document life-saving efforts unfolding amid the controlled chaos of the emergency room at Los Angeles County’s old General Hospital.

It was there, on the edge of downtown, that the concept of emergency medicine was born in 1971 and, in some respects, had remained the same in theory and practice throughout the ensuing decades.

Despite medical modernizations that had become the norm at most hospitals, the emergency crew at the renamed Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center still operated more like a battlefield MASH unit. Crowds of doctors and nurses swirled around patients suffering the most catastrophic of injuries. Side by bloody side, the stricken were packed into a cramped trauma bay in the ER called “C-booth,” with barely a curtain between them.

But in 2008, all that was about to change, and first-year resident Ryan McGarry, who also had a keen interest in filmmaking, wanted to capture the era before it was gone. Because of earthquake damage to the old county hospital, the emergency department was moving next door to a new state-of-the-art facility that would rocket the doctors into 21st century medicine, complete with its emphasis on patient privacy and layers of paperwork.

Although initially modest in scope, McGarry’s ambitions for the project soared with the support of top Los Angeles County officials and the help of a producing team that included USC Distinguished Professor Mark Jonathan Harris, who has won three Academy Awards for documentaries.

Director/Writer Ryan McGarry, an ER physician.

McGarry’s film, Code Black, opened nationwide in June and has become a critical success, a gripping and graphic look at the shifting world of emergency medicine for the destitute and working poor who rely on public hospitals, such as County-USC, for their care. The term Code Black refers to the hospital’s designation for the highest level of emergency room crowding. Among other honors, the film won the Jury Award for best documentary at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Focusing on a cadre of idealistic young residents, including himself, McGarry explores the challenging new realities for the next generation of emergency room physicians as they remain committed to maintaining a personal connection with patients while confronting the escalating regulatory demands and settings that emphasize patient privacy.

Dr. Sean Henderson, chairman of the hospital’s emergency department, says his 21-year-old daughter saw the documentary at a film festival in Santa Barbara and was so inspired that she changed her major.

“She decided to become a physician’s assistant because of that movie,” he said.

“Often, doctors are portrayed as overpaid snobs who don’t really care,” he continued the other day, sipping a caffeine-free Coke in his office in the old county hospital. “But I think you’ll see in this movie that this is not always the case. There are people doing things because they really care about the people they serve.”

Still, Henderson said he has some personal reservations about the film—a project he inherited from his predecessor, Edward Newton—and isn’t sure he would have green-lighted it himself.

“I’ve never believed in cameras in the hospital,” he explained. “The fact that you’re in an emergency room with an unplanned, unscheduled, unanticipated event—stressed, waiting, probably less informed than you’d like to be—I think that’s a very vulnerable place to be.”

That said, Henderson praised the filmmaker for getting two sets of consents from patients whose emergency room visits are shown in the film—everyone from a drunken man belting out a romantic ballad in the waiting room to the family of a patient whom doctors unsuccessfully fought to save as they cut into his chest to keep his heart beating.

Henderson, who became department chair in 2012, also appears in the film, but mostly to defend a prominently featured action he imposed in the face of a severe nursing shortage. In a dramatic segment of the documentary, he shut down an area of the new emergency department, creating a monumental patient backlog, to make the point “that we couldn’t continue to care for all these people with inadequate resources.”

“I caused the crisis and I had to defend the crisis. I was the villain,” he said, and then offered a fuller explanation of his actions than he did in the film.

He said that in the past, before Health Services Director Mitchell Katz’s arrival in 2011, “the way you got attention in the county system was to create a crisis. It wasn’t just me. It was throughout the system…If you have a crisis, resources are pulled from someone who’s not having a crisis to take care of your crisis. And so, without permission from the school [USC] or the county, I created a crisis knowing full well that it would create a pushback downtown that would allow them to hear my pleas that heretofore had gone ignored.

“It was manipulative, it was sneaky, and mea maxima culpa. But it worked,” he said, noting that more funding was soon made available for the desperately needed nurses.

Another top L.A. County emergency department official, Dr. Erin Wilkes, said she’s seen her good friend McGarry’s film more than a dozen times in various stages along the way. The two were residents together, beginning in the old hospital’s emergency department. Today, she’s the director of Emergency Medicine Systems Innovation & Quality.

Wilkes said she helped organize various Code Black screenings for county officials, including the Health Services executive team. The feedback was mostly positive, she said, although “there were a lot of questions about what the consent process was like.” Wilkes said McGarry obtained his first consents at the hospital and then got a second round of permissions after showing people the actual footage he wanted to use.

Wilkes said she’d now like to build on Code Black’s positive buzz by holding a panel discussion event at USC that would include McGarry, now an assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College.

In a recent interview with the emergency medicine publication ACEPNow, McGarry talked about the demands of simultaneously pursuing his residency and filmmaking. “It was three years of no vacation,” he said. But he said he had no regrets.

“One thing that I feel very lucky to have experienced,” he said, “is nonmedical people sitting through some pretty tough stuff in cases we show. And at the end of the film people give us a standing ovation. I wish I could share that with every physician, nurse and X-ray tech who leaves a really tough shift.”

C-booth at the old L.A. County hospital operated more like a MASH unit than a modern ER.

Posted 7/17/14

A park vote to keep the green flowing

August 6, 2014

The restored Griffith Observatory is one of the most visible projects funded by Proposition A.

From the Malibu Pier to trails running through the Santa Monica Mountains, from a dog park in La Crescenta to a skate park in Downey, two L.A. County park measures have generated nearly $1 billion in improvements over the past two decades for some of the region’s best-loved gathering places, great and small.

The measures—Proposition A in 1992 and a follow-up initiative known as “Baby A” in 1996—have helped to fund 1,545 projects across the county including “tot lots,” tree planting, swimming pools, soccer fields, bikeways and fitness gardens, along with facilities for seniors and youth, wildlife habitat projects and graffiti abatement services.

Among the measures’ most broadly visible success stories: a new shell installed at the Hollywood Bowl, a county park, in 2004; the extensive restoration of the Griffith Observatory, which reopened to the public in 2006; and expansion of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, with amenities including a play area and ball fields. Prop. A funding also has helped transform El Cariso Community Regional Park in Sylmar, which now boasts new features including soccer fields and a 15,000-square-foot community center and gymnasium. And it is allowing kids to make a splash this summer in the new Olympic-sized pool at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles.

A chocolate Lab has his day at La Crescenta's dog park.

But the flow of green amenities to parks in L.A. County’s unincorporated areas and its 88 cities could be coming to an end, with Prop. A set to expire next June 30. (Its 1996 counterpart will finish in 2019.)

Concerned about derailing a successful program of investing in local parks and recreation facilities, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided this week to place on the November ballot a measure that would essentially carry on the 1992 Prop. A for 30 more years, generating a similar $53 million per year.

“We need to do this if we want to keep the momentum going,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who along with Supervisors Don Knabe and Gloria Molina voted to place the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. “The public has benefitted from this. They like the parks that have been built. They like the recreational opportunities that have been provided. I don’t think they want to see this come to a grinding halt on June 30 of this coming year.”

But Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who joined Mark Ridley-Thomas in opposing the action, said it was too soon to place what he called a “half-baked tax” before the voters, especially since Prop. A ’96 is continuing for several more years and some unspent funds remain in Prop. A coffers.

Russ Guiney, the county’s director of Parks and Recreation, acknowledged that there is a current balance of $154 million in Prop. A funds, but said $20 million of that is committed to upcoming projects. Unless the proposed continuation of Prop. A passes, the remaining funds will be spent down rapidly on park projects and maintenance demands that run around $55 million annually, Guiney said.

The average homeowner currently is assessed $13 a year for Prop. A ’92 and $7 annually for Prop A. ’96, for a total of $20 a year. The measure now heading to the Nov. 4 ballot would replace the Prop. A ’92 assessment with a flat tax of $23 a year per parcel. If passed by the required two-thirds of county voters, that would bring the average homeowner’s total tab for park improvements to $30 per year.

Guiney noted that 64% of voters approved the 1992 measure, and even more—65%—voted in favor of the 1996 proposition.That bodes well, he said, especially since so many projects built with funds from the previous parks measures are now visible and being used enthusiastically by the public.

“I think the voters understand and appreciate this, based on past history,” he said. “We’re optimistic.”


Belvedere Park has a new Olympic-sized pool, East L.A.'s first. Photo/Los Angeles Times

Posted 8/6/14

Voting’s future: #FixIt

June 19, 2014

The #LAVote Twitter feed was busy on Election Day, sharing updates and photos from around the county.

After Tuesday’s primary election, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan noted the irony of his role the night before: He was using new technology—that is, tweeting—to explain to voters why the county can’t post instant election results on the Internet.

One of his tweets, also posted on the Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s website : “L.A. County covers a large geographic area.  It will take time for secure transport of ballots to HQ (that’s headquarters in Norwalk) for tabulations.”

During the evening, Logan and other county officials kept the Twitter generation entertained with updates and photos of bright red boxes of paper ballots security-sealed and ready for transport.  Logan loves the real-time dialogue with constituents, but pleads for patience from those among the county’s 4.8 million registered voters who may blame reporting delays on county staff.

Secure transport of ballots doesn’t begin until the polls close. “Once that’s done, the counting process is fast — but we have to get them to Norwalk,” he said. (Still, as of Wednesday, thousands of “provisional” and last-minute absentee ballots remained to be counted.)

Both tired and exhilarated on Wednesday morning, Logan said it might be a long time before voters can cast their vote online or get instant election results.  That’s hard to explain to a public that’s used to doing everything online, from paying bills to voting for the next American Idol.

“What it really comes down to is the value of the history of the secret ballot,” Logan said.  He explained that while an online activity such as banking is a secure transaction, it still requires that the identity of the individual be linked to the account so the bank knows who you are. At the polls, the voter signs in so he or she can’t vote more than once, but once the paper ballot is placed in the box it can no longer be connected to any individual voter.

But Logan is more confident that the county can streamline the current voting process to better serve the demands of a new generation of voters in other ways. “We’re looking at modernizing the voting systems,” he said. Tuesday’s startlingly low voter turnout, he said, is one more indicator of a voting process that is “at the end of its life cycle.” (Only 13.1% of eligible county residents voted, the lowest turnout in the state.)

Last year, the county launched a massive updating of the voting apparatus to be more user-friendly, with updated equipment to be available at the polls in 2016, part of a broader effort that includes research into the future needs of an increasingly large and complex population.

And on Wednesday, the county passed an ordinance—initiated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky —that will require candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically, with the goal of eliminating the slow, labor intensive data entry process and providing quicker, more complete access to the public.

By the November 4 general election, Logan said, campaign donor information will be available online for all candidates. While optional electronic filing has existed for several years, he said, only 50% of L.A. County candidates have been filing online.   Some information was only accessible on paper at Norwalk headquarters.

“And some candidates have done a hybrid, sometimes electronically, sometimes paper,” he said. “The first step is to make that an even playing field. All of the candidates will be filing in the same manner.”

He adds that it’s not enough to post campaign finance information: the county plans to make sure it’s presented in a searchable, user-friendly format.  (One minor downside:   Because the information will be entered online by the candidate’s campaign management, errors or violations will be publicly visible before the county has a chance to see the entry and notify the campaign of the problem.)

Logan called the move significant because “it’s one step in updating the whole process.” The goal of the county, he asserts, is “transparency, security and accountability.”

Logan said his department also is looking at new ways to bring younger voters to the polls, including the opportunity to vote at any polling place, rather than having to make it to a designated polling location during voting hours.

And the poll worker pool needs to be expanded beyond the current demographic, which skews heavily toward older people and retirees. “There is not the population available that’s willing to put in a day’s work for what is essentially a civic volunteerism act,” he said. “Some do it for the stipend, which I think is $175, but there are certainly areas of this county where that’s not an incentive.”

Logan says the department will carefully consider each update to the system.  “People are now used to getting information on a real-time basis and our system isn’t designed for that,” he acknowledged. “But we need to make sure we’re not duplicating [problems] with a newer version of the old process.  We need to make sure there’s value added, and a flexibility to change with the times.”

Posted 6/5/14

County’s $840 million reform plan

June 17, 2014

The county, which pays millions annually for health care for retirees and their dependents, will save substantially in the years ahead.

In a move expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars in the decades to come, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved historic reforms in the way it pays for county retirees’ health care insurance.

County officials said the changes could save $840 million over the course of the next 30 years. Under the plan—which applies to those hired after July 1, not to current workers—the county will reduce the subsidies it provides for retirees to purchase health care insurance. The changes approved by the board also require retirees who are eligible for Medicare to enroll in the federal program; the county subsidy will be applied to a Medicare supplement plan.

The savings are projected be considerable. Currently, the county pays up to $1,953.41 a month to subsidize health care benefits for a retiree and his or her family. Under the new plan, a retiree under the age of 65 would receive an individual monthly subsidy of up to $918.46, which will be reduced to $370.89 once the retiree reaches 65 and can be covered under Medicare. The new plan is based only on individual coverage, but retirees can still purchase insurance for their dependents at their own expense.

“This represents one of the most significant improvements to our retiree health care benefit since the 1980s. It reduces our unfunded liability by 20%,” said William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive officer. “It speaks to our board’s fiscal responsibility and fiscal discipline, and it’s a move that will help ensure our future financial viability.”

Fujioka said the support of county labor groups had helped make the new retiree health plan a reality.

“They were with us 100%,” Fujioka said. “We went to the table and negotiated this change, and they joined us in presenting this change to our L.A. County retirement board. As a consequence, we got a unanimous vote.”

The county currently pays about $487.8 million a year for retiree health care—with that obligation coming off the top of the budget each year, before other programs are funded.

Taking action now ensures the health of the retiree benefit in the years ahead, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

“These reforms allow Los Angeles County to continue its leadership role in providing fair and responsible benefits to retirees, in contrast to troubles that have affected many other jurisdictions across the country,” Yaroslavsky said.  “Without these changes, our health care program would have faced severe challenges going forward. As it is, we are doing the right thing for future generations of L.A. County employees and taxpayers.”

Posted 6/17/14

A new Dawn at the museum

April 16, 2014

After overseeing high-visibility projects all over the county, Dawn McDivitt is ready for a new challenge.

Want to explore the Dawn McDivitt map of Los Angeles?

Here’s an itinerary, just for starters:

A gleaming architectural gem (Disney Hall), an international symbol of great music (the Hollywood Bowl shell), a splashy Civic Center hot spot (Grand Park), a state-of-the-art medical facility (LAC+USC Medical Center), an imposing lockup on the outskirts of downtown (Twin Towers Jail), even a tarry pond right beside Wilshire Boulevard, complete with prehistoric mammoth figures (the La Brea Tar Pits lake bed.)

Over more than two decades, McDivitt has managed projects to build, rebuild or revamp all of those, along with numerous other L.A. County facilities ranging from fire stations to swimming pools. It’s an extensive body of work that has served untold tens of thousands of residents and visitors from every walk of life.

While her pivotal role in bringing all those projects to fruition may be little known to the general public, around the county Hall of Administration, McDivitt is something of a capital projects rock star, with her exuberant laugh, infectious enthusiasm (a favorite adjective: “fabulous!”) and widely-respected ability to get things done.

But, after helping guide the course of more than $2 billion in projects as a manager in the Chief Executive Office, the 56-year-old McDivitt is about to notch a new destination on her professional map: the county’s venerable Natural History Museum.

On May 1, she becomes the museum’s chief deputy director, serving as its No. 2 executive under president and director Jane Pisano.

“She has worked on so many major cultural projects in the county. She really understands and values public-private partnerships and getting things done,” Pisano said. “She is going to be such a great fit here.”

In addition to the main museum in Exposition Park, McDivitt in her new position also will oversee the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits and the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum in Newhall.

“For me, it’s a time for something new, and moving outside of the comfort zone,” McDivitt said on a recent sunny afternoon as she left her 7th floor office to walk through one of her signature accomplishments, Grand Park.  “Especially when you stop and realize you’ve been in a place for 20 years.”

The attraction—and the challenge—will be learning to lead a new team in a new environment with a lot of new responsibilities, from human resources to technology, along with more familiar duties like overseeing projects.

“I’m looking forward to learning…I always thrive on knowledge, anyway. I think if you continue to learn, you continue to expand as a person,” McDivitt said. Plus, she added: “I think it’s going to be a really cool environment to work down there because I absolutely love history.”

Like many Angelenos, McDivitt has early memories of going to the Natural History Museum and the Page as a child. And in her professional capacity, she got the chance to oversee a challenging project on the Page/Tar Pits grounds in 2011 when it turned out that the lake was seeping oil and gas into storm drains when it overflowed.

She supervised the CEO’s staff in managing the effort to install a new underground water purification system and connect the tar pits lake to the city sewers beneath Wilshire Boulevard.

Fix-it operations are nothing new to McDivitt.

“It’s kind of like that little Dutch boy with his fingers in the dike,” she joked. “There are times that I just want to pull my finger out and see what happens!”

She’s kept trouble at bay countless times, perhaps most prominently when glare from the new Disney Hall was found to be reflecting into nearby condominiums and onto the street. The solution: Workers with hand orbitals sanded down part of the surface.

Then there was the discovery of human remains during construction of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. After expert consultation, the bodies and artifacts were reburied in a special memorial garden at the site.

Even Grand Park needed some emergency trouble-shooting after its inaugural event—a big participatory dance-fest—reduced the Performance Lawn to a “mud pit.” (A new underground drainage system is now in place to prevent a repeat performance.)

McDivitt said she has learned how to listen first and let solutions emerge from dialogue.

“Staying calm is a really good challenge to me since I’m Irish,” she said. “So I tend to want to react and solve a problem right off the bat, and think of a solution before I actually listen to everything. My sisters tend to say to me, ‘OK, I’m calling to talk to you and I only want you to listen. Don’t solve the problem. I want you to listen.’ “

McDivitt said she is leaving behind a “great team” to carry on the capital project work, including upcoming phases of the Grand Avenue Project. (A Frank Gehry-designed development to be built across from his acclaimed Disney Hall is expected to come before the Board of Supervisors later this month, before McDivitt departs.)

But she’ll be taking with her something rare and precious: the opportunity to watch in delight as her work took on a life of its own.

“Look how much it’s being used,” she said as she strolled through Grand Park, children frolicking in the fountain and grownups lingering over lattes at café tables. “This is fabulous! That just feels so exhilarating—especially when you’re in the public sector.”

Among McDivitt's accomplishments: guiding construction of Disney Hall and fixing its glare.

Posted 4/16/14

Defenders mark a century of L.A. law

January 19, 2014

In this 1963 photo, Public Defender Kathryn McDonald confers with client Gregory Powell (left), who was accused with Jimmy Lee Smith in the "Onion Field" killing of LAPD officer Ian Cambell.

In the early 1880s, an Italian immigrant in San Francisco was charged with trying to collect $500 in insurance by torching his house on Telegraph Hill. The man was innocent but could not afford a decent attorney, and when his trial date rolled around, his lawyer didn’t show.

So the judge, as judges did then, went into the hallway and ordered the first lawyer he saw to represent the defendant. This didn’t bode well, since most court-appointed defense lawyers at the time were not only unpaid but also incompetent.

The lawyer—Clara Shortridge Foltz—was, in fact, just out of law school. But she won the case and used it as Exhibit A in a national push that led to the opening of the nation’s first public defender’s office in 1914 in Los Angeles.

One hundred years later, the Public Defender’s Office of Los Angeles County is marking its centennial anniversary. Some 700 attorneys work there now—more than at any criminal defense firm in the nation—along with hundreds of investigators, paralegals, psychiatric social workers and support staff. Last fiscal year, they defended clients in more than 400,000 felony and misdemeanor cases, not counting the thousands more defendants in juvenile delinquency and mental health courts.

Like Foltz, they occasionally make history.  And, like Foltz, they tend not to become particularly famous. (In 2001, when the criminal courthouse downtown was renamed in her honor, the Los Angeles Times noted “a chorus of people saying: ‘Clara Who?’”)

“We usually pick up cases because nobody else is there,” says Alan Simon, a now-retired public defender bureau chief who spent five mostly unsung years representing the Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi.

“But most of the great names in public defense are not the ones that you see in the headlines. Charlie Gessler was probably one of the best defense lawyers ever. Do you know who he is? Probably not.”

Deputy Public Defenders Bernadette Everman and Dave Meyer at arraignment of "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez.

Less obscure are some of the names of the clients represented over the years by the department. The Night Stalker had a public defender. So did the Onion Field killers and members of the Manson and Menendez families. Public defenders played a key role in uncovering the Rampart scandal at LAPD in the 1990s, and handled the crush of cases filed in the wake of both the Watts Riots and the L.A. Riots.

Most of the office’s clients, however, are the kinds of people to whom society tends to pay little attention—the impoverished, the downtrodden, the lost, the addicted, the difficult.

“It’s a calling,” says Public Defender Ron Brown, who has spent 33 years in the office, where turnover for reasons other than retirement averages a miniscule 2 percent a year.

“Our clients aren’t always nice people,” Brown says. “But somebody has to defend them, and vigorously defend them, in order for justice to be done. So what we do is about protecting peoples’ constitutional rights, and people who work here find that this is a place where they can do God’s work, as corny as that may sound.”

As integral as the Public Defender’s Office now is to the legal system, it was a radical notion when it began. It arose from decades of lobbying by Foltz, whose long list of accomplishments included being the first female lawyer in California. With fellow suffragettes and Progressive allies, she sought to balance the odds in the late 1800s against impoverished defendants who were often railroaded by ambitious prosecutors and judges, even though they were supposed to be presumed innocent.

At the time, the state prosecuted people suspected of criminal wrongdoing, but didn’t underwrite any of their defense costs. A judge could appoint a lawyer to represent a pauper. But the court-appointed attorney, who was duty-bound to take the assignment, had to work without pay, or pro bono.

As a result, few competent lawyers made themselves available for such work.  Instead, judges typically drew from the lowest ranks of the courthouse pecking order, often strolling out into the hallways and grabbing whoever happened to be around.

Foltz was outraged by the situation. A lawyer’s daughter, she had turned to the law to support herself after her husband deserted her and their five children. She had a soft spot for the poor.

She also had a knack for agitation: When she learned that only white males could become lawyers in California, she hounded the governor into signing landmark legislation to abolish the inequality. When she couldn’t’ get into law school, she sued for admission. Now, pressed into action on behalf of poor clients, she believed the time had come for lawyers like her to be able to make a living.

So she began agitating for legal reforms that would guarantee a paid defense and balance the odds against the defendant. According to a definitive biography of Foltz by retired Stanford law professor Barbara Babcock, she spent three decades campaigning in state legislatures and drafting model statutes before a political tide of Progressives and women—who had just gotten the vote here—led to success in California.

By then, Foltz was working as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, another first for a woman, and was an influential political voice, both nationally and here. In November 1912, Los Angeles County voters approved a charter that included the creation of the Office of the Public Defender, and the following year, it was ratified by the state legislature.

After a competitive exam, the Board of Supervisors appointed Walton J. Wood, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney, as the first public defender in the nation. The office opened on Jan. 9, 1914.

Over the years, according to Public Defender Brown, the office’s focus has changed with the societal landscape.

“In the past, we looked exclusively at winning—at getting the guy out and moving on,” he says. “The thought was that we’re lawyers, not social workers. But in fact, a good lawyer really is a kind of social worker. You end up getting involved with everything from housing to mental health needs.”

To that end, the office now works closely with social services in the county, from children’s services to mental health. It also has helped pioneer the use of specialized courts for addicts, veterans, the mentally ill and women, and has become involved in communities with programs like Parks After Dark.

And as it heads into its next century, he says, the department has added to its diversity in ways that would probably please the suffragette who made it happen: More than half of the lawyers—from trial lawyers to managers—are female now.

Clara Shortridge Foltz's groundbreaking activism led to the creation of L.A. County's Public Defender's Office in 1914, the first of its kind in the nation.

Posted 2/21/14

Heroes in hardhats

January 8, 2014

Marco Andonaegui, a 30-year DPW worker, saved a child who fell into traffic. Photo/Bob Ariola DPW

They have rescued small children from oncoming traffic. They have brought a victim of attempted murder back from the brink of death. They have braved rising floodwaters and raging house fires. Last month, they dragged an unconscious driver from a burning SUV seconds before the truck’s gas tank exploded.

Not all first responders are sheriff’s deputies or firefighters. Some also find themselves in the occasional life-and-death situation while minding the county’s infrastructure at the Department of Public Works.

Emergency response has been among DPW’s core services since 1985 when the department was created, though the public tends to be more familiar with the department’s work in engineering, flood control and road maintenance. DPW maintains a 24-hour emergency operations center, and employees there are trained for disaster.

In fact, over the years, so many DPW hardhats have stepped into the breach so often that after a beloved employee named Kelly Bolor died in Iraq in 2003 while serving as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves in Mosul, the department created an in-house award for valor that has been presented in the wake of a number of incidents.

Since that date, nearly two dozen DPW employees have received the Kelly Bolor Award for heroism of one sort or another, from Ignacio Orozco Jr., who used a county dump truck to head off a potentially fatal car crash on Imperial Highway last year to members of Road Maintenance Division Crew 551, who extinguished a raging house fire in 2011 near their Antelope Valley work site, to Gary Clinton, who used his motorgrader to rescue panicked motorists from a flooded crossing in the high desert in 2005.

“I’ve been with the county for 29 years, and I think we’ve all at one time or another been first responders in some kind of situation,” says Steven Smith, a road maintenance superintendent in Agoura whose crew members, Lowell Johanknecht and Enrique Ramos, are expected to be nominated this year for pulling a woman from a burning SUV on Mulholland Highway on September 18.

Lowell Johanknecht, left, and Enrique Ramos are the latest Public Works heroes. Photo/ Christian Garcia DPW

“If an accident happens and you’re around, you rise to the occasion. This job can be dangerous, too.”

That certainly was the case for the award’s first recipient, Marco Andonaegui, who was replacing traffic signs in 2004 on Topanga Canyon Boulevard near the 101

Freeway when he glanced up and saw a child tumble out of an SUV.

“He was 8 years old and his buckle must have come undone,” says Andonaegui, a 30-year DPW employee who says he still gets chills when he thinks of how close the child came to being hit by oncoming traffic.

“I was alone, going the opposite direction and they were just a couple a cars in front of me.”

Andonaegui scrambled out of his county vehicle, jumped the median and grabbed the child as the SUV drove on, the child’s mother oblivious to what had happened.

“Cars were swerving around us, braking around us, the little boy was crying and crying,” recalls Andonaegui. “I don’t know how the heck I didn’t get hit, let alone the little kid.”

Fifteen minutes later, he says, the mother circled back, frantic.

“She was desperate and grateful, and she must have given me 20 or 30 thank yous, but she was crying so hard, she forgot to ask for my name or give me hers,” he remembers.

It was only afterward, he says, that he learned she had written down the phone number on the back of his county truck and called the department.  A father of grown children, he says he never heard from the woman again and still doesn’t know her name or her son’s name, but he still keeps his award plaque in his Lynwood living room.

Dam Operator Gary Elrod says he and his fellow crewmen on the remote San Gabriel Dam compound likewise never heard again from the young man they rescued.

It was early on a Tuesday morning, May 29, 2007, and the seven dam workers, several of whom live on the isolated site high in the San Gabriel Mountains, were starting their day early when Assistant Dam Operator Benny Velasco spotted a body in a drain near the roadside.

“It looked like he’d been attacked at another location, stuffed in the trunk of his car, driven to the entrance area of the San Gabriel Dam in Azusa Canyon and left there for dead,” recalls Elrod. “I personally counted nine stab wounds.”

A 25-year DPW employee who had worked in his youth with an emergency response team in Saudi Arabia, Elrod says he grabbed his blanket and safety gear and started to administer first aid.

As the crew waited for paramedics to arrive, Elrod tried to keep the barely coherent victim from falling into unconsciousness.

“This isn’t your time,” he remembers repeating to the young man as the sun rose over the mountains. In the hospital, Elrod says, the victim, who was from Whittier, refused to name his attacker, and the case was still unsolved three months later when he stopped asking about it.

“He denied everything he’d said to me when the sheriff questioned him later,” says Elrod. “All I know is, he’s out there somewhere with a horror story to tell his children and he’s lucky we came along when we did.”

The workers say they don’t mind that the recipients of their help often have no idea who they are or what department they work for.

“It makes you feel good just to be able to help,” says Johanknecht, the 23-year-old road laborer who pulled the woman from the burning truck last month on Mulholland Highway near Las Virgenes Road.

Johanknecht, who lives in Redondo Beach, says he had finished his shift at the Road Maintenance Division’s Yard 339 near Agoura Hills and was heading off to meet his girlfriend at their community college when he noticed the plume of smoke and the overturned Chevrolet Suburban. Pulling over on his motorcycle, he called 911 and ran toward the crash site.

“The 911 operator asked if anyone was in the car, and I said yeah, there’s a lady in the driver’s seat,” he remembers. “Right then, an older gentleman on a bicycle came up the hill and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Get her out!’”

Just then, he says, Ramos pulled over, having seen the skid marks, the smoke and his coworker’s abandoned Suzuki DR650.  Working together, the three wrestled the woman, who appeared to be in her 40s, out of the black SUV and back toward the road’s shoulder.

“She was panicked and freaking out and pushing us away and in shock,” Johanknecht says, “and smoke was engulfing the car and all the air bags had deployed and blocked all the windows.”

As they carried the woman to safety, the SUV’s gas tank exploded, igniting a brushfire that engulfed nearly two acres before two Super Scoopers and four water-dropping helicopters were called in to contain it.  Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Scott Miller could not release the woman’s name, but said she was transported to a local hospital. Ramos and Johanknecht say they never found out who she was and haven’t heard from her.

Johanknecht says his parents and girlfriend were “worried and proud at the same time” when they heard what happened, and wishes the crash victim—whoever she is—a speedy recovery.

“You never expect this, but you never know—we work out here in no man’s land, and a lot of things happen,” he says. “I just hope that someone would do me the same favor if something like that ever happens to me.”

After helping to drag a woman to safety, Lowell Johanknecht snapped this photo of the crash site.

Posted 10/15/13

Board votes to restore cross to seal

January 8, 2014

The current county seal, revised in 2004, will be changed again to include a cross atop the mission.

Reopening a long-running and divisive controversy, the Board of Supervisors this week voted to once again place a cross on the Los Angeles County seal.

The action came nearly a decade after the board agreed to remove the Christian symbol under threat of a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. The county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars after that 2004 decision to replace the seal with a redesigned version that now appears throughout its facilities and on items ranging from business cards and badges to uniforms and vehicles.

The impetus for the board’s about-face this week was a motion by Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, who argued that the current seal’s depiction of the San Gabriel Mission without a cross is “artistically and architecturally inaccurate.” Although the cross was removed from the mission during retrofitting following the Whittier Narrows earthquake, their motion said, it has since been restored to the structure and the county seal should reflect that.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas joined Antonovich and Knabe in voting to bring back the cross. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky voted against the measure.

Although the motion made no mention of religion, Yaroslavsky said the cross is the principal symbol of one particular faith, and noted that there is extensive legal precedent barring its incorporation into the seal on Constitutional grounds.

“The court cases have made it very clear that the use of a symbol, the principal symbol of any religion on a government seal, is unconstitutional,” Yaroslavsky said.

“And this is not just about history,” he added. “It’s about the cross. To say anything different would be really somewhat disingenuous…There are a hundred ways we could depict history. But the one that’s been chosen here is the cross.”

The county seal currently in use replaced a 1957 version designed by the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and drawn by the artist Millard Sheets. Hahn said at the time that the seal was intended to depict “the cultural and educational and the religious life of this county.” Featured on the seal, in addition to the cross, were images including the Hollywood Bowl, a Spanish galleon, a tuna, a prize-winning Guernsey cow named Pearlette, several oil derricks and the goddess Pomona carrying fruit. The redesigned seal eliminated the cross, the derricks and the goddess but added an image of a mission (without a cross) and a Native American woman.

The 2004 decision to drop the cross prompted an uproar, with nearly 1,000 people gathering outside the Hall of Administration on the day of the Board of Supervisors’ vote, some with signs calling the ACLU the “Annihilation of Christian Liberties Union.” Hahn’s children, then-Mayor James Hahn and then-Councilwoman Janice Hahn, argued in favor of keeping the symbol on the county seal.

Yaroslavsky, however, said at the time he was willing to make an unpopular decision if it was the right thing to do: “The First Amendment is not a popularity contest.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, he once again argued against including a religious symbol on a government seal, but this time was on the losing end of the vote. Before the board’s 3-2 decision, Yaroslavsky predicted the county would face, and lose, a legal challenge—particularly since it would be restoring a symbol it had removed after questions were raised about its constitutionality.

That point was echoed by Peter J. Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, who said reincorporating the cross into the county seal would violate both state and U.S. constitutions. He also said that the separation of church and state has helped to strengthen religious activity in the United States, not to diminish it.

“The ACLU strongly believes that religion has flourished in this country, perhaps more than any other, and religious pluralism has flourished because the government does not favor or denigrate any particular religion,” he said. “Adding a sectarian religious symbol to the county seal, the preeminent symbol of one particular religion, runs against that grain.”

After the meeting, Eliasberg would not say whether his organization plans to file a lawsuit.

While Eliasberg spoke against the motion, several others supported it, including a resident of Altadena who said: “There’s nothing unconstitutional about having an historical reference to the role of religion in the formation of the nation…None of this has really anything to do with the Board of Supervisors or anyone else promoting religion. We’re just accurately depicting our cultural heritage in history.”

This 1957 seal, with a cross above the Hollywood Bowl, used to hang in the Board Hearing Room.

Posted 1/8/14

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