September 30, 1988 - From the September, 1988 issue

Interview with: Councilman Hal Bernson

As part of TPR Archive, here is an early interview with LA Citycouncilmember Hal Bernson. Then, Hal Bernson was serving as chairman of the Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Environmental Committee. Along with the Planning Commission, Bernson was responsible for setting the goals and directions for the city's planning efforts. He would serve the northwestern San Fernando Valley for 24 years.


Hal Bernson giving a speech with a microphone.

How long have you been on the council?  

Nine years in July.

Why did you run for office?

Self defense. It's a long story. I was involved in the community prior to running for office, primarily supporting people that I thought were good representatives. I saw Bob Wilkinson leaving office and felt that we weren't going to get the right kind of representation. I didn't see anybody stepping forward that I thought was the right person and for that reason I did something I swore I'd never do and ran myself.

What's the job like - is it mostly fun, challenging hard work?

It's all of those things and more. It's fun sometimes, it's hard work most of the time. There's a lot of frustration when you can't get things done as quickly as you like. It's challenging and it's rewarding in the sense that you feel that you've accomplished something. It's not rewarding from the financial point of view because anybody qualified can make considerably more money in a private sector. It has its pluses and minuses.

Is it mostly dealing with district or city-wide issues?  

Both. Each of us has a primary interest in our own district because that's what we're elected from and that's where the constituents live. But I think that I deal city-wide with planning issues, for example, and transportation and solid waste are regional problems which I've been very involved in. So I think it's both, it's a combination. Obviously things that happen city-wide affect our districts also, but I think we spend more time on our district issues than we do on our city-wide issues probably in just about every case.

How long have you chaired P&E Committee? 

I've chaired the P&E Committee since July of last year.

It's certainly one of the most visible and important committees. How demanding is it? 

Extremely. Although we've managed to streamline the process a great deal since I've taken over. I've served on this committee off and on for nine years. Since I've been on the Council, I think I've only been off it for a very short period of time. I think I was being punished for going the wrong way on the presidency once. Actually, I've been on the Planning Committee for about 8 of the 9 years I've been on the Council. This is my first tour as chair. It is very demanding and time restraints have been cut down a lot. because we've streamlined the process now and we've got it organized to the point where the meetings that used to take several hours are now taking an hour and a half. Two hours maximum.

How would you describe the relationship between P&E and the Planning Commission? 

I would say that it's a good relationship. I think we have a lot of respect for the members of the Commission, particularly the chair. The others as well. We've moved to broaden the communication between us since I've been here. We have a monthly meeting in which two different members of the Commission attend, each in rotation, and meet with myself, the planning director, and people involved in the planning process. That gives us some compatibility, shall we say, on objectives and things we want to work on both short and long range.

How about the Planning Department? 

I would say good. I think that the Committee has been quite anxious to see a lot of new things done that have not been done before. We are starting to see them done now. But we've been impatient with getting some of the important changes made that are now starting to take place in the planning process. There will be some new things that you will see coming forth related to dealing with the community plans; specifically, that's the area where I've been most impatient as well as with some of the code study revisions. I think we're going to get that stuff tackled. I would say basically the relationship has been one of cooperation and the Committee is willing to help the department and work with the department We want to see some innovation; some new, faster and more efficient procedures. I think that's starting to happen. We are finally starting to see the director bring forth new ideas and thoughts in conjunction with the Committee and with the Commission.

Do you favor light rail for the valley?

Yes, I do, if it’s put in the right place.

Who should choose the route? Should that be a technical assignment?

It should be a technical assignment, absolutely. Not an unscientific popularity contest. If you really stop and think about it, there's really only one appropriate way to go and that's using the route of the freeway. As long as you're doing that, the only thing that makes any sense is to double-deck the freeway at the same time.

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I read in the paper, recently, of the proposal to elevate it over the freeway. Your thoughts?

Elevating it over the freeway is what Supervisor Antonovich wants to do. It is fine, but our main problem is not light rail or lack of light rail. Our main problem is lack of ability to drive cars. That's not going to change. You will get more and more cars and more and more people even if we put in a light rail system. The problem doesn't go away. We may have some mitigation, but we will continue to have grid lock, the inability to move and get to where we're going, and we need to do something to increase the ability of those arteries to carry the amount of traffic that is necessary to live comfortably in this City and the San Fernando Valley.

Which is the biggest problem for Los Angeles over the next 10 years? Trash, traffic, or sewers?

I think it's difficult to separate. We're going to face all three. I think all three are going to be major problems. How does that effect the building industry and growth in the City? The answer is it does not effect it well.

Is the proposed sewer hookup limitation necessary at this time? 

It’s not necessary, it's wise. Because if you don't do it, if you don't take the lead and support something that is meaningful, some group is going to go to court and they're going to get a judgement against us and we're not going to have any hookups. I see it as a good faith gesture that the industry should get behind. It may have some effect, it probably will have some effect. We're talking about three, four years. Essentially I think it's a heck of a lot better than having what happened in Ventura County. There, all hookups are frozen by the courts. So, I just think that it's a little bit of bitter medicine. But sometimes you take the little bit of bitter medicine and it keeps you alive. What I'm afraid of is a total prohibition of hookups and I think that would be disastrous for the City.

City-wide, Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee have recently been authorized. You have had them in your district for some time haven't you? 

Since the beginning.

Do they work?  

Yes, they work fine if you do it the proper way.

How do you avoid turning down necessary but unpopular things when those who vote need not be concerned for the larger picture? 

That's a tough issue with which we will all have to deal. The answer is to try and be as objective as possible. You must appoint your committees fairly and balance them. We try to get balance in all of our committees, and we hear all sides of an issue. When they come in with a recommendation, I then hear the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and bite the bullet. Some elected officials are willing to do that and some are not. Some just go with the flow and go with where they think the votes are. And that's unfortunate. A good example of that is the loss of the Lancer project A very good example.

How would you rate homeowner groups in protecting their own interests before your P&E Committee?  

I think the homeowners group is helpful but I think by the time it gets before the Committee it's a little late. And that's what's wrong with the current process of not having these Advisory Committees in each Council District, like I do. Because the real key to having impact on what happens in the community is dealing with your Council Representative. That's where the battle is won or lost and Advisory Committees are going to improve that process. They are going to strengthen the ability of people to have input into what happens in their community. It's also going to strengthen the position of the Council member because they'll have the ability to hear concerns if they want to listen. Now some of them don't want to hear it, they feel they can do whatever they want to do, but at least they'll be able to make informed decisions. If they're going to go against the community, at least they'll know what they're going against and what they're doing.

How about the building industry?  

I think the building industry does a fair job, but I think they can do a much better job than they've been doing. I think they are getting in very late on the issues and I think I would like to see the industry be the leader in bringing in proposals which some may look upon as anti-growth or anti-industry. Such as the sewer hook-up. They need to have some vision in order to cut off some of the things that are happening to them. What's happening in the industry is exactly what happened to the City. The City became reactive in its policies in dealing with land use. Because of the law suits, the state legislation and all the other things that went down. All we did was react to what was happening. We lost the ability to be pro-active and to take charge of our own ship. That's what we are trying to regain right now.

The industry needs to take the same approach. They need to say we recognize that there are problems out there and we are not the enemy, we're part of the community, we want to deal with these problems in a proper manner and now we also want you to be fair to us. That gives you the ability to say we also want you to be fair to us because you need our product. You need the economic growth and you need the housing. I think you can't always be opposed to everything. There really is a transportation problem and a traffic problem; there really is a sewage problem and a sewer hook-up problem, therefore, I think you've got to be willing to say yes we know there is and we want to be part of the solution.

Will Los Angeles be a better city in the future or are we fighitng a losing battle for improving the quality of life. 

I'm an optimist. I think you can do anything that you set your mind to do if everybody wants to do it. I set a goal for myself and a schedule when I took over as chair for the P&E Committee and we've been moving forward along those lines and I think that we're going to eventually get there. I think this will be a better city and I think that we will have the type of city where we're looking out for both environmental protections and economic growth of the city. But it must be done in a proper and planned manner, not helter skelter and not with plans that are 25 years old and with moratoriums. What we need is to have our plans updated by the city, so that they're in conformity with land use and zoning. Then you can go in and know what you can build when you're buying property; you will know what you have to do. That is what we lack. We lack stability, we lack continuity and we need both. We are on the right course now. I think we're entering a new era; we are trying to get back the control that we've lost in the City.

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