January 1, 2002 - From the January, 2002 issue

L.A.'s Newest Councilman Is A Veteran Neighborhood Advocate

Many observers of the term-limits experiment critique the process by saying that it takes much needed institutional memory and knowledge out of City Hall. And while that may be true on the macro scale, newly elected Councilmember Tom LaBonge--former Chief Field Deputy to Councilman John Ferraro, Special Assistant to Mayor Riordan and Director of Community Relation for the DWP--is bucking that trend through a mixture of fresh ideas blended with long-term experience. TPR was pleased to speak with Tom about his vision for CD 4, how he hopes to deal with growth and quality of life and the difference between standing next to the City Council "horseshoe" and sitting behind it.

Tom LaBonge

Los Angeles' growing population will only increase well into the foreseeable future. Elected to represent a part of Los Angeles' dense urban center, what now will be your planning agenda for addressing the inevitable demands of growth.

One of my main concerns with regard to growth lies in the importance and necessity of preserving neighborhoods. We must realize that we cannot solve all of our growth problems through redevelopment.

To that end I am very focused on the preservation of our City's established preservation of our City's established neighborhoods-Los Feliz, Hancock Park, Toluca Lake, Larchmont Village, etc. To prioritize the construction of new housing ahead of the preservation of our existing housing stock is too narrow a focus. We should be looking at redevelopment in locations where it makes most sense, for instance along our Red Line system where we could build at higher density. That corridor-from Downtown to North Hollywood-has a number of areas where older, multi-level structures remain vacant above the ground floor. Those spaces can no longer sit unused. They must be converted into usable housing and mixed-use opportunities.

Your agenda re: growth seems to prioritize quality of life of which schools are an important component. But the City has no jurisdiction over the School District and LAUSD must build 100+ schools in the next decade and the Fourth Council district will be impacted by that construction. How do you plan to interface with the School District re: siting, design and community collaboration?

There is no new land available. Because of this, we must make sure that we use all our lands efficiently. And the best way to ensure that is to maximize the dialogue between government agencies so we get the greatest public benefit.

Saying this does not mean we should build "super campuses" like the Belmont Learning Center. While I believe that Belmont should be finished, the lesson from this fiasco only codifies my belief that neighborhood schools are the answer to our school facilities predicament.

Let's flesh out your concerns a little more. The biggest prospective school project currently affecting your council district is likely to be the Ambassador Hotel. What role will you play in ensuring that that development addresses the differing agendas of the School District, the Conservancy, the business groups and the surrounding neighborhoods who you represent?

The Ambassador Hotel site is very important for a number of reasons. First, there's a large amount of land on the site. Second there is a desire to use the land for multiple purposes-LAUSD for a school, local merchants for business and perhaps a third use for another public facility such as the 20th police station.

I find it unacceptable that some of the residents of this great city must drive their children to a street corner far from their residence only to have them picked up and bused farther away from their community. Putting a school at the centrally- located Ambassador offers a great opportunity to redress this.

There are a lot of interests riding on this property and I intend to work with Councilman Holden, in whose district it is, LAUSD, the Conservancy and area residents and business interests to work on the solution. We must think more creatively-such as building vertically as is done in New York-while also funding uses that complement the surrounding community. In my vision, the end result of the Ambassador experiment will be a school that incorporates a commercial component.

Additionally, I would also suggest there's another untapped potential for that campus that has underutilized athletic facilities that could be used to jointly build a new high school campus.

Good things can happen if we begin to think more creatively about our ncouraging that on all fronts.

Over the last two years there have been substantive efforts in which neighborhood associations in your district have attempted to proactively collaborate with the school district to site smaller new elementary and middle schools. It has reportedly been a slow, tedious and frustrating working relationship. Do you see any positives in the future?


I recently introduced a motion which will create a working group comprised of the City, the School District, the Community College District, the DWP and the neighborhoods to foster a dialogue between public entities. I call these "public-public partnerships" and the idea was very well received by the Council. Hopefully we will begin to communicate more effectively with each other to be more effective at siting school facilities and exploring the shared use of playgrounds and open space.

Tom, that's a great segue into having you elaborate on the role you will be on the City Council and with Mayor Hahn. You are the newest member of new council. What contribution would you like to be making?

My experience working for Mayor Riordan, Council President Ferraro and the DWP has given me a very broad perspective on local governance. That knowledge should not only help me as I work on the challenges in my District, but also as I work cooperatively with my fellow Councilmembers in addressing the problems of housing, homelessness, traffic, secession, public safety, parks, etc.

I firmly believe that knowledge is a key component in addressing those issues. With 27 years in public service, I have a good knowledge base but am still learning more every day. And when it comes right down to it, politics is all about knowing people-whether they're from the Mayor's staff, the Council staff, the City employees in the field, the neighborhood representatives or the constituschool facilities. And I'm interested in ents. These relationships are key.

Because of my background working in all areas of the City, I prefer to take the long and wide view-not just what's good for my District but for the whole City and not just for tomorrow but in 2021 and beyond. It's extremely important to create a vision that will stand the test of time and be carried on regardless of who is in office. To that end, I recently talked with a community group about forming a visioning committee for the 4th District so we can address the issues of open space, planning and land use and all the other hot button issues. In this era of term-limits, we have to work harder in a shorter amount of time to get the most done.

And how does the Mayor and his agenda fit with your mission and plans?

I have a warm feeling about the Hahn family for their dedication to public service. Kenny Hahn helped people and his son, the Mayor, and daughter, my colleague on the Council certainly want to keep this tradition going. I support the Mayor in his efforts to keep the city together, make it better and work more efficiently. I will join him in any effort or activity to celebrate, protect and enhance the City.

Let's conclude with this. You've talked about your long-term agenda, but what about the short-term steps necessary to implement your vision? Give our readers a sense of the accomplishments you are hoping to celebrate in the next year.

John Ferraro said, "If it's good for Los Angeles, it's good for the district." Those words are ones that I live by and as such my short-term priorities flow from that sentiment.

We've already held one Community Congress for the district and will hold three more during the year so that we can directly hear from constituents about their concerns and they can directly hear about our initiatives. I am a strong believer that if you disseminate information and knowledge effectively it becomes very empowering to people.

A few of my goals are the continued restoration of the L.A. River and extension of the L.A. River Bikeway, acquisition of more open space and creation of pocket parks in the more densely populated areas, implementation of programs to ease traffic congestion and being helpful to all residents as they work to keep their neighborhoods clear of graffiti, gangs and all the elements that compromise our quality of life.

I'm passionate about helping people and I Work hard everyday to meet the expectations of those who elected me, and to meet my own expectations, which are very high. I love this City and it gives me joy to share my enthusiasm with other


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