If Los Angeles City Council candidate Carolyn Ramsay stumbles in her bid to replace Councilman Tom LaBonge, it might be the concrete streets of Hancock Park that trip her up.
Two years ago, a Times analysis found the affluent area had some of the worst roads in the city. Many residents have been furious with LaBonge and Ramsay, his former chief of staff, about the shoddy streets. And they have been resistant to using asphalt to fix them, citing neighborhood preservation rules requiring longer-lasting concrete.
As the May 19 election nears, with Ramsay facing hospital development director David Ryu, LaBonge has said that $400,000 in fixes to Hancock Park intersections are on the way — using concrete. But the planned repairs still have some residents questioning why the work wasn't done earlier.
"It seemed like they were playing 'hide-the-bacon' with us," said Hancock Park resident Bill Newby. "And it turned out they were."
Ramsay said it was fantastic that fixes would happen, but she maintained that the money wasn't available for more costly concrete before she left the council office a year ago. "There were desperately needed street repairs throughout the district and we didn't have extra money on the scale of what was needed," she said.
Hancock Park is just one of the far-flung neighborhoods that make up District 4, which stretches from Sherman Oaks to the Miracle Mile. But the race could hinge partly on such local concerns as residents weigh how well they were served by LaBonge and his top aide.
Ramsay has emphasized her experience as she stumps for votes, but her City Hall record has earned her both fans and critics. David Gajda, a Hancock Park resident backing Ramsay, said it wasn't fair for the area to seek more expensive concrete instead of asphalt. But Newby and other residents have challenged why LaBonge and Ramsay couldn't have tapped council discretionary money intended for former redevelopment areas.
In recent years, LaBonge has used between $750,000 and $1.1 million annually in discretionary money on a grab bag of projects, including funding nonprofits, staffing the Griffith Observatory and sponsoring a nightly zoo event involving lights. The money "may be used for any municipal use," said Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso.
Ramsay "was aware of the issue — and she never said, 'We do have money,'" Hancock Park resident Madeline Warren said.
After the Los Feliz Ledger reported concerns with how LaBonge spent discretionary money, Ryu, who is running as a City Hall outsider, pledged to reform what he characterized as "slush funds." His spokeswoman, Rachel Estrada, argued that the Hancock Park repairs were "precisely the kind of situation where discretionary funds could and should be used."
Ramsay said that when she met with residents two years ago, they wanted to replace all eight miles of the concrete streets in Hancock Park, exceeding the money available in discretionary funds. (City engineers estimated that concrete repaving would cost more than $5 million per mile.) She said she didn't think such money could be spent on contracts with private businesses.
Yet City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said there was no such restriction on the money. And Cindy Chvatal, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners Assn., said her group hadn't asked to replace all the streets, only to start addressing the problem.
Ramsay said she had gotten potholes repaired with asphalt in parts of Hancock Park and would work with residents to set aside money annually for concrete. She also promised she would detail her discretionary spending online and not transfer such money into staff salaries.
The candidate also said she argued against spending $100,000 on zoo lights, which LaBonge has defended as a moneymaker generating nearly $1 million in net revenue from tickets.
"But the reality is that $100,000 would not have made a dent in the repairs needed in Hancock Park," Ramsay said.
Chvatal said that was "simply not true." That and other discretionary money could have helped repair some intersections, particularly if some of it was set aside annually, Chvatal said.
In an email to Hancock Park resident Tim Allyn last year, Ramsay said the city could offer only one option — fixing streets with asphalt — because its equipment was designed for asphalt and its crews were trained to work with it. The one exception was a small crew that did curbs and special projects, she wrote. She suggested that neighbors could create an assessment district to pay for concrete repairs themselves.
Earlier this year, LaBonge said the city would be able to fund some fixes. LaBonge asked Santana to transfer $400,000 in street repair money to be used for concrete repairs, saying it had been an ongoing issue for five years. The work is slated to be done by a private contractor working on a transit line in the area.
LaBonge said he tried to get the repairs funded earlier but had faced resistance from other city offices. Board of Public Works President Kevin James said that if there was any resistance, it was because no money had been budgeted for concrete repairs — but that decision was up to elected officials drawing up the budget.
James added that the repairs appeared more convenient now because in years past "there would not have been someone doing concrete work in the area."
Chvatal and other frustrated residents have scrutinized how LaBonge spent the money that he controlled: In the last two years, LaBonge transferred more than $750,000 from the former redevelopment account to his council office budget.
LaBonge, who had the second-highest spending on earnings for his staffers on the council last year, said he had hired additional staffers to pick up trash and to redirect tourists away from the Hollywood sign. Former LaBonge aide Sheila Irani, who ran for the seat but lost in the primary, argued that the councilman "did a lot of good work" with his discretionary money, including funding the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood.
But Allyn argued that spending discretionary money on donations to charities and city departments with their own budgets, without some kind of public process to determine what the community wanted, was "shameful" in light of "the basic unmet needs of the district." He's planning to vote for Ryu.