Column

Tom LaBonge: 40 years of memories from L.A.'s biggest fan

Man and boy, Tom LaBonge has been a fixture in Los Angeles' City Hall for more than 40 years: a teenager on Mayor Tom Bradley's youth council, community relations director at the Department of Water and Power, right-hand man to council powerhouse John Ferraro, aide to Mayor Richard Riordan and, to his enduring delight, elected in 2001 as councilman for the "great 4th" District. For LaBonge, everything about L.A. is "great." Well, maybe not that Tuesday is his last day in office. LaBonge — who is loved for his puppy-dog enthusiasm and his Wiki-memory of all things L.A. but who also gets an eye-roll from some quarters for his leadership style — is termed out. L.A.'s biggest fan sits in one place long enough to size it all up.

You've worked with five mayors. Who was best?

I was on Mayor Tom Bradley's youth council, and I absolutely believe the best mayor of all was Tom Bradley. No disrespect for Dick Riordan — I don't think anyone could have done a better job following the tragedy of the riots, which were not on his watch, then we had the earthquake. And Jimmy Hahn, keeping the city together, secession was a big ugly thing; then Mr. Villaraigosa and his efforts; and I'm very proud of Mr. Garcetti too.

How is City Hall different now?

Back then there was always a go-to guy, a go-to gal — I don't know if I'll have to go to HR if I say gal — and now there's more layers of people and more responsibility. We used to just go to people who did things and it got done. I'm not "Rainman," but I remembered every number; 485 was our [phone prefix] exchange. You knew the [City Hall] people, you go to the offices, and that's how you meet the people. You got more done in the halls of City Hall than in [the offices]. The people who work for me, their life is in the [device in the] palm of their left hand, instead of [meeting] people. Now everything's by email.

What's hard to leave behind?

The people who love public service. I'm pretty close to the sanitation department. They named a trash truck after me, a bulky-item truck, No. 29. The other day in Silver Lake I looked across the street and there was the trash truck with my name under the city seal. And they named a sewer truck after me. That was very nice.

[A woman passing by the windows of The Times' cafeteria recognizes LaBonge and comes close to the glass and waves; he leaps up and smooches the glass and waves back. He knew her as a girl and knows her kids now too.]

A lot of neighborhoods in your district have become gentrified. What are the drawbacks?

That's a word a lot of people are offended by. I call it stabilization, because I've seen a lot of neighborhoods that were very tough that now have a balance. We need more direct help with the planning and housing departments; we need to build housing. In the old [configuration of the] 4th District, there's a lot of density along the Wilshire corridor; in the new 4th, you have Sherman Oaks to Silver Lake, [where] people want neighborhood preservation. They don't want these big boxy houses, the mini-mansions, these monstrosities. I [would build housing] on the Wilshire corridor near the Wilshire Center, in Koreatown, where the subway's coming.

In the Police Department, they have a senior lead officer. There should be senior lead planners, for when you don't know who to talk to and you get the City Hall shuffle when you try to find out what's going on.

What else were you not able to get to?

You've been on a studio lot, right? They've got bicycles. Here at City Hall we [should] be able to get a bike when you're going local, like to the state office building [on Spring Street]. The mayor loves that idea. And I think there should be an office of citizenship. The mayor has an office of immigration affairs; but so many people here want to become citizens — where do they go, other than the federal maze?

I think our council districts are a little too large and pockets of neighborhoods never are going to have political power. [He picks up his chocolate chip cookie]. Cut this up 15 ways and you've got today's council, but cut it up 21 ways, it's a smaller piece. It's healthier for you because it's not as big. And Watts will have a shot to get a council person. So there's empowerment.

With disclosures about millions in nonprofit trusts and a former DWP technician accused of misappropriating $4 million, what needs fixing at the Department of Water and Power?

DWP has got to stand up and say, we're a good agency, and hold themselves accountable to it. It's not the money the employees get paid; it's that sometimes the rules prevent efficiencies. Brian D'Arcy is a very effective labor leader, but it's not sustainable to have [rules where] efficiencies are not maximum. They've got to bring them back to a way more accommodating to the city's needs.

You hike every day in Griffith Park. Some people are livid about your plan to take out a picnic area and trees to put in baseball fields on the east side of Griffith Park.

When I was a kid, the [Golden State] Freeway came along and took all the sports fields away. Unfortunately there are some people who do not like baseball. They never heard of Vin Scully. Something's wrong with that. But it's all going to work out.

And your encouraging tourism at the Hollywood sign hasn't gone down well with people who live there.

The good people of Beachwood Canyon don't like me because I welcome the stranger. I support tourism. We're putting in restricted parking. I believe there should be vans to access [the sign]. DWP has three large parcels there; I'd like a parking lot on the edge of those parcels, and people can hike across the public land to Griffith Park.

Few people get as excited as you about civic governance. How do you get people to engage, and vote?

Look at vote by mail. Maybe we'll have drive-through voting in some places. When you turn 18, you should be registered. And if you don't vote, don't complain.

I also think neighborhood association [leaders] don't need to be [elected]. People on the [appointed] parks boards love parks, [those] on the library board love libraries. Some of these neighborhood council [leaders] don't love anything other than being able to say no to something. It's important to get the positive in action.

How have Angelenos changed?

After the Olympic Games, the world came to Los Angeles. I'm proud of the people from Bangladesh living near Third and Vermont; they wanted a sign that said "Little Bangladesh." [That] cut into the Koreatown turf and those folks got upset. So I met Korean and Bangladeshi people at Third and Vermont and we walked off [the disputed blocks to agree]. [Now there's] a city seal on a big sign that says "Little Bangladesh" — they feel great. This is the promised land, to all the diversity of people who are here.

You were criticized for spending money from your discretionary fund on things like holiday lights around the zoo instead of, say, on potholes.

That was a bunch of horse---- because the zoo lights bring joy. The DWP years ago created the holiday lightfest in Griffith Park. That $100,000 brought nearly 200,000 people to the zoo at night.

Is it the city's job to bring joy to people?

Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, three times plus. Where there's joy, there's love, and if there's love, there's life.

After more than 40 years at City Hall, now what?

I'm a free agent; I'm unsigned. I'm going to take time off, travel with [my wife] Brigid and get to know her, because she's a wonderful person, everybody tells me. I'm leaving City Hall but not leaving the city.

What advice for council colleagues you leave behind?

I hope they enjoy the job as much as I have. And whatever they want to see done for their district, do it, because it goes by fast.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

patt.morrison@latimes.com 

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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