Therese Kerze Cheyovich calls herself a "self-appointed political activist without pay in the city of Bellflower."
In other words, a gadfly. She feels an obligation to involve herself in city government. She annoys. She criticizes. But there's a twist. She does not want to be offensive.
"I don't want to be known as a little old white-haired lady in tennis shoes who never sees anything constructive," said Cheyovich, who retired in 1977 as chief nurse for the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in Los Angeles.
She wants her criticism to be useful, she said.
One councilman, Joseph Cvetko, said he believes "Cheyovich is very important to have in the audience. She doesn't irritate me. I think she is an asset to the community. She knows the issues."
However, Mayor James Earle Christo, who is often asked pointed questions by Cheyovich, suggested that she "should run for election" if she is so interested in city business.
Cheyovich is not likely to heed the suggestion. She prefers keeping an eye on elected officials to becoming one of them.
Her interest in city government, though, is relatively new. During more than 20 years of working for the Veterans Administration and living in Bellflower, Cheyovich rarely went to City Hall.
"I might have gone to City Hall on two occasions before my retirement," said Cheyovich, who began regularly attending the twice-monthly meetings in 1982. "Most of my (spare) time was spent on the freeway, traveling to and from work."
Cheyovich's interest in civic doings began with a citizens battle against a City Council-backed redevelopment proposal in 1981-82. It would have placed one-third of the city under redevelopment.
City's 'Burning Issue'
"I would find flyers on my doorstep concerning redevelopment," Cheyovich said. "It was a burning issue in the city. I wanted to find out more about it."
City officials said the plan was necessary to eliminate blight, Cheyovich recalled.
"There was no blight in the proposed area," she said. "These people had worked hard for their homes. They were paid for. Sure they would be paid for them, but where could they go? They couldn't afford to pay the current high cost of property."
Cheyovich became involved in the issue. "I stood outside the supermarkets. I talked to anybody who would listen," she said. "I walked from one end of the city to the other gathering signatures."
Citizens Against the Redevelopment Projects collected 2,467 signatures, about 10% of the registered voters, placing the redevelopment plan on the city ballot in 1982. It was overwhelmingly defeated.
Before that turning point, Cheyovich had kept busy with her nursing career.
After becoming a registered nurse, the New York City native earned bachelor's and master's degrees in public health and nursing administration from Columbia University, then worked as the director of a private health center. Near the end of World War II, Cheyovich was chosen by the Public Health Service to accompany an international group of doctors, nurses, engineers and other support personnel overseas to aid refugees.
The group went to North Africa and Italy and then to Yugoslavia, where they helped set up hospitals, health clinics and schools.
Settled in Warmer Climate
"After spending so much time in cold weather, I decided to come to a warmer climate," said Cheyovich, explaining why she moved to Southern California and settled in the Bellflower area in the late 1940s.
Cheyovich, who was eager to talk about her life and her involvement in Bellflower city affairs, declined to be specific about her age, saying that "age isn't important," issues are.
Since being bitten by the civic bug during the redevelopment battle, Cheyovich has counted herself among an informal group of six or seven City Hall watchers who refer to themselves as "the watchdogs" and whose friendship is built around civic affairs.
The Friday before each council meeting, which are on the second and fourth Mondays of the month, Cheyovich is at the city clerk's office getting a copy of the agenda and reading accompanying documents. Soon she is on the phone with her contacts and the other watchdogs.
They individually study the council agenda, deciding what issues are important to the city and to them, she said.
"We spend a great deal of time talking on the phone about issues. Then we will present our case to the council," said Cheyovich of the loose coalition.
Opposed Parking Plan
The group recently opposed off-site parking for a proposed $3-million senior citizens housing complex. The developer, Virginia Boggs, had received approval to lease city land across the street for parking for the project.
However, the watchdogs felt it was unsafe to require senior citizens to cross the street when going to and from their cars and accused the council of "blatant favoritism in granting a variance" for off-site parking, said Curt Harris, one of the watchdogs. Harris, who manages some apartments near the site, said such a variance had not been granted other housing projects.
After several months of discussion before the Planning Commission and council, on-site parking was decided on for the senior citizens complex. But, said Jeanne Keller, project manager for the proposed complex, "it had nothing to do with Therese. There was opposition from the community."
Keller said off-site parking was initially proposed because it cost less. The council has since agreed to loan the developer $415,000 from federal block grant funds to develop on-site parking, she said.
Currently, the watchdogs are opposing a city proposal to permit outdoor advertising signs on a portion of a city park.
"The city says the signs would bring in needed revenue. But we are opposed to allowing large, ugly signs to clutter the city," Cheyovich said. "If we need money, we should seriously think about how we already spend our budget."