Stepping into the political shoes of Joel Wachs, Michael Woo, John Ferraro, Gilbert Lindsay, David Cunningham and Richard Alatorre is no easy task, but Joan Kradin has to do it.
Kradin, who worked for Councilman Howard Finn until his sudden death in August, is chief deputy for the new 1st District, which was carved from six districts in northeast and downtown Los Angeles this fall after months of controversy.
Since the seat will remain empty at least until a Feb. 3 special election, Kradin and seven other 1st District staff members have found themselves playing surrogate council member to the district's 200,000 residents.
"It's been a challenge to everybody here," Kradin said. "We're still learning."
It has also been traumatic. All but two deputies formerly worked for Finn, who represented the San Fernando Valley--and what was once the 1st District. Within a short time, City Council members divided Finn's district and shifted its number--and his staff--to avoid splitting up their own power bases in a lawsuit-induced redrawing of political boundaries.
New Territory, New Groups
"With Howard's death, the staff here went through what can only be characterized as a trauma," Kradin said. "When the office moved, it was a shock, but we just kept going." Trundled off to their new, unfamiliar territory miles away, Finn's deputies, most of them career political aides, had to acquaint themselves with its geography, homeowner groups and problems with overdevelopment and gangs.
Several quit. Steve Jimenez, on loan from the city's chief legislative analyst office, and Mona Calderon, formerly with 14th District Councilman Alatorre, took their places.
All the deputies report to William McCarley, the city's chief legislative analyst, who has been appointed district caretaker. But McCarley, who is also caretaker for the 10th District until the vacancy caused by Cunningham's resignation is filled, rarely gets involved in day-to-day activities, he says.
Staffers Monitor Issues
That leaves 1st District staffers to speak at most homeowner gatherings and monitor the City Council for issues that affect their territory, which includes Elysian Park, Elysian Valley, Chinatown, Lincoln Park, Pico-Union, Temple-Beaudry, Montecito Heights and parts of Highland Park, Echo Park, Glassell Park and Mount Washington.
Then there are the garden variety complaints about barking dogs and backed-up sewers. All told, it adds up to 55-plus hours per week per staffer, Planning Deputy Peter Rudolph said.
As a result, deputies who usually let their high-profile bosses take all the credit have found themselves increasingly in the spotlight.
Rudolph, for example, is helping a Chinatown adult day-care and health-care center obtain a building permit and relocate in Echo Park. Normally, the credit would go to the council representative. Not this time.
Nothing But Praise
"That Peter, he's wonderful. Much more cooperative than any councilman," said Alice Chang Tsou, the center's administrator.
First District council aide Paula MacArthur is working with Elysian Park activists and Department of Water and Power officials in an acrimonious debate over whether to cover the Elysian Reservoir.
Residents want the remote hillside reservoir to remain open to view for hikers. DWP officials say the cover is necessary to halt pollution of the water supply.
"We want to reach a happy medium, but we find ourselves in a rather awkward situation here," said MacArthur, whose hands are tied because, unlike an elected official, she cannot choose sides.
Most residents say that the 1st District staff is doing a laudable job.
"I just can't say enough good things about them," said Lucille Lemmon, president of the Mount Washington Homeowners' Assn.
But some chafe at the lack of official representation in City Hall.
"Obviously they can't get on the bandwagon and demand things for us like a council member can," said Sallie Neubauer, an Elysian Park activist who opposes covering the reservoir.
Indeed, 1st District staffers say their work is mainly administrative. If the City Council needs to address a pressing district issue, McCarley may ask another council member to introduce a motion, but neither he nor staffers are allowed to vote.
Other than the reservoir debate, few issues have surfaced in recent months, Kradin said, despite some residents' fears that developers would attempt to ramrod proposals through City Council while the district lacked representation.
The area's largest and most controversial project, a proposed 100-unit condominium in Mount Washington's Elyria Canyon, appears safely mired for months to come in city Planning Department evaluations.
Nevertheless, Lemmon decided to take no chances. Recently, she invited Rudolph to the proposed site, drove him around the sage-covered hills and explained why her community opposed the high-density development.
"He listened. He was very polite," recalled Lemmon, who added: "I sure hope that whoever gets elected will retain that staff. They know a lot about this area."
Indeed, staffers hope so, too. But they know that, when a new regime sweeps into office, old deputies sometimes get swept out.
"It does not make for a feeling of job security," said Kradin, who worked for then-Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson of the 13th District before joining Finn's staff.
Four candidates are vying for the 1st District seat. They are state Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, (D-Los Angeles); Larry Gonzalez, a Los Angeles school board member; Leland Wong, a former official of the county youth gang project, and Paul D. Y. Moore, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley.
If no candidate captures more than 50% of the vote in the February election, a runoff will be held in April.
"We'll certainly be glad when a council member is elected," declared 1st District caretaker McCarley, who says that his triple duty--he still must do his regular job--has made him "schizophrenic, so to speak."
The newly configured 1st District in northeast and downtown Los Angeles was carved from other council districts this fall to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed the city discriminated against Latinos by diluting their vote.
Its creation culminated months of bickering among City Council members who sought to create a second predominantly Latino district without destroying their power bases. Alatorre has the first such district.
The council adopted, then scrapped two plans before settling on its final boundaries. That led to much grumbling among residents of Northeast Los Angeles. For example, within two months, Mount Washington's councilman went from Wachs to Alatorre, and from Woo to now partly Alatorre and partly no one.
Residents still speak fondly of Arline deSanctis, a Wachs aide who ran his northeast field office, lived in Mount Washington and took an active role in local affairs.
With Wachs now representing the northeast San Fernando Valley, that field office is closed, and the 1st District has opened a new office in Lincoln Heights.
First District deputies say they still get daily calls from constituents asking who their councilman is. Many homeowners say they feel like inhabitants of some obscure Central European country whose borders and leaders are constantly shifting.
Deputies have not escaped the confusion either.
Shortly after the Los Angeles City Council approved its final redistricting plan this fall, Rudolph met with city engineers and a group of Glassell Park residents who wanted the city to pave their dirt street.
After scrutinizing engineering reports and listening to residents' complaints for several hours, Rudolph felt ready to make a recommendation.
There was only one problem: The street lay in the 13th District, not the 1st.