Felicia Marcus : Fighting for the Environment From Inside the Establishment

Jane Fritsch is City Hall reporter for The Times. She interviewed the Felicia Marcus on a rare Sunday afternoon when the commissioner was able to take time off from work

When Felicia Marcus went off to Harvard to major in East Asian studies, the echoes of 1960s activism had grown faint. It was the pre-yuppie mid-1970s, an unsettling time for young people who witnessed the passion of the Vietnam generation but arrived at adulthood too late to make a difference.

Marcus, now 34, followed an Establishment path: Harvard, Capitol Hill, New York University Law School. But she has emerged in recent years with a brand of activism that has taken her from the inside to the outside and back again.

Her agenda is the environment and she has spent most of her adult life on the outside, agitating for solutions to a range of air and water pollution problems, nudging bureaucracies through press conferences and lawsuits.

Now, Marcus is back inside again. Appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Environmental Quality Board 18 months ago, Marcus was plucked from the leadership of the environmental movement in a move intended to quell rising criticism that the board lacked commitment to environmental concerns. Last summer, Bradley appointed her to the Board of Public Works, the panel that oversees city construction as well as the sewage system.

Her resume made her both an impeccable and improbable choice. Marcus, who earned a degree in environmental law, was a founder of Heal the Bay, the organization credited with pressuring the city of Los Angeles to develop a plan to end the dumping of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay.

She lived in the San Fernando Valley before going east to attend Harvard. Later, a job in the Washington office of Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), gave her a chance to work on environmental issues. In 1983, after graduating from NYU, she returned to Los Angeles and worked as a clerk for a federal judge and an attorney for the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Well-spoken and sometimes eloquent, Marcus becomes almost tongue-tied when she is asked what she has been reading lately. With some embarrassment, she concedes that thick volumes on sewage systems and construction projects can usually be found on her night stand. A resident of Venice, she acknowledges that she rarely gets to the beach and repeats a pledge to her friends that she will take a weekend off, soon.

Question: Was there a point where you realized you were being taken seriously, that Heal the Bay had arrived or the environmental movement had arrived?

Answer: It's hard to pinpoint when it happened. I think we were taken seriously at the beginning because we had done our homework and were filing legal papers in the administrative proceeding that were pretty compelling. And we had the facts and the law on our side. But something happened at some point where different people arrived at City Hall. . . . The city had been trying since 1980 to not have to fully treat its sewage. Ruth Galanter was elected to the city council, an environmental proposition passed, the environmental movement started to become an issue. . . . We developed relationships over time through the battles with different people at City Hall and people realized that we were very serious, but also very hard-working and that our objectives were really just to clean up the bay.

Q: But this movement didn't attract a lot of dilettantes?

A: No, not too many. The core group has remained fairly stable, with new people coming in over time. . . . I think there have been times when certain members would have preferred to keep doing press conferences and dumping buckets of sludge in public rather than sitting down and negotiating, but the consensus was that if you can accomplish things by negotiating, it's better to do that because it's much more effective. You can get far more that way. Recognizing your friends is really an important thing.

Q: You've gone basically from the mainstream--Harvard and Capitol Hill--to the fringe of the environmental movement and then back to the center again at Cit y Hall. Are you comfortable where you are now?

A: Oh, I am. It's interesting, people ask me sometimes about that. I feel I've been totally consistent throughout in terms of my approach, in terms of trying to be helpful and get people to talk to each other and to focus. Certainly being a public-interest litigator and litigating against government, primarily, for all of my legal career, would seem to be fringe, but actually I've been blessed with clients who were really constructive clients. In this case, coming inside, I'm doing the same thing I was doing as a volunteer on the outside, except that I'm doing it full time on the inside. . . . (I) just try to find ways to make the process more responsive to environmental concerns and more sensible.

Q: Your position on the Board of Public Works involves overseeing a lot of mundane kinds of matters, construction contracts and things you might not have been interested in before. Are you making the best use of your time?

A: Actually, I love it. It's fascinating. It's not anything that I had anticipated, but I've always been interested in how things work and in making them work better. And the things that seem mundane, whether it's potholes or street lights, are things that are of tremendous importance to people and they're what make this city function as an organism. . . . Working on making that work more smoothly is just as interesting as making the sewage system work more smoothly or the sanitation system work.

Q: But is if fulfilling?

A: Yeah. I think so, because I also have the opportunity to really deal with people individually in that part of the job, with their individual concerns, and in some ways the solutions to their problems are things that I can accomplish in the short term. Whereas trying to overhaul the entire waste-water system or take a sanitation system that has for the last God-knows-how-many-years simply landfilled its trash and try and bring it into an era of recycling and waste reduction--a totally different way of doing things--is a much more long-term objective. So it's satisfying because I can get a pothole filled.

Q: Your predecessor on the Board of Public Works was openly critical of the Bradley Administration's environmental record. You've been more circumspect. Do you agree with that and, if so, has that hurt your standing among environmentalists?

A: I think I was as critical of City Hall as anyone in the preceding years, and I think my focus has been on City Hall as a whole, including both the mayor and the council. But I also . . . didn't hesitate to work with them because the objective is to accomplish things. . . . But it certainly hasn't hurt me. I was a vocal critic beforehand and I think that was part of the reason why they appreciated the fact that I was willing to work with them when they were willing to work with us.

Q: Do you foresee a time when you might be a vocal critic again?

A: Well sure, of course, if the need arises I'll be there.

Q: When did you sense a turnaround at City Hall as far as environmental issues?

A: At the same time . . . when Heal the Bay began to be taken seriously. I think it probably started somewhere in--I want to say '86--after we won on the waiver application and after Ruth (Galanter) was elected to the council.

Q: Would you say that applies to the country in general or just California?

A: I think the country in general. I never dreamed that things could turn around so quickly. I think from my experience and my work, Los Angeles started turning around sooner, but that may just be because I was focused on issues in Los Angeles for the past seven years.

Q: Is there any way that George Bush can legitimately claim to be the environmental President?

A: If he really does something, yeah. Right now he is not the environmental President. He is the "I'm better than the last President on the environment" President. It would be very, very difficult to be worse than the preceding President. . . . He has no right to claim to be an environmentalist just because he likes to fish.

Q: Do you have a sense about what's happening in the rest of the country, what the public mood is about environmental issues. Are we way out ahead of it here? Are we ahead of the national sense about the environment?

A: We always have been in California. California environmental regulations on everything, whether it's air, water or solid waste, have been and continue to be very advanced compared with the rest of the country. If you talk to public officials or activists from other major cities in the country, they think we're Disneyland compared to their cities with their problems.

Q: Yet we still have the worst air in the country.

A: We still have the worst air in the country despite having the most strict controls in the country and a lot of that has to do with the natural inversion layer. We're dealing with an almost impossible situation. . . . That's true not just in terms of air. We are not in a spot that's suited to easy environmental solutions. We import all our water, we import all of our energy. We are in this basin that doesn't allow any of the pollutants in the air to blow away and disperse like they do in other areas, so that we have much greater challenges in terms of dealing with our problems, but that's good, because then we can be trendsetters.

Q: Can we really improve our environment without drastically curtailing growth? There are projections of a million more people here in the next decade.

A: Absolutely.

Q: How?

A: By managing the growth that we do have. We've operated in the last 30 or 40 years on the assumption that we had unlimited resources and unlimited space. So the city developed in the most inefficient possible manner with everything totally spread out so that we have thousands of miles of sewer lines to service the number of people that could be serviced with a smaller number if we had a denser urban form. Cars have to drive farther. . . .

We waste so much in terms of how we transport ourselves . . . in terms of trash and water. . . . We use everything once and then we throw it away. We use water once even though its imported from hundreds and hundreds of miles away into a desert area, we use it once and then we flush it down the toilet and into the bay.

Q: Is there a city we can learn from?

A: A lot of people look to Seattle as one possible example. They are pretty advanced in recycling and waste reduction. Their citizens have gotten their daily trash or their weekly trash disposal down from four 30-gallon cans, like we average now, down to one 15-gallon can in some areas just by thinking about what they purchase and recycling as much as possible.

Q: How do you motivate people to separate their trash when they know that it's all being dumped back together in the landfill.

A: Actually it's not, necessarily. There are going to be isolated instances where that happens and where we have to follow up on it, but I think it's unfortunate that that perception was created. I mean we have to be aggressive in creating the markets so that doesn't happen, but there are ways to stockpile your recyclables until the market picks up and we obviously have to be looking at that as well. . . .

There was a misperception on the part of politicians as to what people really would do. And I think it was a very patronizing attitude which said that people are too selfish to recycle unless there's something in it for them. I don't think that's true. . . . I don't think people want to necessarily be as wasteful as they are, but we have to give them the vehicles for leading a less wasteful life.

Q: Is this a Brentwood issue, though? Is it an issue that people care about in South Los Angeles or have the time to think about?

A: I think my experience has been that the most active environmentalists in town are not necessarily in West Los Angeles. Some of the best environmental organizers in this city are in East Los Angeles and South-Central and they're groups that organized, perhaps initially, to fight a particular project or facility in their neighborhood, but that have continued to be a force for positive and more sensible environmental programs like recycling.

Q: Does Hollywood help the movement or hurt it?

A: Having celebrities at environmental events is something a lot of folks in the environmental community have mixed feelings about. I think on balance it's a good thing because one then gets media coverage of the substantive issues. . . . Organizers I've talked to who've tried to get the media, and particularly the TV media, to events are always asked, 'Will you have celebrities there?' and if one doesn't have celebrities there, they won't come. Q: Where will the environmental movement be in 10 years and in 25 years? Will it be a mainstream movement or will it have come and gone?

A: I can't predict that. I have to be an optimist because I think the objective has got to be that the environmental movement is no longer necessary because it . . . will become integrated in just the way we do things.

Q: Where will you be in five years and 10 years? At the center of things or back outside?

A: I haven't the faintest idea. . . . I still would have thought it was unbelievable that I would be on the Board of Public Works a few years ago when we started this mess. I mean, this is really astonishing. But I think I'll be, hopefully, some place interesting and being useful and helpful. Right now I can be most useful and helpful on the inside because there's so much receptivity. . . .

The only problem I have in my job is that there aren't enough hours in the day to do all the things that there are to be done, and if that changes, then being on the outside will be the better place to be, and I'll be on the outside. So, hopefully, in the thick of things, wherever that is.

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