Making a Difference : Volunteer Council Struggles to Fill Governmental Void


The local government in South Whittier is not elected. It has no employees. It has no legal authority over anything and presides over a budget that would not buy a Hyundai.

But members of the South Whittier Community Coordinating Council represent an estimated 55,000 residents. They are trying to give a voice to an unincorporated island of county land they say has been ignored in the morass of county government.

The council's influence is growing.

Recently, the members successfully lobbied the County Board of Supervisors for a traffic signal at an intersection where a car struck and killed a school crossing guard in June. County traffic engineers had originally denied the request.

Other accomplishments include spurring efforts by county agencies and local volunteers to paint over graffiti, repair homes, increase law enforcement and establish a youth sports program.

The goal of the nine-member coordinating council is to bring money and services into South Whittier. The only tool that council volunteers have is their own labor and their ability to draw attention to the area's needs--which are many.

Although the eastern section of South Whittier includes upper middle-class homes, houses in the southwestern area are generally smaller, older and more dilapidated. Many families live in detached one- and two-bedroom rentals owned by negligent, absentee landlords. The gang population in the western section has swelled to 600, officials say.

There are a significant but uncounted number of illegal immigrants and many families who speak no English. Residents need help, ranging from English classes to job placement, but people in South Whittier get by without most services enjoyed in bordering cities.

Although South Whittier has a private country club for those who are better off, there is no senior center, no health clinic, no department of public works, no children's services. There are only three parks, one of them postage stamp-sized. Nearby cities with fewer people have two to three times as many police officers.

When residents of neighboring Whittier or Santa Fe Springs have a beef or need help, they can go to their city halls or to county offices within their city borders. People in South Whittier, who must rely on the county, have to leave their community to go to a county office.

"It's a low-priority area," said Manuel Magana, president of the South Whittier organization. "We have no voice. That's the feeling of all the residents."

It is unlikely that a neighboring city would ever annex South Whittier. Bringing streets and homes up to code and providing basic police and social services would cost millions. And there is no industrial or commercial base in South Whittier from which a city could collect sales tax revenue.

Although surrounding cities need not spend a penny to make South Whittier more livable, they reap some economic benefits from South Whittier residents.

All the cities--Whittier to the north, Santa Fe Springs to the west, La Mirada to the south and La Habra to the east--have built shopping complexes butting up to the South Whittier border. A Norwalk shopping center is less than a mile away. Through sales tax, South Whittier shoppers are contributing to the tax base of their neighbors.

"There is no political or economic incentive for any of the surrounding cities to incorporate South Whittier," said Joseph Castro, who directs a Santa Fe Springs municipal office on the South Whittier border. "I don't feel Santa Fe Springs wants to take that on. Nor does Whittier, Norwalk or La Mirada."

Although reluctant to absorb South Whittier, Santa Fe Springs has been a force in the evolution of the South Whittier Community Coordinating Council.

In the summer of 1989, the city took part in a county home beautification project, providing labor for minor repairs to South Whittier homes close to Santa Fe Springs. In March, 1990, the city installed a trailer on the South Whittier border and assigned Castro and a staff of three to help South Whittier residents bring county services into their area. A tiny, part-time sheriff's substation also moved onto the lot.

Castro refers to the $250,000 annual investment as "an exercise in good government" and a sort of pay-back to South Whittier shoppers.

South Whittier School District Supt. Richard Graves said there is also self-interest involved. A deteriorating South Whittier would drag down property values in Santa Fe Springs, and gang problems "have no boundaries," Graves said.

Castro and Sheriff's Department liaison Tom Ctibor began working with the South Whittier council's two organizers, Magana and Victor Ledesma. Other advice came from the Federation of Community Coordinating Councils of Los Angeles, an independent, nonprofit agency that advises 65 community volunteer councils.

There are other community coordinating councils in Long Beach, Norwalk, Downey, Huntington Park and Whittier. But unlike South Whittier, these councils exist in cities with established city governments.

The South Whittier council is especially needed to fill a governmental void, said Lauraine Barber, president of the Federation of Community Coordinating Councils.

The area was settled during the Great Depression by poor immigrants, such as Dust Bowl refugees and Latino families who built tiny wood-frame houses on long lots, said Supt. Graves, a local historian. The settlers often grew their own food and kept horses and small livestock. At least one family kept a horse as recently as last year.

The more prosperous families often built larger homes next to these original bungalows. Other long lots became rows of detached rentals owned by absentee landlords. A post-World War II housing boom filled the last open spaces with single-family homes.

A community council first formed in 1947. The South Whittier Committee for Emergency Relief provided food and clothing for the poor and started a neighborhood library. The group later became the South Whittier Community Coordinating Council, which carried on volunteer activities as late as the 1970s.

Magana and Ledesma began reviving the council in 1985 to reverse what they saw as the community's steady decline. They added members as residents came forward to speak out on neighborhood problems.

Butch Redman complained that the council was doing too little for his low-income neighborhood. They made him a member. PTA officer Patti Olson joined the board to lead the effort to install traffic signals near schools. So did Terri Halstead, after her daughter was killed in a crosswalk. Ben Read, who was concerned about gangs, has worked to develop after-school activities. He also spends some weekends painting over graffiti.

The council now commands the attention of movers and shakers. Its monthly meetings are regularly attended by representatives of two county supervisors, a state assemblyman, the sheriff, Neighborhood Watch groups, the county Parks and Recreation Department, the local school district and local PTAs.

"I think they make a lot of difference, in making sure we know what that part of the community wants," said Rose Ibanez, senior field deputy for Supervisor Gloria Molina. However, because the council is self-appointed, she added, it does not speak for the entire community.

Council meetings are announced only by word of mouth, and many community members do not know the council exists. Members say they would like to expand their membership and be more representative.

The council's effectiveness also is limited by inexperience and lack of resources. Although Castro works for Santa Fe Springs, he often acts as an unofficial city manager to guide council members through meetings. Other officials also give advice, but most admit that their interests and those of South Whittier are not always the same.

To raise money, the council depends on grants, charitable contributions, bake sales and carnival game booths. In a good month, the organization has $6,000 in the bank. Much of their labors consist of getting the county to spend money in the area.

A typical problem arose after the council approved a gang diversion program in which youngsters would repair bicycles and then get to keep them. The council can afford to buy spare parts but not training to repair the bikes. They are waiting for a donor to step forward.

"It can be very frustrating, to the point of wondering if you're succeeding at all," Magana said.

Nonetheless, the group has made strides, said Ledesma, who becomes president in January. "We'll get results," he said. "It's happened two or three times now. It took many years to get us where we're at right now."

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