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Riordan Aide Calls Quake Funding an Opportunity for Change

Georgia Mercer, 52, is a Tarzana activist and former schoolteacher who was chosen a few weeks ago to be Mayor Richard Riordan’s area representative to the west San Fernando Valley. Mercer, who has been involved in school and hospital issues, is one of nine such representatives. She works full time out of the mayor’s Van Nuys office.

Mercer was interviewed by Times correspondent Jill Leovy.

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Question. Can you describe your job?

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Answer. Basically, I’m the eyes and the ears of the mayor. I will be representing him where it’s not possible for him to be there. And I will be listening to the constituency, seeing for myself, and linking up all the resources available downtown to better serve their needs.

The area representatives are also divided somewhat along issues lines. My portfolio is the West Valley, citywide women’s organizations and the citywide Jewish community. But my primary responsibility is to serve West Valley constituents.

Q. So do you have regular access to the mayor?

A. We have excellent access to the mayor’s entire administrative staff downtown. We call the deputy mayor directly, and we have been having high-level meetings with the chief of staff, Bill McCarley, once a week to talk about what’s going on. We use that as a forum to bring up the most pressing needs in each of our communities.

Q. What do you see as the most important issues facing the West Valley?

A. There is no question that it’s earthquake recovery, initially. It’s what’s on everybody’s mind. People are still not ready to focus on maybe a bigger scope of the city’s problems.

Public safety is still a crucial, crucial issue. We won’t retain new businesses and we won’t want to live here unless we really get a handle on the crime situation. And then there are some of the peripheral issues to that, like graffiti, which are very offensive to people and really affect the quality of life for all of us.

Also there’s business recovery. Again, it’s connected to earthquake recovery.

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Transportation is also a crucial issue. Mass transportation has been a major challenge to anyone involved in planning in this city, and we are hopeful that the earthquake has provided an opportunity to think about behavioral changes. We have the opportunity to change “business as usual” and invest more time and energy into alternatives.

Q. OK, so let’s take a look at some of those issues. For example, earthquake recovery. What is the mayor’s role in that recovery?

A. Our major focus is on the federal emergency management. There will be $8.6 billion coming into Southern California. We are helping expedite that.

For example, we participated on panels with Secretary Henry Cisneros of Housing and Urban Development in reaching out to apartment owners to make their apartments more open to Section 8 housing certificates.

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Landlords have said it’s too much hassle, too much trouble to be part of this system. So people displaced by the earthquake were getting Section 8 vouchers, and then there wasn’t any place for them to go. So we encouraged landlords to be more compassionate. They haven’t wanted to participate, but now they are.

There is very little city money involved in earthquake relief. What the mayor’s area representatives have been doing is helping our constituents once they feel they have hit a wall. It’s real trouble-shooting.

There’s also a committee on earthquake recovery that City Councilman Hal Bernson is chairing. Council members Laura Chick, Richard Alarcon, Zev Yaroslavsky and Nate Holden serve on that. They are also looking at needed enhancement of safety requirements.

It needs to be mentioned that the mayor is very concerned that communities rebuild themselves in a way that retains their own sense of identity and addresses their own needs.

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Q. Did the earthquake, in your view, reveal any deficiencies in existing safety regulations?

A. Well, that is being looked at. Councilman Bernson feels strongly that precast concrete needs to be re-examined.

Q. You also mentioned public safety. The mayor has pledged to add more police. What happens next? Where will the money come from?

A. There is no question that the mayor has unflagging interest in the officers on the beat. We have already got federal funds to increase the force by 50 officers. That’s just such a glaring need that we have.

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We have the lowest ratio of police officers to citizens of any major city in the country. The question isn’t what we need to do, it’s how to do it.

The Tennenbaum Report, a five-year blueprint for economic vitality for the city, says how we can increase revenue in the city without increasing taxes and where we can cut costs. And the largest portion of that increased revenue is to be applied to police. That shows it’s our highest priority.

Q. Does the city’s policy against trapping coyotes serve the interests of Valley residents? Should it be changed?

A. There is no question that we would like to find a way to deal with everyone’s concerns. It’s gotten to be more divisive than it really needs to be, because it’s a very emotional issue.

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What the administration is hoping is that we can find ways to address the problem with multiple options.

For example, we need to re-look at providing drip systems for animals in their own habitat. Those keep coyotes in the hillsides as opposed to their coming down to get water in neighborhoods near homes. It’s like adding watering holes in their natural environment. And we need to re-look at providing education to homeowners on how to prevent the coyotes from coming down to find food and water.

There are other things that can be done too. There are other deterrents, things that you can spray, things you can do that are quite new. Nothing will solve it in and of itself. We need a multifaceted approach.

Q. How can the trend toward high-wage jobs leaving the Valley be reversed?

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A. This whole area of business recruitment is part of the reason the mayor was elected.

He is surrounded by the best and the brightest people. There are some volunteer committees like the Tennenbaum committee, and there’s another, a development committee, that is looking at these issues. So there is a lot of work going on by volunteers who are looking at the big picture of city government.

The climate now is of openness in dealing with both business and homeowners. I think the general attitude is that business as usual is not the name of the game any more.

Also, to create the more business-friendly climate that’s been talked about for last year or so, we’ve been able to establish one-stop permit centers. There is one in the West Valley Municipal Center. It streamlines the permit process for homeowners and business, so it’s facilitating a previously frustrating process.

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Q. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the Valley’s decline. Do you have a sense that the quality of life in the Valley is getting worse or better?

A. Having lived here almost 30 years, I hear what’s being said and I’ve experienced it. I think the Valley is a different place to live now, not a worse place to live. But life anywhere now is different than it was 20 years ago.

I love the diversity and energy of Los Angeles. While Los Angeles is different and troubled, I think it’s troubled all over the place. We have a steep hill to climb, there’s no question about it. But I’m not worried about the future.

If we do see this infusion of $8.6 billion, that’s a good shot to anyone’s economy. It’s a major infusion of money.

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Most of us are seeing the earthquake as an opportunity to re-think how we live as opposed to business as usual. It’s an opportunity to be creative in solving problems, to use technology to change our lifestyles.

The changes are already here. People are using mass transportation. They are working from home. We just need the energy to regroup and the political will to adapt.

‘While Los Angeles is different and troubled, I think it’s troubled all over the place. We have a steep hill to climb, there’s no question about it. But I’m not worried about the future.’


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