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From Obscurity to Caretaker of 5th District : City Council: A coalition is urging appointment of a permanent member--who can vote--to replace Yaroslavsky. However, some say that is contrary to recent precedent.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Avak Keotahian.

It’s OK if you do not immediately recognize the name. Until last week, Keotahian was just another obscure bureaucrat plying his trade at Los Angeles City Hall.

These days, he still is an obscure bureaucrat, but one with a big--and controversial--responsibility.

A City Hall bit player for 17 years, Keotahian, 46, took over Monday as day-to-day caretaker of the council district vacated when Zev Yaroslavsky left the post and moved to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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Keotahian only gets a skeleton staff. He is not allowed to vote in City Council deliberations. He still has to handle all his old responsibilities as a city legislative analyst. And he hates publicity. “I just want to remain anonymous,” Keotahian pleaded.

Yet Keotahian, a Los Feliz resident, has landed squarely in the middle of a roiling municipal controversy.

It’s nothing personal, but critics in the district are fighting to buck the caretaker approach and force appointment of an honest-to-goodness, voting representative to look after their interests until an election can be held. “We have a diminished voice,” said Alan Kishbaugh, a Laurel Canyon resident of the 5th District.

“There’s no one to take our phone calls, or make ones for us to get things done,” said Barbara Fine, a Benedict Canyon resident. “There’s no official representing us with a vote, no one to bring in a motion.”

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Kishbaugh and Fine are leaders of a homeowner-business coalition urging the appointment of an interim council member to the 5th District seat until voters pick a replacement in elections next spring to fill out the last two years of Yaroslavsky’s term.

Fine said the authority of a real councilman is already being missed. A recent decision by a state parks agency to drop its funding for the purchase of a 32-acre park site in the Hollywood Hills provides an example, Fine said.

“A councilperson with clout could help us on this--making phone calls to get this reversed,” she said. But an unknown caretaker is unlikely to get past first base with the parks agency, she said.

One candidate for the interim job is 31-year-old Michael Jiminez, a former Yaroslavsky aide whose private consulting firm, PS Enterprises Inc., has an $85,000 city contract to provide housing assistance to the earthquake-ravaged portions of the district.

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Although Yaroslavsky reportedly is quietly pushing for Jiminez, his candidacy has a potential problem: whether Jiminez qualifies as a legal resident of the district. Jiminez last weekend hurriedly moved from Santa Monica to Bel-Air--which is in the 5th District--in a bid to keep his candidacy alive by trying to satisfy the city’s requirement that an appointee live 30 days in the district prior to his selection.

Another name has also surfaced. Former county Supervisor Ed Edelman--the man Yaroslavsky succeeded at the county Hall of Administration--has announced his support for Bob Geoghegan, 50, who had been Edelman’s chief deputy since 1981. He, too, has just moved into the district from his former residence in Culver City.

Despite the homeowners’ pleas, the City Council has shown no overwhelming appetite for appointing a voting substitute to serve. Council opponents of the appointment, including Mark Ridley-Thomas and Joel Wachs, say the caretaker system has worked well in the past.

Indeed, it has been used the last nine times that council vacancies arose. The last time the council appointed someone to fill a vacancy was 1966, and the appointee was John Ferraro, now the council’s president.

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“Council members ought not (to) be electing council members, the public ought to be doing that,” Wachs said.

Nor is it inevitable that an appointee favored by a majority of the council would be representative of the district, he added. Some resolution could come Tuesday, when the council is expected to vote on whether to authorize a special election to fill the term. If the council takes that step, city law will preclude an appointment from being made. Pro-appointment forces hope to stall such a vote.

Meanwhile, there is day-to-day business to attend to, as Keotahian found out Thursday as he slipped into Yaroslavsky’s old office to answer phone calls and mail from 5th District constituents.

“I’ve got a call from some attorney who wants to know what the zoning on his client’s property is,” Keotahian said. “He should’ve called the Planning Department but we’ll get him a phone number.”

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Keotahian--chosen for the job by his boss, Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton--admits that the situation is far from ideal. The 5th District staff he is supervising is only a third the size of Yaroslavsky’s former staff (most of whom are now working for Yaroslavsky at the county), and he is serving only part time.

“I’m still doing my other work,” he said. Yet even the veteran bureaucrat has a touch of the politician about him.

“It would be tough enough,” Keotahian said diplomatically, “even for an elected official to replicate the excellent track record of service that Zev provided his constituents--let alone a City Hall caretaker with a skeleton staff.”


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