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Bringing Residents Together Without Tearing L.A. Apart

Not terribly long ago, I chided whiny secessionists for rattling on and on about potholes. I might even have expressed doubts about whether there were any chuckholes big enough to warrant the breakup of Los Angeles.

But that was before Nathalie Hartman, 85, sent in a photo of herself with bucket and shovel, fixing a 3-foot-long pothole near the Lamplighter restaurant at Van Nuys Boulevard and Otsego Street in Sherman Oaks.

“I was afraid someone would hit it and cause a serious accident,” says Hartman, who estimated the depth at six or seven inches. She filled the hole with sand, and when she spotted a maintenance crew working on curb cutaways for wheelchairs, she asked if they’d drop some cement into the pothole.

“They said that’s not their department--call the city,” says Hartman, who never did. She says she can’t stand “those awful electrical answering phones, punch 1 then 2 then 3 and so forth, just another runaround.”

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Hartman, as it turns out, is neither for nor against secession. She is, however, in favor of potholes getting filled without having to do it herself.

I’ve lived in cities where a Nathalie Hartman would not lift a shovel. She would walk up the street and knock on the door of her block captain, who would go knock on the door of the ward leader, who would call a councilman, who would pick up the phone and threaten to have someone’s job or break their legs if the pothole weren’t filled in 10 minutes.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be done, and that’s what we need in Los Angeles.

I mentioned this to state Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who has offered up a plan to divide L.A. into boroughs as an alternative to secession by the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. Hertzberg liked my notion of common folk having a direct pipeline to City Hall, but he flinched when I got to the part about breaking legs.

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So all right, the political machine I romanticized is inherently corrupt and pretty much obsolete in American cities. But Hertzberg’s plan draws from the best aspects of it, promoting a sense of shared interests and neighborhood control in what is now an amorphous sea of disconnected souls.

L.A. just doesn’t work as is, Hertzberg says, citing the infamous history of how it gobbled up everything around it, expanding to unmanageable proportions.

He would carve L.A. into nine boroughs, each with a five-person council and the authority to tackle local problems, like potholes. The borough president would also serve on a nine-person citywide council that took on bigger issues.

“Democracy loses its relevance if people don’t participate, and smaller units of government are more effective at getting people involved,” says Hertzberg, who quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the essence of community.

“The lady with the shovel doesn’t know who to call, and even if she does, she gets a faceless voice on a recording. With the borough plan, you’d have community city halls and you’d know people were there.”

Each borough would have five wards of about 80,000 residents each, offering far more accountability than a new Valley city of 1.35 million could ever provide.

“When you run for office and go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes or to pick up your dry cleaning, everyone’s going to know who you are, and if they’ve got a problem, they’re going to tell you about it,” Hertzberg says.

“We’d like to get to where the school district and MTA and the county have the same service areas as the boroughs, so you don’t have to schlep across L.A. through 3 1/2 hours of traffic, only to be told to come back another day.”

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Now for the good news/bad news portion of the column.

The bad:

Although Hertzberg is still trying to win City Council approval to put his plan on the November ballot, there’s a better chance Mayor Jim Hahn will loosen his tie one day and dance the Macarena on Ventura Boulevard. Hertzberg got going too late, and the council isn’t going to support its own dismantling.

The good:

Secession is probably doomed. The rebellion is backed by rank amateurs in the Valley and a cartoonish self-promoter in Hollywood. None of these cowpokes makes a convincing argument for breaking away, and they’d have been laughed off their horses by now if not for the fact that Jim Hahn ain’t so tall in the saddle, either.

So after secession flames out in November, Hertzberg will come to the rescue, and this time he’ll have more of the calendar to work with. If all goes well, he might try to make the March ballot.

“What the borough plan does is give you the best of Los Angeles without breaking it up,” Hertzberg says. “Secession would be held up by 10 years of everyone suing everybody anyway. It’d be a boondoggle for lawyers.”

Hertzberg, who understands that filling potholes is only part of the challenge, speaks passionately about making connections and transforming people’s notion of what a city can be.

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“Government is not just about delivering services,” he says. “It’s about creating a better sense of community.”

If the borough plan becomes reality, I’d like to nominate 85-year-old Nathalie Hartman for ward boss. She’s got spunk, and although she may not be a leg-breaker, the woman swings a mean shovel.

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com


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