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Chief of L.A. neighborhood agency

Times Staff Writer

Carol Baker Tharp, whom Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired this year to oversee the city’s neighborhood council system, died Sunday morning at her home, according to the mayor’s press office. She was 55.

Baker Tharp was appointed general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in February but went on medical leave in September to battle a particularly aggressive recurrence of breast cancer.

“Her integrity, intelligence, compassion and humor will be missed,” Villaraigosa said in a prepared statement. “Though we mourn her passing today, we take comfort in the fact that her work and ideas will continue to yield positive benefits for the people of Los Angeles.”

The mayor directed the city to fly its flags at half-staff. His press office also said BongHwan Kim, assistant general manager of the neighborhoods department, will serve as its interim chief.

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Baker Tharp came to the city from USC, where she had been deputy director of the Civic Engagement Initiative at the School of Policy, Planning and Development for four years.

At USC, Baker Tharp headed a project to map neighborhood involvement throughout the region. She was also a former executive director of Coro Southern California, an organization that promotes leadership in young professionals.

The city’s neighborhood councils system was authorized by voters in 1999 and set up by the City Council in 2001. It has been plagued at times by low participation, infighting and the inability of some City Council members to get along with or listen to the local elected councils. In September, a commission appointed to look at the neighborhood council system issued a list of 73 recommendations to fix the system and improve participation.

There also have been problems regarding the city department that oversees the neighborhood councils, the city funds that the councils are given and neighborhood council elections.

Baker Tharp was the third general manager of that agency in six years, and the job had been filled with an interim chief for nearly 11 months when Villaraigosa offered it to her in February.

Upon her hiring, Baker Tharp said she intended to focus on getting councils to achieve results in their neighborhoods. In particular, she didn’t want neighborhood council members -- especially council leaders -- to overstep their roles.

In a meeting in June of the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council -- which has been roiled by controversy among its members -- Baker Tharp urged members to focus on being the one place where community members could have their voices heard.

“If we can make it happen here, we will be the leaders of democratic participation in the United States, and wouldn’t that be an awesome thing to say, ‘I live in the city that does the best job of hearing the people,’ ” Baker Tharp told the crowd. “That’s what made me take this job.”

Baker Tharp was born in Charleston, S.C., and grew up in Charlotte, N.C. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, she worked for the city of Eugene, Ore., where she was the liaison between the city and Eugene’s equivalent of neighborhood councils. She and her husband, Michael, moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and settled in Eagle Rock.

“Carol both loved the challenge and doing something that she believed in,” Michael Tharp said. “Her work in Eugene and with Coro gave her a real feel for the diversity and importance of neighborhood participation in local government, no matter the size of the city. She was a true believer.”

Baker Tharp also became increasingly interested and intrigued by downtown Los Angeles over the years -- even before it held much allure to others. She often led walking tours of downtown’s sites, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, her husband said.

The previous agency chief, Greg Nelson, said he had recommended Baker Tharp after he resigned from the job.

“She believed, as I did and do, that we can’t continue with a top-down form of government where people have no role other than electing officials every four years,” Nelson said. “The average member of the public isn’t at the point yet where they can compete with the money and the influence of the lobbyist. . . .

“She was devoting her life to finding ways of better involving people in government and civic life, and that’s what this whole neighborhood council system was all about.”

Jason Lyon, a board member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council and a persistent advocate for the neighborhood councils, said he and others looked to Baker Tharp to smooth the often-rocky relations between the city and the councils and that she was the only one everyone could agree on to head the agency.

“We had such hopes for the department with her,” Lyon said. “I think that she really believed in the idea of democracy with a little ‘d’ and that participation is the key -- that democracy doesn’t mean anything if people aren’t taking advantage of it and engaging in civic discussion.”

Terry L. Cooper, the Maria B. Crutcher professor of Citizenship and Democratic Values at USC, said he wasn’t surprised when she left USC to work for the city because it was a job that spoke to her core values.

“Behind all this is her religious faith” in the Presbyterian church “that is rooted in a belief that every individual ought to count,” Cooper said.

“I think that she felt that there was a great gulf between city government and the people, and she worried about it a lot.”

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Coro Legacy Endowment, 1000 N. Alameda, Suite 240, Los Angeles, CA 90012, or at www.coroLA.org.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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