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Meeting the mayor a walk in the park

Times Staff Writer

As a stream of walkers trickled through Lancaster’s main park one recent morning, Marie Ann Nicholson fell into step beside Mayor R. Rex Parris.

There was a boarded-up house on the street where her daughter lives in a “nice neighborhood,” Nicholson told Parris. The property was vacant. The front lawn had dried up.

“It’s a total eyesore,” said Nicholson, 71, a lifelong resident of Lancaster.

“We’ll make them fix it,” the mayor promised and turned to his “portable office” in the person of assistant Chris Casillas, who strolled a few paces behind Parris, toting a backpack with bottled water, power bars, first aid supplies and a couple of cellphones.

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Casillas was also armed with a pad and pen and quickly scribbled down notes.

“You get things done on these walks besides getting healthier,” Nicholson later said. “It’s business, pleasure and exercise.”

Parris introduced the “Walk With the Mayor” program shortly after his election in April. It has become a popular way for residents to reach their city’s boss and other key officials.

Twice a week, residents are encouraged to join the hourlong walks in Lancaster City Park.

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The goal is to give them an opportunity to talk one-on-one with city officials in an informal setting and discuss pertinent issues while getting a dose of exercise.

“I walk every day anyway,” said Parris, a recovering drug addict who has undergone gastric bypass surgery. “So I want to try to use [walking] to improve the health of the community. At the same time, it gets me next to people with everyday issues.”

And the venue is less intimidating than the City Council chambers, Parris said.

“At the council meeting I’m wearing a suit and I’ve got my public persona on, and every time someone comes up to the podium, you don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, and you have your veil up,” he said. “Here, I’m just Rex.”

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Nicholson said she hadn’t exercised in several years but was inspired to start walking every day when the mayor launched his program.

The jaunts begin at 8 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday and have attracted predominantly senior citizens, according to fitness instructor Laura Wright.

She supervises the walks and teaches stretch and tone classes afterward.

Before the intense summer heat took hold -- temperatures in the Antelope Valley can easily soar above 80 degrees before 9 a.m. -- up to 30 walkers joined in, Wright said.

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These days, the numbers range from 10 to 25.

Residents have raised concerns over graffiti and vacant, foreclosed homes with stagnant, mosquito-infested pools. Walkers have also complained about cars for sale clogging some residential streets, making them look like used car lots.

“It really connects you to what matters to real people,” Parris said. “I bring in Chris, he writes down notes, and soon the problem is solved.”

Casillas, the assistant, said he informs the appropriate city department of a particular problem and follows up to ensure the issue has been tackled.

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“It usually takes a week,” Casillas said.

Other Southern California cities have also adopted programs that encourage citizens to keep fit while connecting with community leaders.

Burbank encourages everyone to “take steps toward a healthier Burbank” by joining council members on walks each Saturday.

In Aliso Viejo, where last year the council adopted a formal resolution to become “a walkable community,” residents can take strolls with the mayor or park rangers.

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“We are promoting fitness and good health. It’s that simple,” said Helen Wilson, Aliso Viejo’s community services director.

During the recent walk in Lancaster, Carol Moss had financial issues on her mind.

“I’m looking for work,” Moss, an exercise instructor versed in fitness for seniors, told Parris.

The mayor told Moss he was hoping to make greater use of the city’s park by expanding programs for elderly citizens and suggested she start gathering ideas.

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“If we’re going to improve this community, it has to be community based,” Parris said. “You have to give the community a say and make them feel they’re having an impact.”

Peggy Gross said she typically takes daily walks but decided to join the mayor’s session that day “just to say hi.”

Parris’ 81-year-old mother, Jeanne Powers, who regularly joins the morning strolls, said she was pleased that people had the opportunity to meet and greet her son.

At intervals, the walkers used iron railings to stretch their muscles.

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They did exercises, paced backward up a small grassy hill and practiced balance by walking around the concrete curb of an enclosed flower bed.

Brenda Yarborough, 54, said that when the program first started, she came out “just to show support for a city program.”

“But I quickly became addicted to the exercise,” Yarborough said.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com


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