Residents wait weeks for cleanup

Times Staff Writer

South Los Angeles residents aren’t the only ones having a tough time getting city crews to clean up alleyways strewn with refuse and dead animals. Not even an aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could get quick action when he complained about illegal dumping earlier this year, according to a Times review of city records.

The mayoral aide alerted the Department of Public Works in early March about rubbish completely blocking an alley in a pocket of Watts prone to illegal dumping. But more than two months passed before workers cleaned the byway near East 113th Street and Graham Avenue, according to city records.

A spokesman for the mayor said his office was unaware of the delay until told by The Times earlier this week. The aide said he never followed up on his request because he assumed the department would take care of the problem.


Last week, after The Times reported that illegally dumped trash festered for a month or longer in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Villaraigosa ordered a report to determine how long it takes for crews to respond to complaints from residents. The report is expected to be completed by the end of this week.

But records show that the mayor’s office, as well as residents who called the city’s 311 non-emergency number, have regularly waited anywhere from two weeks to two months for alleys to be cleaned.

“The department’s response time for this cleanup work is totally unacceptable by any measure,” said Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo. “The mayor is not interested in explanations or excuses . . . [and] believes that the bureau is in need of structural change. And he will hold his managers accountable for implementing this change.”

Robin Kramer, Villaraigosa’s chief of staff, and Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley were meeting with the president of the Board of Public Works and other agency officials Wednesday afternoon to develop a plan to improve the 311 system and reduce the wait times for alley cleaning, Szabo said.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn -- whose office has also made cleanup requests that drew a slow response -- has asked the council to direct the Bureau of Street Services and the Los Angeles Police Department to find ways to crack down on illegal dumping and change the way enforcement officers go about their jobs. No date has been set for her motion to be considered by the council.

Hahn said Wednesday that she was aware of the slow responses. She said she has called the bureau director at the public works agency several times to follow up on requests to clean blighted byways in the Watts section of her district.

“It doesn’t really surprise me, but it’s not acceptable,” said Hahn, adding that she advises constituents to call her office directly instead of 311 to expedite the process.

She said she was planning to request that public works officials begin weekly inspections of dumping hot spots, rather than waiting for residents’ complaints, to identify trash-strewn areas and get them cleaned quicker.

The city documents reviewed by The Times were obtained under a California Public Records Act request. They detail two dozen requests for service from January through the end of May in three areas where public works officials say illegal dumping has been a problem for years.

Among those who called the city’s 311 number for help was Jose Vargas. The alley behind his Watts house was deemed an “emergency” because it was totally blocked by garbage, records show, but crews still took 17 days to arrive.

So many flies were swarming around a pile of newly dumped garbage, Vargas said Monday, that his 4-year-old daughter couldn’t eat outside during the recent heat wave.

“They don’t care about us,” Vargas said of city officials.

Officials with the Public Works Department, which is responsible for cleaning and policing the city’s 800 miles of alleys, say crews are stretched thin trying to clear massive volumes of rubbish routinely dumped on public property. They also said their efforts have been strained in part by budget cuts approved by the City Council and the mayor.

“We can only run so fast, and right now we’re running as fast as we can,” said Bruce Howell, who oversees alley-cleaning citywide.

Documenting the problem with videos and photographs, the previous Times report found that refuse -- including dead animals -- festered for weeks in alleys and that illegal dumping arrests by public works investigators dropped from 359 in 2002 to three so far this year.

Violators have continued to dump trash with virtual impunity. Some alleys that were cleaned in late May when officials took a reporter on a ride-along in South L.A. were again strewn with rubbish this week. Other alleys that were not cleaned are now filled with even more refuse.

The Times reported that the carcass of a rotting cat was thrown amid rubbish at 92nd and Hickory streets -- near a surveillance camera installed by the city to crack down on illegal dumping. On Wednesday, more than a month after it was spotted by a reporter, the dead animal was still in the alley.

The site is near the hard-hit pocket in Watts where Villaraigosa aide Michael Thomas reported the blocked alley in a March 12 e-mail to public works officials.

Thomas said in an interview that he was driving in the area when he saw the byway filled with broken furniture and household rubbish. Crews finally cleaned the alley May 29 -- the same day they took the reporter for a ride-along in the area.

Howell said Monday that he was unaware of the request from Villaraigosa’s office until he gathered the records for a reporter.

“That’s quite a bit of time,” he acknowledged. “Normally, we respond quickly to the mayor’s office.”

In March, the records show, Hahn’s office requested that Howell’s crews clean three alleys near an event that Hahn and Villaraigosa were planning to attend in Watts. The alleys were cleaned three weeks later, the day before the gathering, records show.

In some instances, alleys were cleaned less than a week after residents alerted the city. In most cases, however, records show that callers waited from two to seven weeks for blighted byways to be cleared.

Vicki Cummings waited two weeks for rubbish to be removed from an alley near her home near East 104th Street and Central Avenue, according to records.

In an interview, Cummings said she had to call 311 twice before crews cleaned up the trash, which included a pile of concrete that appeared to have been dumped when it was still wet. By the time city crews arrived, she said, more trash had been dumped in the spot.

Vehicles also had driven over the rubbish, dragging it through the alley and onto the street.

“They took so long that it got spread all over the place,” Cummings said.

Vargas, the Watts resident, said he was so fed up with the refuse continuously dumped behind his home on East 113th Street that he resorted to his own detective work.

More than once, Vargas said, he has fished through the garbage, pulling out letters with names and addresses.

He said he even found a stub from a canceled paycheck and told the city’s 311 operator that he had evidence that might provide clues about who was doing the dumping.

But the offer fell on deaf ears, he said.

“They weren’t interested.”