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Fires bring mayor’s oration skill to fore

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Zahniser and Willon are Times staff writers.

In three months, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has become a continual crisis manager, as his city has been buffeted by one disaster after another.

In September, Villaraigosa dealt with the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth, where a gruesome train collision left 25 people dead. Just weeks later, he returned to the San Fernando Valley as fires burned 49 structures, many of them in Lake View Terrace.

And over the last 72 hours, the mayor provided regular updates on local and national television on the Sayre fire in Sylmar, which burned more than 500 homes, making it the city’s most devastating in decades.

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Villaraigosa has been criticized during his first term for his high number of news conferences, including for funding for DNA rape kits and for his recent promotion of waterless urinals.

But the mayor’s penchant for political stagecraft, long considered his trademark, is now being viewed as crucial during local emergencies.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan, who drew praise for his handling of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, said that in the immediate wake of a crisis, a mayor’s job is “99% showmanship” aimed at giving the public a reassuring message.

“It’s legitimate because people want to know their leaders are on the ground,” he said. “People want to know their leaders are making sure things get done.”

Villaraigosa held three news conferences Saturday to discuss efforts by the fire and police departments and the Department of Water and Power to cope with the blaze. He appeared with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and declared a state of emergency -- the first step toward securing relief funds.

The mayor went to a Sylmar High School emergency shelter, where families anxiously waited to learn if they had lost their homes. During one visit, he expressed his sympathy to the 300 evacuees, embracing some who had been sitting forlornly on the gymnasium’s metal folding chairs. A few wept on his shoulder.

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Those efforts set exactly the right tone, said Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose northeast San Fernando Valley district has been ravaged by fires.

“The mayor’s primary role is to send the right message and convey the right information that the community needs, and I think the mayor is doing an outstanding job,” he said.

Los Angeles is a city where the response to emergencies -- local or national -- can be politically perilous.

In 2000, Riordan was criticized for taking a bike trip in France during a protracted transit strike that stranded bus riders.

A year later, former Mayor James Hahn was derided for getting stuck in Washington, D.C., after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- a situation that left then-City Council President Alex Padilla providing assurance to the public.

Villaraigosa took heat for being in Mexico during the May 2007 melee in MacArthur Park between the Los Angeles Police Department and immigrant rights advocates. He returned early from that trade mission to review allegations of police brutality.

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Last month, one Los Angeles blog criticized Villaraigosa for attending a baseball game during the Marek fire in the Valley’s Lake View Terrace area -- even though he appeared at the fire both before and after his time at Dodger Stadium.

“With firefighters working overtime to douse 10,000 acres of charred landscape, Villaraigosa had a responsibility to monitor the blaze from a location not quite as, well, fun, as Dodger Stadium,” wrote LAist blogger Jeremy Oberstein.

Aides to Villaraigosa say that, under national guidelines for disaster management, the mayor’s formal role is to serve as a citywide spokesman, a “calm, consistent presence” who can inform residents in a timely way about evacuations, freeway closures and other crucial issues.

To secure that information, he relies on aides at shelters and on fire lines, and the city’s underground Emergency Operations Center.

But the mayor also has an informal role, one in which he must make decisions such as whether to declare a nighttime curfew to prevent looting. That role has expanded in recent months, with Villaraigosa making hospital visits and, in a few cases, notifying next of kin that a loved one has died.

“I feel it is important for me to be present,” Villaraigosa said Monday, shortly after an update on the search for bodies at a Sylmar mobile home park. (None had been found as of Monday.)

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Much of Villaraigosa’s disaster response has originated at the bully pulpit, such as calling on Angelenos to conserve water or donate blood.

When the Sylmar fire approached power lines early Saturday morning, managers at the Department of Water and Power made the decision to take major transmission lines out of service to avoid massive outages. But it was Villaraigosa who used his public profile to urge Angelenos, many of whom were just waking up to learn of the fire, to conserve enough power to stave off rolling blackouts.

In the wake of the Metrolink collision, the mayor visited the hospital rooms of crash survivors and, once commuter rail service was restored, boarded the first train to depart from Chatsworth. Villaraigosa also replaced two long-standing members of the Metrolink board after safety concerns were raised about the rail system.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said the most crucial task for mayors is to prepare their cities before disaster strikes -- and to surround themselves with a talented, capable staff.

When a massive city bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River last year, Rybak first stopped at the Emergency Operations Center but quickly appeared before television news cameras at the scene of the tragedy, which left 13 dead.

Rybak said his job was to be “the human face of a community that is grieving.” In the days that followed, Rybak said he spent a great amount of time comforting victims’ families and giving updates on the disaster response.

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“From what I’ve seen from Mayor Villaraigosa, he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing,” Rybak said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this story.

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