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It’s a long haul for West L.A.'s trash fighter

Boaz Hepner was walking near the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards in West Los Angeles almost exactly a year ago and could not find a trash bin for his soda can.

“I must have walked four blocks,” he said, and he passed a lot of trash on the way. Hepner thought: “This is insane. It’s unacceptable.”

So the 30-year-old nursing student called City Hall with a question:

How about putting a few trash cans out here?

Well, dear readers, you know where this story is headed, don’t you? Yes, it’s another big-city tale from the dark side, and you can put it under the category: No good deed goes unpunished.

“I was on hold for a while,” Hepner said of that first call. One department put him on hold and then -- yes, of course -- transferred him to another department, where, naturally, he was put on hold.

He was able to hang in there, he said, because he had some time on his hands as family members gathered for a bris.

“You know what a bris is, right?” Hepner asked me.

I do, as a matter of fact. It’s a procedure that’s less painful than calling City Hall, if only because it’s over faster.

“I’d say it all took about 3 1/2 hours to get somebody. I’m not exaggerating,” Hepner said. “I gave them my report and they gave me a case number.”

While he was at it, Hepner figured he might as well report the pothole on his street.

“Do I need to do anything else?” he asked. “Will I hear back?”

And he was told:

“We’ll let you know.”

Yeah, sure.

Hepner guesses a month and a half went by before he called again and went through the same process of transfers and holding patterns. He gave his case number but there was no record of it. Then a clerk located a report on his pothole complaint.

“My main issue was trash cans!” Hepner screamed.

He said the clerk told him:

“Oh, yeah. I see it. I think it’s being worked on. Try calling again later.”

Do the clerks all laugh together when they hang up?

Weeks passed. It was late spring when Hepner called back.

“I finally got to an honest city employee,” he said. “I think it was a supervisor who said, ‘Look, you need to realize this isn’t a question of the cans. The city is really in debt and doesn’t have the people to pick up the trash. That’s the problem.’ ”

Hepner, by now, was radicalized and couldn’t let go. He happens to have a large circle of friends and friends of friends who get together for cultural and athletic events, calling themselves Camp Boaz.

It was time, the camp director thought, to harness all that energy for civic good. From prodding the bureaucrats, he’d learned the city has an Adopt-A-Basket program that provides trash cans to merchants and residents if they agree to manage and empty them.

With the help of Camp Boaz and his synagogue, B’nai David-Judea, along with Councilman Paul Koretz and his staff, Boaz organized a Pico cleanup day that drew roughly 100 volunteers. They combed the streets and filled dozens upon dozens of trash bags, and Koretz presented Hepner a community service commendation.

Hepner began campaigning for people to stop littering, and he called on merchants to join the Adopt-A-Basket program. He pounded the pavement, visiting mom and pops, chain restaurants, clothiers, grocery store operators and everyone else, asking them to join his crusade.

“Look,” he told them, “I can get you a trash can. Your only responsibility is to empty it, and your only expense will be the liners, which will cost you about $10 a year.”

Hepner promised to personally provide locks and chains so the cans wouldn’t get stolen, and he let merchants tell him exactly where they’d like the bins placed. It was five weeks of hard work, but it paid off nicely.

By the end, 82 merchants had signed on.

Several more weeks passed; still no cans. Hepner called Koretz’s office and recalls being told the program might have been phased out. It better not have been, Hepner warned. Not after all the work he’d done.

Early in December, he got a call from a friend who had just been on Pico.

“Hey, Boaz,” said the friend. “There are some green cans on the street just sitting there. Is this them?”

They were. Hepner had arranged to be notified, so he could follow through on his promises to merchants, but the city had dropped the ball.

“This is not OK,” he told a Koretz staffer.

Several days later, more cans were dropped off at other Pico locations, again without Hepner being notified.

Now, three weeks into January, and one year after Hepner’s first call to City Hall, only 50 or so of the 82 cans have been delivered. Hepner says it’ll be a long time before he tries again to help the city help itself.

Paul Newman, a spokesman for Koretz, said it’s possible that city budget problems played a role in the delays. Also, two separate city supply yards serve that neighborhood, and each trash bin site had to be checked out for safety, legal and pedestrian clearance issues, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I’m sure there are legitimate concerns about whether trash will actually be tossed out by merchants or left to pile up and spill onto the ground. But why does bureaucracy always have to crush good intentions? It would have been faster, and perhaps cheaper, to have provided the cans when Hepner first called a year ago and have city crews pick them up each week.

“He’s to be lauded,” said Newman, who understands “the frustration felt by somebody who devoted . . . a year of his life.”

The rest of the trash cans could be delivered in the next week, Newman said. That’s way too long to have waited, but at least Hepner is getting compliments now that the neighborhood is looking better.

“Oh, my God, it’s the hero of the city!” Pesie Davis said when Hepner walked in to her store, Buyer’s Brand Outlet, Tuesday morning. “Do you know the streets are cleaner because of him? It was such a mess before.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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