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Former L.A. City Councilman Hal Bernson dies at 89

Hal Bernson, former Los Angeles city councilman.
(Harold Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

Hal Bernson, who led the city to establish historic seismic safety laws during his 24 years on the Los Angeles City Council, has died. He was 89.

Bernson’s death was confirmed Tuesday by Greig Smith, a former city councilman who also served as Bernson’s chief of staff.

A blunt politician from the northwest San Fernando Valley, Bernson was unafraid to publicly argue with his council colleagues and impatient with bureaucratic delays. He “was an old-school guy who cared about fixing his community,” Smith said in an interview.

“He never had press conferences because he didn’t care about getting credit,” Smith said. “It wasn’t his thing.”

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The son of Romanian and Polish immigrants, Bernson was selling T-shirts when he first ran for City Council in 1979. He served until 2003.

A Republican, Bernson brought an urgency to City Hall and was known for ending his testimony at council hearings with the phrase “Let’s get on with it.”

The chair of the city’s planning and land-use management committee, Bernson supported bringing commercial and residential development to Porter Ranch, sparking anger from some groups.

His dedication to seismic safety was his biggest legacy, earning him the nickname Mr. Earthquake. He pushed to require the retrofitting of thousands of Los Angeles’ oldest buildings and established mandates for future construction. Laws supported by Bernson probably saved lives and property when the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit, former colleagues said.

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“Seismic safety was an issue that most politicians wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, because it could only alienate building owners,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former L.A. County supervisor who also served on the City Council with Bernson. “He gravitated toward it like it was a life-and-death issue. And it was.”

Bernson helped to organize the city’s first international earthquake conference and to create the “Quakey-Shakey Van,” a vehicle that taught children about quake safety. He also pushed for a landmark ordinance banning new wood-shingle roofs, a move supported by the city’s fire department.

“He was the guy who wouldn’t let people stop preparing for earthquakes and natural disasters,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “He owned that space.”

Garcetti, a former City Council member, recalled serving alongside Bernson at a time when members publicly sparred on the council floor.

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“I would regularly watch [Bernson] yell at Nate Holden and Nate yell at Mike Hernandez and Mike Hernandez yell at Hal Bernson,” Garcetti said. “And then when they were done yelling at each other, they’d shake hands and probably go out to dinner together.”

Bernson would admit as much. “Stocky, with dark, thinning hair and a serious gaze, Bernson concedes that he sometimes lets his frustration get the better of him,” The Times wrote in 1994. “But he makes no apologies for doggedly pursuing the policies he thinks will make the city safer.”

Bernson and his wife, Robyn, had three daughters, Nicole, Holleigh and Sarah. Holleigh, 26, was killed in a one-car accident in Griffith Park in 1995.

Times staff writers Hugo Martín and Nita Lelyveld contributed to this report.


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