Bill Boyarsky
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June 15, 2008

Union clout, King hospital and the 2nd district

The unspoken question in the supervisorial election between Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas is how much influence the winning candidate will allow the unions in negotiating the reopening of Martin Luther King Jr. -Harbor Medical Center, which once served thousands of poor people.

Getting King functioning again is the most important issue in the race for the 2nd Supervisorial District seat. The hospital in South Los Angeles County has been closed for 10 months after it failed federal inspections. It’s criminal that it remains closed, but that’s what happens in the do-nothing behemoth, Los Angeles County government.

The unions representing county workers, including those from the shuttered hospital, are supporting Ridley -Thomas. They have donated at least $4 million to an independent expenditure committee campaigning for him. A total of $980,000 of it came in during the last two weeks of the primary campaign, which ended with Ridley-Thomas finishing ahead of Parks but short the majority needed for victory. The runoff will be held in November, on the same day as the presidential election.

Both have pledged to restore the hospital. But no matter who wins, the unions will be the real power in shaping the contracts and civil service rules that will govern the nurses and other medical personnel at a reopened King and the other county hospitals.

Union reps, county bureaucrats and supervisors and their aides will resolve these matters in secret, as is the custom for big issues in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, even though they involve major questions of public policy. In this instance, the county imposes secrecy because of its lawyers’ broad interpretation of an exemption from the state open meeting law for anything dealing with personnel. The way the county sees it, that could be most anything.

Nobody wants to talk much about this aspect of the King issue, not even someone unconnected to the county, like Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, a private foundation interested in improving access to health care.

Last month, Garrett Therolf reported in the Los Angeles Times that when Ross contacted county officials to help find an institution to take over King, his letter “did not address another issue that many said was a stumbling block [to opening King]: whether an operator would be required to employ members of the county’s public employee unions and be bound by county personnel rules that make it difficult to discipline or transfer workers who harm patients.”

Of course the unions will insist on such a requirement, and make their feelings known in the closed-door meetings with supervisors, supervisorial aides and bureaucrats.

Ridley-Thomas and Parks proposed solutions that shed no light on how they will handle the union issue. Parks wants King and the other hospitals run by a new authority “sufficiently insulated from political vagaries.” Ridley-Thomas wants the hospital to be run by “an administrator and governance structure that operates outside L.A. County’s political authority and its health services bureaucracy.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is not up for re-election, said in a Times op-ed piece that he wants the hospital turned over to the University of California, which would be “unencumbered by the county’s human resources and hiring rules.” He did not address the union issue.

In bringing up the unions and civil service rules in his story, Times reporter Therolf raised an important question. It deserves to be answered in the campaign, especially by Ridley-Thomas, the recipient of union financial support.

June 2, 2008

ACORN and Mama Hill vs. predatory lenders

The dream of home ownership has long been part of life on 92nd Street and similar South Los Angeles working class neighborhoods. But making the dream come true has never been easy-- not more than a half century ago when the area was mostly white and not today when it is African American and Latino.

The dream was the topic Saturday May 30 when ACORN, the community activist organization, held a press conference-demonstration in front of a small house at 755 East 92nd Street, a home headed for foreclosure, its owner one of the many casualties of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The street is broad with bungalows on either side. It was quiet at midday, with most of the activity occurring at the bungalow owned by Millicent (Mama) Hill, who was an English teacher at Crenshaw High School before she retired in 2000 and set up a program in her home to help young women and men avoid the gang life and crime. ACORN volunteers, most of them older men and women, gathered in Mama Hill’s front yard, all of them wearing the organization’s bright red t-shirts.

Mama Hill has been operating the program on her pension, small donations and with the help of friends and supporters who assist her with tutoring, mentoring, anger management and other services needed in a neighborhood that is pretty thick with gang action despite its peaceful appearance on a Saturday.

With expenses exceeding income, and house prices rising fast, Hill refinanced her house. “I needed a loan quickly,” she said. She was promised one at 7.5 percent interest but before she signed the final papers, she was told the interest would be 10 percent “but they promised it could be renegotiated.” When she obtained the loan, the house was appraised at $405,000 but has since dropped far below that. She fell behind in her payments, and the mortgage holder is now foreclosing.

One of her supporters, Cedric R. Brown, president of Youth Incentive Programs Inc said Hill got the loan at a time when housing prices were exploding, even in this modest neighborhood, and mortgage brokers flooded the area with tempting refinance offers. “The predatory lenders took advantage,” he said. Some of borrowers were hard-pressed, like Hill. Others were tempted by the chance to pay off debts and improve their living conditions. Houses once valued at $450,000 recently dropped to $385,000 to $360,000.

Hill spoke to supporters and the two or three journalists who showed up. Then the ACORN volunteers walked the neighborhood, going door to door to urge support for Isadore Hill, a Compton city councilman running for Assembly in the area and for others who support bills pending in Sacramento designed to crack down on predatory lenders. Given the power of the financial business in the Capitol, I’d say those bills face a rough future.

Afterward, I drove a few blocks east to 1233 East 92nd Street, a brown stucco home with a tile roof and an excellently tended front yard. It is an unmarked monument to working class L.A.’s dream of home ownership.

In 1942, an African American family, the Laws, bought this very house. The neighborhood was then predominantly white. But the house deed included a restrictive covenant banning a sale to a racial minority. Such covenants were common in those days. Henry Laws and his family were African Americans, The Laws family fought the covenant. Charlotta Bass, the fiery editor of the California Eagle, espoused their cause. A judge ordered Mr. and Mrs. Laws and daughter jailed. Their sons returned from service to find their parents and sister in jail. The Laws eventually prevailed and courts began overturning the covenants.

The saga of the Laws family is a great inspiration to ACORN and its volunteers as they fight predatory lenders who, in their own way, are as vicious as the segregationists of 60 years ago

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