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February 24, 2010

Ramona Ripston: A place in L.A. history

When Ramona Ripston became executive director of the American Civil Liberties of Southern California in 1972, the Los Angeles Police Department was behaving
as if it was above the law and Latinos had no chance of winning a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. These injustices—and many more—were challenged and overcome in court by Ripston and the excellent legal team she assembled, earning a distinguished place in L.A. history.

Ripston has announced her retirement effective next February. I have dealt with her for many years. I found her to be a disarming mixture of toughness and charm, fierce in battle and politically sophisticated. Those are the minimal requirements for a civil libertarian in Southern California. The head of the ACLU must fight for the poor and oppressed in an uncompromising manner and be charming enough to persuade the rich to support these efforts, capable of taking money from Brentwood to help Pico Union. Good luck to the ACLU board in finding a replacement!

Many of the cases filed under Ripston were rooted in Los Angeles’ long history of racism and police lawlessness.

One, in 1988, reversed long-standing racism in politics by forcing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to redraw gerrymandered district lines which had systematically stymied the growth of Latino voting power. ACLU lawyers clearly demonstrated how the supervisors had moved the boundaries of a district westward from Latino East Los Angeles, extending them as far west as Beverly Hills to assure white preponderance. Other parts of the Latino population were divided with another district, splitting the Latino vote. As a result of the lawsuit, new boundaries for the 1st district were drawn, and Gloria Molina was elected supervisor.

Another ACLU case, in 1984, closed down the infamous Los Angeles Police Department’s public disorder intelligence division, which had a long history of spying on political liberals and ethnic minority community activists. The PDID dated back to the department’s “Red Squad,” which cracked down on liberal activists and labor unions through much of the 20th Century.

The Southern California ACLU also fought a lengthy lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District board forcing desegregation of long-segregated Los Angeles schools. That fight raged for years in the courtroom as well as in the schools and meetings of angry and anguished parents. The board finally submitted a desegregation plan which was eventually approved by the court in 1981. White flight and Los Angeles’ changing demographics weakened the impact. But important legacies of the desegregation fight remain, such as integrated magnet schools.

Finally, Ripston and the ACLU lawyers were most helpful to reporters. They loaded them down with documents instead of propaganda. The ACLU crew figured the facts of the case would prove them right. And they usually did.

February 3, 2010

A city hall backstabbing

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s affordable housing plan--a centerpiece of his administration—has been dealt near fatal blows by a court decision, the recession—and by his own planning director.

This is bad news for the mayor, who has just hired a new jobs czar. Creating construction jobs, including building apartment houses with affordable housing for working people, is crucial to Los Angeles’ recovery. And without such units, Los Angeles will continue to become a city of rich and poor, with little room for the working class or even the less affluent members of the middle class.

The court decision was handed down by a state appellate court. It wiped out a planned city requirement that Los Angeles developer Geoffrey Palmer set aside a portion of his new apartments for housing units affordable by working class tenants.
Such a requirement, to extend through the entire city, was a major part of Villaraigosa’s housing proposal. The Palmer decision nullifies the plan. Affordable housing advocates tell me that more than 28,000 affordable units could have been built over a decade if Los Angeles had forced developers to set aside 15 percent of the units in a new building for affordable housing.

Another blow serious blow to the mayor’s plan was delivered by the recession. With money scarce, hardly anybody is building apartments, either for the poor, the middle class or the rich.

Finally, Villaraigosa got a real stab in the back this week from his planning director, S. Gail Goldberg. She reported to a City Council committee on how the Planning Department would deal with the Palmer decision. Her answer: It can’t. She said, “Economic conditions over the past several years have caused the Mayor and City Council to take unprecedented actions to dramatically reduce the city's payroll. The Department of City Planning has been particularly hard hit,” Goldberg wrote. In other words, she’s too busy to work on a centerpiece of Villaraigosa’s program.

This is a classic bureaucratic blockade. “Gail’s memo is disingenuous and is a formula for inaction,” said Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, a housing expert who arranged for the construction of many affordable apartment units while he was a Boston city official.

It will be tough to overcome the Palmer decision, requiring action by the builder-developer dominated state legislature and the City Council. But Villaraigosa’s planning director doesn’t even want to try. Whose side is she on, developers or working class tenants?

Villaraigosa should answer the same question. If he is serious about affordable housing, he ought to tell Goldberg to get with his program instead of obstructing it.

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