Bill Boyarsky
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Mark Ridley-Thomas' telephone town hall

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas used an interesting telephone town meeting to build support for putting more of the Crenshaw Boulevard light rail line below street level and to have a station at Leimert Park Village. Robo calls from the popular Tavis Smiley were placed to residents in the Leimert Park area urging them to stay on the line and talk to the supervisor about the light rail route, to be completed sometime between 2016 and 2018. It would run from Exposition Boulevard to LAX.

I watched Wednesday night as calls came into town meeting central at the Los Angeles Urban League headquarters on Mount Vernon Drive, at the edge of Leimert Park.

I arrived early and walked around Leimert Park Village, the cultural and political heart of L.A.’s African American community, located off Crenshaw Boulevard a few miles south of the Santa Monica Freeway. A few vacant stores told me the village could use the economic boost the light rail might provide. I went into the well-known Eso Won bookstore on Degnan Boulevard, and looked at the books. I had wanted to visit the store for a long time but never got around to it. I bought “The Most Famous Woman In Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues” by Bob Luke. Then I headed south on Crenshaw toward where Ridley-Thomas wants to put the trains below street level. I passed a casket store, but didn’t want to buy one. It and the rest of the businesses were closed for the evening. There were still people on the street, however, as MTA buses unloaded passengers returning home from work, all potential light rail customers.

At the Urban League, I joined Ridley-Thomas, league CEO Blair H. Taylor, Our Weekly publisher Natalie Cole and a few others seated around a table fielding calls. A supervisorial aide told me 410 people called in, certainly many more than would attend a midweek town meeting in person. This is a terrific method of political communication.

Ridley-Thomas answered questions from telephone callers and a few from publisher Cole. Most of the callers favored below-street level construction of the stretch near Crenshaw High School and another school, as well as the Leimert Village station. They expressed concerns about safety and cost.

A strong critic of Ridley-Thomas' plan is his fellow supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky sides with a report by CEO Art Leahy of the MTA saying the Ridley-Thomas proposals would add more than $400 million to the $1.7 billion project. Yaroslavsky opposes cost increases. Ridley-Thomas, who puts the additional cost at $339 million, said the money could be taken from future projects and other sources.

Ridley-Thomas could use Yaroslavsky’s support. Both are members of the MTA board, which will make the final decision, possibly at a meeting next week. But on the day of the telephone town meeting, Yaroslavsky and Ridley-Thomas had a sharp exchange on KCRW's ’s “Which Way, L.A."” over another issue, the power of the county chief executive officer. From their tone on the show, these two strong-minded politicians aren’t getting along.

Ridley-Thomas also needs the support of Mayor Antonio Villairgosa. He controls four votes on the MTA board. Ridley-Thomas said the mayor is undecided. The supervisor is hoping the Leimert Park residents who participated in the telephone town meeting will persuade the mayor to join him.

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