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All Juiced Up and No Place To Go 

The electric car underwhelms California

Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
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Photo by Kathleen Clark

Last August, the overcrowded City Hall East garage lost a row of parking spaces. Each of those spaces now has an "Electrical Vehicle Only" sign and a battery charger the size of a wall furnace. Since the row’s revamping, I’ve seen exactly one electric car parked there.

As it happens, this is Year 1998, the year when (it was decreed by state officials in 1990) 2 percent of all California cars were supposed to run on batteries. Rough math suggests that’s over half a million cars. Last time I looked, the number of battery buggies running around town was in the hundreds. This means you’re more likely to see a Lamborghini Countach on the freeway than a GM or Honda electric.

There are technological reasons for this impasse: Battery technology brooks few breakthroughs; the periodic table is only so long, and the combinations of chemicals and elements used in batteries were all thought up by 1910, and most batteries are incredibly inefficient when it comes to storing electricity. That’s why the current generation of electric cars can’t make it from Pasadena to Oxnard on a battery charge. Though I read in the L.A. Times recently that the next generation may make it past Carpinteria. Swell.

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So why the empty city car park? A decade ago, environmentally minded state officials ordered the automakers to make "zero emission" electric cars, whether or not they were practical. Now we’re in 1998, and you can lease an electric, but hardly anybody wants one. Even city officials who could get theirs charged for free in city garages.

Meanwhile, according to the November 29 New York Times, our state has quietly extended that 1998 deadline and changed the law requiring 2 percent electric-vehicle use. Instead, it now encourages super-ultra-low-emission vehicles called SULEVs that run on conventional fuels and drive conventional distances. What this whole costly saga illustrates is that once again, bureaucracy has proved itself clueless when it comes to technological change. Maybe next year, City Hall can use the parking-garage chargers to power its Christmas lights.

Stockholm Syndrome and Edith Perez

Los Angeles city commissions can evolve in strange ways. Empaneled by the mayor, they’re supposed to be independent of the agencies they regulate. But their members sometimes identify so strongly with those agencies that, in effect, they go over to the other side. Then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky once equated this loyalty transfer to "the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst."

In the past, the most seductive city agencies were the huge proprietary departments: Airports, Water and Power, Harbors. Mayor Dick Riordan now seems to have fairly tight control of these panels — for better or for worse.

But another important commission does have its Tanya-type: That’s Edith Perez, president of the Police Commission. Perez, it increasingly seems, takes cues from Chief Bernard Parks. She and commission executive Joe Gunn (a 39-year LAPD vet whose name ought to be on a cop series) put the bureaucratic skids under LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader. There is no sign whatsoever that Parks disapproved of this.

But now Parks’ presidential puppet has breached a behavioral boundary. It turns out Perez was also conducting an anonymous mail campaign against the unduly independent Mader. She posted press clips and documents critical of the inspector to various individuals — former Christopher Commission members and police commissioners, for instance — who were peripheral to Mader’s future.

With an almost Symbionese frivolity, Perez, a Latham & Watkins partner, used her law firm’s postage meter on these mailings. Thus identified, she fessed up to Times reporter Matt Lait, adding that now she’d pay the postage. But you wondered just what Latham’s managing partner might want to say to Perez. Thanks to her, the law firm that does the most business with the city of Los Angeles has been inadvertently underwriting a mail campaign against an important city official.

Meanwhile, none of her commission colleagues objected to Perez’s campaign. Some even approved. Which suggests that the entire Police Commission has gone over to Bernie, and that it’s time for Riordan to replace this gang with a panel that better grasps the concept of "independence."

My Back Pages: 17 Big Ones

In another part of this urban forest, this paper’s 20th anniversary was celebrated, and why not? I missed the frolic. But the date happened to coincide with the anniversary of my own earliest work for the Weekly, 17 years ago. Looking back, that was an important date for at least this one of us two.

In November 1981, after two weeks in California, my savings were vanishing and I had no prospects. Nor any Los Angeles friends: just a short list of friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances and acquaintances of relatives. Despite this, somehow, via an acquaintance of someone related to someone involved, I stumbled on a story about some alleged UCLA medical-research skullduggery. I made some calls; the story panned out. I decided to try to sell it to prove my journalistic mettle to this strange, sprawling town.

I called up an acquaintance of a friend of a New York relative who worked at the L.A. Times. She recommended, over a $2 bowl of Little Tokyo rice and chicken, where I might peddle my story. As it happens, her suggestion was the last civil thing she ever said to me. No matter: She told me to take my story to Phil Tracy, then news editor at the Weekly. For that, I should always be grateful.

It was Morning in America in 1981; the L.A. ’70s, with their disco nights, wild sex and busy serial killers, were freshly over, and Hollywood felt like a big rented room after a weekend orgy. The Weekly was on Sunset Boulevard, several miles east of the current address and far from anyplace I’d heard of. Its already-swarming staff was packed into a former four-unit apartment house with a bunch of buckety cars like mine crammed in its tiny front parking lot.

Tracy was hunched, energetic, and gray before his time. Before helping start the Weekly, he’d made his name by breaking the pre-massacre Jim Jones People’s Temple story for the old, statewide California/New West magazine. Whose eventual failure he accurately predicted: "People in Northern and Southern California hate each other."

Tracy liked my story. He seemed less sure of me, whose major investigative feat to date (unless you count exposing that rigged outboard regatta) was to have reported on a backwoods nursing-home scandal. Yet he trusted me — somewhat. The Weekly was then about 80 percent freelanced, but there was almost no space on-premises for writers. Tracy and his boss, Jay Levin, nonetheless let me use the house phones for my long-distance work and the Xerox machines for my query-letter copies. Eventually, they even let me charge off my home calls. (It turned out I was breaking freelancer-policy ground by charging anything off to the paper. I got a blank stare when I asked for mileage.) I further benefited by the proximity of Ron’s, a low-budget, polyethnic supermercado across the street. Where for a buck you could then buy a fresh 3-pound loaf of sourdough or pumpernickel you could gnaw on for a week.

My story finally ran in March 1982. We beat the Times by exactly one day. I was broke, and the man who owned the trailer I slept in wanted me out. But the story got play, and for three months of work I got $200. Yet I had failed to notice perhaps the most important single thing about what had happened: Levin and Tracy had encouraged an unknown reporter, with no local experience, to develop a major story. No other big-city paper in the country would have done this in 1982. Such flamboyant risk taking was exactly what made the Weekly what it is today.

But all I thought at the time was that now I was a real, published L.A. investigative reporter, and I might finally get myself a steady job someplace. So I carried a copy of the issue with my name on the cover to my next interview, which was at the local wire service. I set the paper down on the editor’s desk, atop my file of clips. She stared at the Weekly like it was a pile of ripe fish guts.

"I never, never read that thing," she told me. Then she added, "Can you start Friday morning?"

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