By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
But, John White says, they aren’t sitting at the table at all. “Right now, we’re more like the menu.”
For now, green leaders around Los Angeles seem to be opting for a different, and maybe not terribly effective, form of power. Conner Everts, executive director of the Santa Monica–based Southern California Watershed Alliance, notes, “You’ve got a lot of people from environmental groups who have moved into regulatory positions” — plainly put, they are now drawing salaries from the government.
Everts then lists a half-dozen or so men and women who now have jobs with the city or state, suggesting that environmentalists inside these ossified institutions will use those posts to expand the movement’s political power. The River Project’s Winter doesn’t think it works that way. “They do everything in half-steps and baby steps,” she says of these bureaucracies, “but we need to get on our feet.”
The stark difference between the day-to-day work of Hanscom, the grass-roots environmentalist, and Parfrey, the political insider and mainstream environmental activist, proves Winter’s point in spades. When the Weekly talked with Hanscom recently, she was right in the middle of fighting an almost surreal but classically Los Angeles battle — to keep glaring digital billboards, made up of nearly 500,000 piercingly bright LED light bulbs, from popping up immediately next to the Ballona Wetlands, a key ecosystem for migrating birds, shore life and land flora.
As has become common practice under the “green” politicians who control the Los Angeles City Council, mayor’s office and City Hall’s bureaucracy, environmentalists had not even been warned that the city government was considering a hunk of land next to the wildflowers and blue herons as a future billboard location. “All of a sudden,” says Hanscom, “the city has the Ballona Wetlands as part of a billboard ‘sign district.’ It’s outrageous. I even had [prodevelopment] lobbyists and lawyers ask me what they were thinking.”
By contrast, as Hanscom aimed her firepower at City Hall, Parfrey, one of Villaraigosa’s newest political appointees, was getting ready to visit a DWP wind farm way out of town, with the idea of creating “educational tours” for environmentalists. Not necessarily a bad thing but not exactly shaking up the system. If anything, the tours, as described, have the feel of a public-relations campaign for DWP.
The timing of Parfrey’s ascent to an influential political post was troubling to some. The mayor appointed him to the DWP late last year, as the campaign over Measure B began, which caused some critics to ask if he was being rewarded by Villaraigosa for backing a measure many voters saw as having little to do with going green.
“I can see the difficulty Parfrey faces as an environmental lobbyist and activist co-opted into an official capacity by the City Hall political machine,” writes former L.A. Daily News editor Ron Kaye on his blog, www.ronkayela.com. “But ... the question has to be asked whether you’re an environmentalist or a green-washer profiting from public support for a greener world.”
Stephen Box, a bicycling advocate who has worked on green issues in L.A., believes Parfrey and other insider Los Angeles environmentalists are co-opted; blind-sided by digital billboards quietly proposed next to wetlands and in many residential neighborhoods, backtracking on the hard-won 1990s push to require green belts and building setbacks in housing developments, looking away as children get housed along freeways and staying nearly mum on unprovable claims of sustainability by big business and big unions. “It’s a wonderful thing to think you’re working on the inside,” says Box, “but based on the results, nothing is happening.” He sees a “fear” of rocking the boat among insiders, and an unwillingness to “set the bar too high.”
Several grass-roots activists believe mainstream environmentalists aren’t there for them, or won’t share their access to politicians. Bill Gallegos is executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. Although he believes things are getting better, he sees a “deep division” between traditional big groups and his kind of highly local organization, especially on the issue of environmental justice. Gallegos has focused for years on Huntington Park, a tattered, working-class, almost entirely Mexican-American southeast-L.A. suburb. Still, he’s worried about whether Villaraigosa and big environmental leaders will “throw down” with him.
On April 14, Villaraigosa stood on a stage inside the Balqon Electric Truck Factory in Harbor City and smiled at the City Council members and political insiders. Everyone was there for the mayor’s “State of the City” address, and Mark Gold of Heal the Bay was one of the VIPs.
“We are aggressively growing the industries of the future here in L.A.,” Villaraigosa announced. “We need to build a future in which clean technology is as synonymous with Los Angeles as motion pictures or aerospace. Where L.A. is acknowledged as a growing capital of the green economy.”