When former Planning Commission president Jane Usher resigned that prestigious post two years ago, penning a very public letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's blogosphere was afire with speculation. Daughter of a small-town defense lawyer whose practice had taken a page from Atticus Finch, Usher had come to believe that city planners were egregiously failing to protect residents' quality of life.
Her father, who represented Jews, blacks and "white trash" accused of crimes in Mansfield, Ohio, had taught her never to walk away from a fight. "Up to sixth grade, he had me convinced that teaching was a more fitting profession for a woman," says Usher, widow of Harry Usher, executive vice president of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. "Then I got radicalized, stumping locally for Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern. I'm still a sucker for hope."
Instead of melting into the shadows of the private sector, Usher has become a regular antagonist of the power elite at City Hall, slamming the unpopular density that planners, the City Council and Villaraigosa have forced upon treasured neighborhoods, and calling city leaders out for failing to dismantle a forest of illegal billboards.
Speaking to the anger of everyday people tired of the crass and the ugly, she earned the regard of neighborhood groups and anticlutter activists. She mixed her bureaucratic knowledge with candid talk, slamming City Hall's "zany exceptions to our own rules and our failure to enact behavior-influencing enforcement tools."
Usher dropped her allegiance to Villaraigosa and instead organized campaign fund-raisers for private litigator Carmen Trutanich, who ran for city attorney against Villaraigosa's ally, then–City Councilman Jack Weiss. "I was really concerned about a City Hall that was a closed door" — a problem under previous mayors. But seeing Villaraigosa in action, she says, "I was worried it would be shut even further."
After Trutanich's upset victory over Weiss last year, the new city attorney hired Usher, the mother of two teenage boys, as his special assistant. Among other things, he has asked her to guide his hard-line stance against rogue supergraphic companies that slather L.A.'s tall buildings with multistory illegal ads.
Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles City Council and former city attorney Rocky Delgadillo all took campaign money from outdoor-advertising firms, who for years erected illegal outdoor advertising with near impunity. Trutanich is aggressively suing such firms, and has seen a steady string of victories in older lawsuits that had dragged on for years. "We have taken a completely different approach," says Usher, whose phone rings frequently. Outdoor-advertising companies "are all calling," she says with relish. "They come in, hat in hand. And we are stone-faced."
Los Angeles politicians allowed the city to become the capital of the nation's illegal-billboard industry, with the attendant blight, tawdriness and clutter. But, Usher says, "The days of lax enforcement of the city's laws are over. They will be enforced for the greater good, for the quality of life of the residents."