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Judicial Litmus

 

Straight from the Web site of Governor Gray Davis comes the news that, like his Republican predecessor Pete Wilson, the first-term Democrat wants to know if his judges have inhaled.

The guv is asking prospective judicial appointees: "Have you ever illegally used drugs? If so, when was the last time you did so? Are you currently engaged in the illegal use of drugs? Please feel free to explain." (What happens if you don’t feel like explaining?)

Of course, the questions are silly, as some on the governor’s staff privately concede. They, along with the rest of us, wonder who among Gray Davis’ cohort didn’t (or doesn’t) smoke pot or didn’t (or doesn’t) illegally use drugs. To answer the question you must: a) lie (not a good idea for a prospective judge); b) tell the truth (also not a good idea given the nature of the inquiry in the first place); or c) confess you never touched the stuff, ever, really (the worst idea, since it means being picked because of your drug habits, or lack thereof).

Call the questionnaire pre-emptive damage control. Gray Davis was Jerry Brown’s chief of staff 18 years ago, during the last Democratic regime in Sacramento, and he learned an invaluable political lesson from the fallout from Brown’s shakeup of the California bench: The courts don’t follow election returns. Election returns follow the courts. "No one knows better than Gray the importance of selecting [judges] who represent the governor’s point of view," the governor’s press secretary, Michael Bustamante, told OffBeat.

To further that end, and to sharpen the focus on a second term, Davis would also like to know his possible appointees’ position on the death penalty. Word among some lawyers now applying for vacant seats is that Davis wants his judges to avow the death penalty rather than merely say they’ll uphold the laws of the state of California concerning executions. Now that the Governor’s Office has begun interviewing candidates, Bustamante says, "The governor has made no secret of the fact that he strongly supports the death penalty, and he thinks it’s important that those he appoints understand where he’s coming from on that issue."

Is that a litmus test? Bustamante says "No." But at least one sitting jurist disagrees. "Of course it’s a litmus test," the judge says. "But it’s political, not ideological. They don’t want anyone to point the finger and say they’re soft on drugs or the death penalty. They really don’t give a shit whether you used drugs, or whether you really favor putting people to sleep. They just want to be able to say ‘I asked, and that’s what they had to say.’ They want plausible deniability. It really isn’t about anything other than ensuring the electability of Gray Davis. They’ve adopted the standard from the point of view of conservatives; otherwise they’ll be perceived as soft on crime — which is the death knell of American politics."

 

The Mini-Mauling of L.A.

 

Fletcher Square in Silver Lake, one of L.A.’s ubiquitous neighborhood mini-malls, has seen better days. The gray paint is drab and the landscaping is in desperate need of water. The biggest storefront, which has stood empty for more than two years, still bears a sign reading "Alexander’s Florist and Gif" (the "t" has long since fallen). Inside, deflated balloons are stuck to the walls, and the paper plate–strewn floor looks like the day after a big party. "Whoever has a business here is a lost case," tenant Mary Karnikian, of Mary’s Salon, says sadly.

The insta-squalor at Fletcher Square and scores of other decaying centers across L.A. was predicted during the mini-mall explosion of the late 1970s and ’80s. Critics immediately recognized that the multistore strips thrown up on the sites of gas stations closed by the energy crisis would become eyesores.

"The city surrendered its major corners to automobile-related development instead of using the opportunity to promote pedestrian-oriented retail shopping," remembers former L.A. City Council Member Mike Woo, who represented Silver Lake.

Although mini-mall construction has been slowed, from a high of 100 to 200 starts in 1987, the year Fletcher Square opened, new centers are still being approved, including 53 last year, the Building and Safety Department reports. The new mini-malls are better planned and built, bureaucrats say. But what about the hundreds of shoddy strip centers thrown up in the go-go years?

Fletcher Square owner Dr. Tourage Soleimani referred all calls to property manager Jim Nostradian of JFN Properties, who insisted that the center is well-maintained and that businesses are flourishing.

"The center is doing well and the tenants are happy, and if they are unhappy, they are welcome to leave," Nostradian says. Interviews with three other tenants tell a different tale, of rent gouging, rat infestations, graffiti, and shoddy maintenance resulting in water damage to the ceilings and furniture. Paul Paulos, owner of Fletcher Cleaners, lost $2,000 in clothing and petty cash when thieves punched a hole into his store through the washroom in the abandoned flower shop. "After two years the owner finally repaired the wall," says Paulos.

"We have built this endless concrete landscape that is not people-friendly, child-friendly or green-friendly," says Gloria Ohland of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an environmental transit group. "I don’t think we ever consciously decided to build an environment that only works for automobiles."

But Fletcher Square doesn’t even work for cars, tenants say. The sole entrance and exit is a skinny driveway emptying near a major four-way intersection. At rush hour, the route turns into a virtual bumper-car ride. Thai Taste owner Isupakon Walleesubhan got in a traffic accident last year while trying to turn out of the square. "Today, people don’t have the patience to deal with things like an entrance/exit problem," says salon operator Karnikian.

So what’s to be done? A big, fat nothing, Woo says. "It would require the enforcement staff or regulators at the city to be more strict in the kind of controls they put on business," he says. "It is difficult to get property owners to be more responsive unless the mini-mall is a real slum or a public threat. I don’t think there is much anyone can do unless the property owners’ negligence is extreme."

"This business has made me say no more beauty business," says Karnikian. "We feel like orphans and are here just to give him [the owner] money."

—Christine Pelisek

No more bombs, no more books

 

As the school year wound down to A June finale, L.A. Unified police called in the LAPD bomb squad to evaluate a suspicious device found in front of Castelar Elementary in downtown L.A. After interviewing witnesses and conducting their own ginger examination, officers sheepishly canceled the bomb-squad call. Reason: The object was a dropped flute.

Welcome to the Kafkaesque world of school security, after the Columbine shootings. Since the April 20 student massacre that left 15 dead at a Colorado high school, the LAPD’s explosives unit, the nation’s busiest, has been called to L.A. Unified campuses 13 times during a record two-month spree of 34 bomb scares (the usual tally is 33 in an entire year).

As evidenced by the lost-flute caper, normally a matter for the lost-and-found box, official paranoia is responsible for jacking up the bomb-report statistics. Although you’d never know it by reading the Daily News’ scaremongering coverage, only one real explosive was found at an L.A. school after Columbine — a pipe bomb, fuse unlit, left at San Pedro High the weekend of May 1. LAPD Lieutenant Mike DeCouders says authorities believe a parent found the bomb in his Anarchist’s Cookbook–reading child’s bedroom. The parent then tipped off police so the bomb could be deactivated safely without incriminating little Johnny or Jane, DeCouders suggests.

The other bomb scares turned out to be rumors, pranks or student-engineered hoaxes. Like the fake dynamite discovered on June 21 outside the dean’s office at Reseda’s Cleveland High. Or the red-blinking "transmitter," cobbled together from Radio Shack parts and left outside the Narbonne High cafeteria in Harbor City. That prank resulted in the arrest of one student and the absurd beatification of another by Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, who lauded the little informer for "moral courage" in averting a disaster that never was.

The most serious consequence of L.A.’s Season of Unease has been for the students swept up in the dragnet atmosphere. Two kids who arranged a dry-ice explosion in an empty dumpster area at El Camino High in Woodland Hills were expelled in late May, even though an L.A. Unified lawyer acknowledged that the incident was nothing more than "a practical joke in very bad taste." Sixteen students were arrested for making terrorist threats, a possible felony charge that could mean prison time. Let’s hope summer break cools the hysteria.

—Jennifer Smith

Get me central casting

 

In case the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is wondering why potential tenants aren’t clambering to rent space in the old Louis B. Mayer–constructed Central Casting building at the corner of Hollywood and Western — which is being renovated at a cost of $2.8 million — OffBeat has a tip. The agency might try calling the number on a banner strung up on the side of the building (213-307-2382). OffBeat did, repeatedly, over the course of several weeks, and discovered that the number is out of service. Your tax dollars at work!

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