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City Attorney neighborhood prosecutors attack LA nuisances in and out of the courtroom

A Los Angeles City Attorney's program to enforce laws against illegal dumping, abandoned homes and other low-level offenses is rebounding after years of cuts.

The Neighborhood Prosecutor program uses the threat of prosecution and old fashioned community building to get rid of eyesores and clean up other problems.

"These are the issues on a daily basis that for most people define whether they are proud and happy to live in our city, or not," said City Attorney Mike Feuer, who expanded the roster of neighborhood prosecutors from 8 to 22 this year.

The cities of San Diego and San Francisco have similar programs, so does Santa Clara County.

Resident Roy Payan, a Navy vet and ex-cop, said he's seen the difference.

"Prior to getting the neighborhood prosecutors in with us, we had a real problem connecting with the city and getting the resources that we needed," Payan said. "But since she's come along it's been a big help."

He's referring to prosecutor Cynthia Gonzalez, who's assigned to the Hollenbeck Division.

That's where she recently met with Jessica Rivas of the Heritage Square Museum, a collection of Victorian-era houses relocated from across L.A. to a manicured parcel in Montecito Heights, along the 110 freeway, north of downtown.

It's serene in daylight, with chickens clucking about the antique rail station that doubles as the ticket booth. But museum Rivas said motor homes --  housing people who had no other place to live -- had been parking in the museum's lot without permission overnight, sometimes leaving sewage and trash behind.

And a neighbor who collects scrap metal was also dumping in the parking lot. Rivas said about a month ago, an RV parked near the junk pile caught fire.

A litany of fixes

Gonzalez listened, jotted some notes, and offered a list of suggested fixes. The city, which owns the long single-lane parking lot, could add gates and barriers at each end. The Department of Water and Power could add street lights to power poles. The police could do more frequent patrols.

She offered to alert the police commission to the scrap metal collector to force him to get a permit for the junk dealing or quit. Also, a local city council member could add a few local streets to the list of places that limit motor home overnight parking.

Gonzalez brought police officers to meet with Rivas, to speed the process.

"A lot of these communities suffer in silence because they are afraid of retaliation," said Gonzalez, whose area of responsibility includes Montecito Heights, Boyle Heights and El Sereno.  "They are afraid of reporting crime because they don't know exactly where to report it, because of the language barrier."

Meeting the neighbors

Each of the 21 LAPD divisions has a neighborhood prosecutor except Hollywood, which has two.

In the fiscal year that began July 1, the City Attorney's Office said the its neighborhood prosecutors  attended more than 2,600 meetings and received nearly 2,700 inquiries about neighborhood problems. They referred 112 of those to other agencies.

Of the 1,451 problems they've taken on as cases, they've resolved one in four so far.

Gonzalez said some of her successes were getting people to stop using the parking lane around giant Evergreen Cemetery as an open-air car sales lot.

The activity was blocking parking for the many runners and walkers who use the fitness path that rings the cemetery grounds.

It's better now, though she said you still see a few cars with a discreet dollar sign marked on the windshield and papers inside with a phone number for sales inquiries.

Another battle was to get a fleet of scrap metal and junk dealers to stop parking their modified pickup trucks  from parking on the curb surrounding Hollenbeck Park.

There were so many trucks, some piled 15 feet high with junk, they obscured the public's view of the park.

Bilingual community-building

In her car, driving to check on an abandoned house in Boyle Heights, she describes the complaints that came from residents of these steep, twisting streets packed with vintage homes.

"They didn't know each other," Gonzalez said.  "There were Spanish-speaking ones who didn't speak English, There were English-speaking ones that were very affluent."

This is where her bilingual community-building skills kicked in. At meetings at the police station and later in the friendlier space of a residents' back yard, she encouraged the neighbors to form a neighborhood watch.

Meantime, she hauled the property owner into court on eight misdemeanor violations of the building code for letting the house deteriorate so badly. A hearing is scheduled next month.

As she pulled up to the abandoned hilltop house and commented on its spectacular sunset view of downtown L.A., she said the problem appears to be its on way to being solved. The house was  securely boarded, and construction is going on to shore up the garage.

"Because of that one house," she said, "now all the neighbors now have communication with each other."