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2017: YEAR IN REVIEW: Homeless, new marijuana laws top 2017 stories

The year 2017 will be remembered as the year Donald Trump became president of the United States, making it an interesting year as far as news-making was concerned. What is and what isn’t news became as important as the main issues of the year.

In Southern California, 2017 was the year government leaders finally decided to address the homelessness crisis. Local leaders also fought with Trump over immigration issues and local governments wrestled with what do with marijuana, which becomes legal for recreational use by adults over 21 on Jan. 1, 2018.

Those are among the top stories of 2017 that we look at in our annual year-in-review issue.

Officials seek lower

homeless numbers

In January, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority sends volunteers out into the darkness to count the number of homeless people.

Officials were stunned when the numbers were announced in May. The number of homeless people in Los Angeles County had increased 23 percent from January 2016. There were now 57,794 people living on the streets, their cars, under freeway overpasses and along the Los Angeles Rivers and other waterways, up from 46,874 people in 2016.

Officials used words like “staggering” and “abysmal” to describe the 23 percent increase.

But officials had begun planning to solve the problem even before the dramatic numbers were revealed.

In November 2016, voters in the city of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond issue to pay for more than 10,000 units of housing.

And in March 2017, Los Angeles County voters approved a .25 percent sales tax increase that is expected to raise $355 million annually over the next 10 years. The money will be spent to provide services for homeless people that will hopefully get them off the street permanently.

In November, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and Los Angeles County announced an innovative grant program with cities in the county that saw 47 of the county’s 88 cities submit applications.

The idea was to get cities to develop their own strategic plans for dealing with homeless issues, with the United Way and Los Angeles County providing funding resources.

“Each application that we received was reviewed by a county CEO staff member, United Way staff member and two volunteers from our Home For Good Funders Collaborative,” said Chris Ko, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

“Their scores and comments were all collected and utilized in the award deliberation meetings that followed with reviewers and with the other members of Funders Collaborative.”

Each city will receive a planning grant ranging from $30,000 to $70,000, depending on the number of homeless families and individuals within its municipal boundaries.

West Hollywood is one of the grantees.

“We’re excited and grateful,” said Corri Plank, project manager of the West Hollywood Homeless Initiative.

“West Hollywood has a long history of serving its vulnerable population including its homeless community members. This is another opportunity for us to look at some of the various pieces of data on our homeless community, to look at strategies that are included in the county initiatives, to look at some of the things we’ve been doing and we look at what our social service providers are doing.”

The next homeless count is the last week of January 2018. Officials are hoping for better — meaning lower — numbers this time around.

Los Angeles officials waited until December to pass new laws dealing with the legalization of marijuana. Many other area cities voted to ban the sale and cultivation of recreational marijuana, but West Hollywood was one of the few cities to welcome the legalization of the drug. (File photo)

New pot regulations

to take effect Jan. 1

When Californians voted in November 2016 to legalize the recreational sue of marijuana for adults 21 and over, the new law didn’t take effect until Jan. 1 2018, giving the state and local governments a year to prepare for it.

Some area cities took little time to decide they didn’t want to deal with legal pot and voted not to allow permits for the sale, cultivation or distribution of marijuana within their boundaries.

Los Angeles took most of the year to develop its procedures, with the City Council approving regulations Dec. 6 and Dec. 13.

Council President Herb Wesson said he hopes the new laws will be a national model for other cities to follow.

“We are L.A. We are a big city. We do big stuff, that’s who we are, that’s how we roll,” Wesson said. “And there are cities throughout this country that are looking at us today.”

The rules approved by the panel would create limitations on how many cannabis businesses could be located in each neighborhood, similar to the regulations imposed on the alcohol industry, and also create requirements on how far cannabis businesses must be located from “sensitive sites,” including schools, public parks and other cannabis retailers.

Retail businesses must be 700 feet from sensitive sites under the rules, while non-retail and delivery businesses must be 600 feet from schools.

Bellflower allowed voters to determine policies. A ballot measure in March was approved by voters to allow as many as 12 licenses for sales, cultivation and distribution for medicinal marijuana only.

It took the council another nine months to award four permits for sales and another for cultivation and that came after a marathon 10-hour City Council meeting a week before Christmas.

Compton originally voted against allowing marijuana sales in the community but now has competing measures on a Jan. 23 special election ballot to settle the issue.

West Hollywood, always one of the most liberal cities in the county, is the only city so far to approve places to consume marijuana as part of its response to legalization.

Eastside faced with

special elections

The election of California Attorney General Kamala Harris to the U.S. Senate in November 2016, replacing the retiring Barbara Boxer, resulted in Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointing U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, to take her place as attorney general.

More than 20 candidates filed for a special election April 4 for Becerra’s 34th Congressional District seat.

Twenty-three candidates sought the post including Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Eagle Rock; and public interest attorney Robert Ahn; journalist/community advocate Wendy Carrillo, who produced a public affairs radio program; and former Los Angeles school board member  Yolie Flores, all Democrats.

Gomez and Ahn were the top vote-getters but did not obtain over 50 percent of the votes, thus pitting the two in a runoff election June 6, which Gomez won.

The 34th Congressional District extends from Korea Town in west Los Angeles east to the  Long Beach (710) Freeway, with the Santa Monica (10) Freeway on the south and the Ventura (134) Freeway on the north. The area includes downtown Los Angeles, the Westlake District, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights.

With Gomez heading off to Congress, Brown called another special election to fill his 51st Assembly District seat. Another crowd of candidates were on the special election ballot Oct. 3. They included Carrillo, Luis Lopez, who lost to Gomez in 2012; former Montebello school board member David Vela and Mike Fong, who was elected to the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees in 2015.

The 51st District includes the communities of Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights, Highland Park, El Sereno, Chinatown and Pico Union.

Carrillo, a first-generation immigrant from El Salvador who has since become a U.S. citizen, was the leading vote-getter in the Oct. 3 election and she defeated Lopez in the runoff election Dec. 5.

A shrine to Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer, who was killed in a shootout Feb. 20, was set up outside the Whittier Police Station. The 27-year veteran of the force became the third officer in the history of the Whittier Police Department to die in the line of duty. (Courtesy photo)

Whittier officer

shot to death

WHITTIER — An admitted Eastside gang member, Michael Christopher Mejia, 26, faces murder charges in the Feb. 20 shooting of Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer, 53, as he investigated a traffic accident involving Mejia.

Boyer, the first Whittier officer killed in the line of duty in 37 years, was among those responding to a traffic accident near Colima Road and Mar Vista Street. As Boyer and Officer Patrick Hazel approached, Mejia reportedly pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and began firing, striking both officers. Hazel survived. Mejia was shot and wounded by police in the exchange.

During a preliminary hearing, prosecutors played a taped interview of Mejia in which he admitted “I smoked a cop.”

He noted that the arriving officers did not have their guns drawn when they approached.

“I delayed it. I should have smoked ’em quicker,” he said, telling the detectives later that “they didn’t come out with both guns pointed ‘cause if they would have come out with both guns pointed, then it would have been a whole different ball game.”

Asked by detectives if he had anything to say to the Whittier Police Department, Mejia said, “I mean, train your guys better. Train your guys better. They just got a taste of an L.A. gang member, real L.A. gang member. You know what I mean? And, nope, I don’t feel sorry. Because I know they would’ve dropped me, they wouldn’t feel sorry for my family.”

Earlier in the day, Mejia reportedly killed a cousin in East Los Angeles and stole his car.

Exide cleanup

process criticized

VERNON — Residents in several cities surrounding the Exide plant continue to fear health risks from the lead contamination caused by the former battery recycling operation. A survey by the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, released in June, indicated occupants of 16,000 homes in Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and Vernon are concerned about lead contamination in the area.

The plant was permanently closed in March 2015 and the company agreed to pay $50 million toward cleanup of the area. Another $176.6 million was approved by the state.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control was criticized by county Supervisor Hilda Solis in October for not doing enough. She noted that the state had allowed Exide to operate for 33 years on a temporary permit.

The state cleanup plan, released in 2016, stated some 2,500 properties with the most toxic soil would be targeted in an area about 1.7 miles from the closed plant in an effort that will take about two years.

Barbara Ferrer, who leads the county Department of Public Health, said the state’s method for testing soil to determine whether lead contamination exists is flawed.

“The sampling strategy just has you going to a handful of places in each yard,” Ferrer said. “Unfortunately, with lead, it can be in one place in the yard and not another place.”

County workers retested five parcels that had been cleared by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control and found three of the five still had hot spots, she told the county Board of Supervisors.

Ferrer said the state needs to institute a block-by-block plan for cleanup to ensure environmental safety, rather than a house-by-house, parcel-by-parcel strategy.

County officials have also been pressing the state to clean up the inside of homes, saying residents track in contamination from their yards. And parkways, not just yards, need to be decontaminated, they say.

“The neighbors agree with us that the strategy right now doesn’t make sense at all,” Ferrer said.

AQMD shuts down

Paramount firm

PARAMOUNT — Faster action came from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regional agency, when residents of Paramount complained of foul odors last June. The AQMD ordered Carlton Forge Works, 7743 E. Adams St., identified as the source of the smell, to abate them.

Plant officials said they were unhappy abut the order and had worked in good faith with the agency to minimize odors. They noted that the plant has operated in Paramount for 80 years and employs some 350.

AQMD officials said they had received 190 complaints since December 2016, about the plant, which has received 17 violation notices since then. The company produces rolled rings and die forgings for commercial and industrial use.

Cities to decide

on second units

State efforts to require more affordable dwelling units, spurred on by increasing numbers of homeless people, resulted in three state laws which took effect Jan. 1, 2017, aimed at making it easier for property owners to build a second, less expensive dwelling unit on their sites.

That sent area cities scrambling to revise their so-called “granny flat” laws to comply with state rules but still maintain some local control. Final versions of those revised law are expected in the coming year.

They are Senate Bill 1069, which reduced and in some cases eliminates on-site parking requirements for what are now called “second dwelling units” on a site, and allows them throughout the city in residential areas including the single family zone. Previously they were allowed only in multi-housing areas such as apartments.

Assembly Bill 2299 says a city must allow second units if parking and setback requirements are met.

Assembly Bill 2400 allows “junior accessory dwellings in part of the main home. They may be up to 500 square feet in size but must have separate bathroom and kitchen accommodations.

Garages may be converted and a second unit may be built on top of an existing structure.

A rule used by most cities that there may be only one accessory dwelling on a site besides the main house and that the property owner must live in one of the two structures is not affected by new state laws, nor is the requirement that each accessory building have a separate bathroom and kitchen from the main house.

Downey and Norwalk have moratoriums in effect preventing new accessory units until they can revise their laws, expected in 2018.

South Gate has approved a tentative ordinance stating a second unit would be allowed only on a site of 6,000 square feet or more and may be attached or detached from the main house. A second unit may range from 240 to 640 square feet and occupy no more than 30 percent of a site. Total lot coverage may not be more than 46 percent of a site.

The dwelling may have no more than one bedroom. An accessory dwelling must have at least one on-site parking space although tandem parking would be allowed in an existing driveway, under the South Gate plan.

Similar rules are in the revised Whittier law although it adds that a second unit may not detract from the historical significance of a home deemed of historic value.

Whittier law requires an accessory dwelling to be not less than 150 square feet although units on 20,000 square foot lots may exceed 1,500 square feet in size.

A second unit may not be separated from the main house and sold and may not be rented for less than 30 days.

Most other cities affected by the state law are expected to approve similar rules.

Conservative groups

target H.P., Cudahy

HUNTINGTON PARK — President-elect Donald Trump’s strong rhetoric on immigration reverberated through heavily Latino Southeast Los Angeles County with regional conservative groups taking aim at Huntington Park and Cudahy.

American Children First, based in Torrance, unsuccessfully sought to “defund” the cities by petitioning for a vote and convincing residents to cancel the utility taxes imposed by the communities at the risk of reducing city services. A second group, We the People Rising, based in Claremont, has appeared at every Huntington Park City Council meeting since August 2016 protesting the appointment by Vice Mayor Jhonny Pineda of non-citizens to two advisory commissions.

Members of the latter group have frequently called out loud, often derogatory, comments during meetings. Torrance blogger Arthur Schaper is suing the city for removing him from a meeting last June for allegedly making such comments. Schaper says he is innocent. The suit will go into 2018.

The immigration issue has been especially notable in Huntington Park and Cudahy, where Joseph Turner, head of American Children First, has pledged to “defund” the two cities. He obtained permission to circulate petitions for a special election in Cudahy to nullify the city’s 4 percent utility tax, which generates about $1 million a year. The group obtained a petition in June on second attempt after resident Adolfo Vargas agreed to submit the request. The first request was rejected by the city as the one submitting it was not a resident, Deputy City Clerk Richard Iglesias said.

Turner’s petition to circulate in Huntington Park was submitted by residents Nicholas Ioannidis and Daniel Salazar twice but was rejected both times because it did not meet legal requirements, said then City Manager Edgar Cisneros on July 24.

He said the second rejection was July 5 and the city had not heard from the petitioners since then.

Huntington Park’s utility tax of 9.25 percent on telecommunications equipment and 9.75 percent a month on water, natural gas and electricity. It generates about $6 million a year.

We The People Rising has demanded that the city void Pineda’s appointment of Francisco Medina to the Health and Education Commission and Julian Zatarain to the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Because of their non-citizen status, the two have agreed to work without the usual stipend received by other commissioners. Council members have said only Pineda can change the appointments and have rejected claims that the two can’t legally serve.

We The People Rising said appointment of the two non-citizens is illegal and predicted council members could face jail. An attorney supporting the council said the appointments were legal.

Charter school

suit awaits trial

HUNTINGTON PARK — In another legal issue, a moratorium on new charter schools continues following a court decision last April that the city was within its rights.

City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman said it was a land-use issue. Mayor Graciela Ortiz assured charter school backers the city did not plan to abolish charter schools but needed time to determine, via zoning, the best place for schools, both charter and public.

It was noted that one charter school was established in an industrial area with heavy truck traffic from nearby plants. Councilwoman Karina Macias said the city must preserve space for tax-generating commercial and industrial operations.

The suit was filed by the California Charter School Association in November 2016, saying there is a long list of area students, mostly Latino, waiting to get into a charter school. The moratorium was supported by residents who acknowledged that they were employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District. They maintained that public schools provide quality education for area students.