Published in the Daily News
Written by Dakota Smith
Debra McLaurin, 62, had a problem. The parking ticket she received in downtown Los Angeles was issued in error, McLaurin insisted. Seated before the new Mayor’s Help Desk, the Palmdale resident waved photos that proved she was legally parked, she said.
McLaurin, who wore a white baseball cap with the phrase “Respect” written in gold cursive lettering, drove three hours from Palmdale to City Hall, she said. “Is it possible to speak to Eric Garcetti?” McLaurin asked.
Launched a month ago, Mayor Garcetti’s new Help Desk is in full swing. Irritated-looking people show up daily. Others call or send frustrated Tweets. About 25 complaints are logged daily at the desk.
People arrive at the Help Desk because some part of their life is going badly. Many come clutching citations, tickets, or other paperwork. They are battling the city, a former business partner, a coyote outside their Mar Vista home.
South L.A. resident Luis Valdivieso, 66, showed up last week to fight a claim over a disability check. Naveen Chandra, 33, came from Marina del Rey. He approached the desk, and announced simply: “I can’t find a job anywhere.”
Garcetti aides said the Help Desk represents the mayor’s back-to-basics approach, his campaign promise to solve residents’ basic needs and improve city services.
But the desk, located on the third floor of City Hall, also marks a return to the hands-on approach favored during former Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration. The same marble columned corner of City Hall hosted a popular information booth under Bradley.
While Garcetti doesn’t personally meet constituents here —- he runs a separate office hours program — the office is run by his staff.
Visitors fill out intake forms, and the desk’s staff seeks to resolve each case, a process that can take a half-hour or a week. Unlike the city’s 311 system — which fields basic questions and takes services requests for issues like graffiti removal, the Help Desk involves extensive casework.
Each case is seen through to a solution. It’s common for aides to reach out to the county or state, and the desk has liaisons elsewhere in City Hall.
“By the time they come to us, they’ve exhausted all their avenues,” said Sally Martinez, who helps run the desk.
With a warm bedside manner, Martinez has handled constituent services for 30 years — first for Garcetti’s City Council office, and before that, for the late Congressman Matthew Martinez.
P.K. Ziainia stopped by last week after seeing a news story about the desk. But as he filled out paperwork over a legal claim, the Hollywood video producer was skeptical.
“I’m not sure if it’s window dressing or if there some legitimacy,” Ziania said.
Residents have a mixed history of working with the city to resolve problems. Many locals prefer to take matters into their hands. They fake “No Parking” signs for their streets, build unpermitted additions and grow gardens on city medians.
But for those who want it, the Help Desk is there. Find a stray dog? Animal Services can help. Find a dead dog? Call the Bureau of Sanitation.
If no question is too small, visitors don’t always like the answers.
An upset-looking man approached the desk last week, insisting that L.A return its buried gold to Italy. Later in the day, a woman called, demanding the 1977 property appraisal of her Carson home be re-adjusted. Nearby security guards intervene when complaints angrily ring through City Hall’s marble hallways, Martinez said.
But she believes the majority of visitors leave satisfied by the face-to-face exchange.
Away on U.S. Naval Reserve duty this week, Garcetti wasn’t available for comment. Spokesman Yusef Robb said it’s “unacceptable” that City Hall has lacked such a resource for residents for so many years.
Robb also defended the location of the Help Desk, which is reachable only by going through security gates. Parking around City Hall is expensive, and some believe the Help Desk should be located in a more accessible place.
“People expect to find help at City Hall,” Robb said. “And now they can.”
As City Hall workers began leaving work late in the afternoon, the phone at the Help Desk rang. Why did Time Warner drop the CBS channel? the caller asked. Another call followed: A man said he was angry at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He hung up before Martinez could get more information.
“Sometimes people just want to share the issues that are eating away at them,” Martinez said.