Seeking to combat an infestation in Los Angeles City Hall of rats and fleas linked to typhus disease, the city's personnel department announced an increase in cleaning and removal of trash from the Civic Center, hours before the city council approved a motion calling on city departments to develop and assess options such as removing all carpeting.
The motion introduced by Council President Herb Wesson on Wednesday was fast-tracked, bypassing the usual protocol of a committee hearing prior to being brought before the full council Friday.
"I want to make it crystal clear that this council truly believes that when individuals come to work for the city of Los Angeles that the only thing they should be concerned about is getting here on time," Wesson said. "They should not be concerned about coming to work and finding themselves in an unsafe or unhealthy environment."
There has been a "noticeable increase in the volume of rodents in the area and within city buildings," stated the motion, citing a recent report by NBC4 that brought to light the typhus diagnosis of a deputy city attorney, Elizabeth Greenwood, who believes she was infected by flea bites at her workplace in the City Hall East building.
Friday afternoon, Cats USA, a pest control firm contracted by the city's General Services Department, was conducting an on-site assessment in both the main City Hall building, and across Main Street, connected by a pedestrian bridge, in the City Hall East building.
Plans to start "weekly comprehensive cleanups of the entire Civic Center area" were announced in the Personnel Department email addressed late Thursday to all city employees. The work will be done Sanitation, Street Services, and Recreation and Parks, the email stated.
Wesson became aware of vermin issues within his City Hall office in November, he has said, and brought in pest control experts who set traps, advised the removal of all live plants which the rodents were consuming, and recommended the removal or containment of all food products. After a staffer noticed fleas, which nest in carpeting, Wesson had the office's carpeting removed, he said.
"Since the work has been completed, our employees have not reported any new rodent or flea issues within the office," according to Wesson's motion.
The motion instructs city staff to report back with a cost estimate and plan to remove all carpets in City Hall and City Hall East, and to report back with an assessment of all live plants in any city building, city-owned facility and city-operated facility within downtown, including which varieties are most attractive to vermin.
Before the meeting, Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez released video of staffers trying to trap a small rodent spotted scurrying down a hallway in her office. Councilman Joe Buscaino posted on Twitter a note he shared with his staff, telling them that the office is being visited by rodents and reminding them not to leave food and dishes out overnight.
"We clearly have a public safety crisis in and around the City Hall area," said Buscaino.
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During comments on the council chamber floor, Buscaino pointed to a 2016 federal court ruling that limits the amount of homeless encampment cleanups the city can do in the Skid Row area and prevents the city from seizing and destroying homeless people's property in Skid Row and nearby areas without posting advance notice.
In the injunction, U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero also ordered the city to segregate and store impounded belongings where they can be recovered. The ruling has led to a significant increase in homeless encampments in downtown, Buscaino said.
"That injunction is prohibiting our outreach workers from getting to our most vulnerable homeless population in and around the downtown area. So rats are a symbol of this injunction," he said.
The Mitchell v. City of Los Angeles filing challenged a city ordinance by Buscaino intended to limit the volume of possessions that can be kept by someone on a city sidewalk to 60 gallons. The injunction has put that ordinanceon hold as the case proceeds. Settlement discussions have been underway.
The case was brought by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and several law firms that advocate for the homeless, including the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
The injunction does not prohibit the city from doing clean up work, or collecting property left on the sidewalk, but does impose conditions on how it is done, according to Legal Aid attorney Shayla R. Myers. The injunction does not apply to the area immediately around the Civic Center, she said.
In a letter Friday, Councilman Buscaino invited Judge Otero to join him "for a tour of Skid Row, in Downtown Los Angeles, so that you may see the situation first-hand. It is simply unsafe, and unsustainable." Judge Otero did not immediately respond.
Members of the Personnel and General Services departments told the council that work combating the rodent and flea problem has been ongoing since last fall.
According to Wesson's motion and a member of the Personnel Department, the current demolition of the Los Angeles Police Department's former Parker Center headquarters building, which has been mostly vacant since 2013 and is across the street from City Hall East, may be partly responsible for the rodents in the Civic Center area.
Typhus is not transmitted person-to-person, and flea-borne typhus can spread to people from infected fleas and their feces. Typhus infection can be prevented through flea control measures on pets, using insect repellent to avoid flea bites, and clearing areas that can attract wild or stray animals like cats, rats and opossums, according to the Department of Public Health.
Symptoms of typhus include high fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and rash and can be treated with antibiotics.
Health officials in October announced there was a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles County, including in the downtown area of Skid Row, where an estimated 2,000 homeless people sleep. Mayor Eric Garcetti responded by designating money for "enhanced cleanup" in the area.
From 2013-2017, the average number of reported cases in the county of flea-borne typhus doubled to nearly 60 cases per year, and from 2018 to date, there have been a total of 107 documented cases of flea-borne typhus, the Department of Public Health reported.
Since October, a total of 19 cases have been documented in downtown Los Angeles, with eight out of the 19 involving people experiencing homelessness, the department said.