In December 2021, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger warmly welcomed Toluca Lake and a handful of other cities to the Fifth District — the county’s largest, which spans 2,785 square miles and encompasses 20 cities and 83 unincorporated communities in the San Fernando, San Gabriel, Crescenta, Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys.
The move was the result of a historic redistricting process in which, for the first time, a boundary map was drawn by an independent citizens commission, rather than the supervisors themselves. While the new map received mixed responses from county residents and the supervisors, who each gained and lost communities in their respective districts, Barger took the changes in stride and was ready to represent her new constituents.
“When the maps were published, there were some who commented, ‘How did this happen?’, but I didn’t feel that way at all,” Barger recalls. “This is a nonpartisan office, so my attitude is, I’m there to represent my constituents. Tell me what communities I’m representing and I will represent the people. My job is to show up and work for them.”
One of the first things Barger did was scour the San Fernando Valley to find space for a local field office, because she wanted to establish a presence and be accessible to her newly acquired communities in the area. She and her team eventually found a location on Cahuenga Boulevard in Toluca Lake. “I remain constituent-service-oriented, and that has really been driving what I’ve done not only for Toluca Lake, but for all my new communities in the Fifth District, which now stretches right beyond the Hollywood Bowl,” she says.
While it’ll be two years in December since Barger began overseeing the newly redistricted Fifth District, she admits that she’s still in the “honeymoon phase” of getting to know it — and she’s enjoying every minute, from connecting with the area’s unique communities to learning about quality-of-life issues and the nonprofits, neighborhood groups and individuals working to make a difference within it.
A Passion for the County
Barger, who was born and raised in the Fifth District, was exposed to public service at a young age as she watched her father, a state insurance commissioner, work a government job with a demanding schedule while balancing family life. In college, she cut her teeth in the profession by interning with Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich, answering the phones and fielding requests for service and information from constituents, who were “either really upset or really happy to thank you, but more often than not, were frustrated; they didn’t feel like government was listening or responding,” she recalls of the job. She investigated constituents’ concerns and addressed them, and if she couldn’t, she followed up with them about their issues and was transparent about possible next steps. Making people feel heard is “really where I had my passion,” she says.
After graduating college, she returned to Antonovich’s office and served as his health deputy, focusing on total family services, welfare, health care and mental health, core services that the County provides to its most vulnerable populations. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “For me, being able to help people every day with quality-of-life issues, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.” In 2001, she became the supervisor’s chief deputy, serving in the role until Antonovich termed out in 2016. She then decided to run for the supervisor seat. “My aspiration was never to run for public office; I actually love being in public service,” she shares. “I ran and was honored enough to be elected as supervisor, but I always tell people, this was not in my script of life. It just kind of came because of the fact that I had been working for the County for so long, and I truly do have a passion for this county.”
Barger, who is serving her second four-year term on the Board and recently announced her run for her third and final term, oversees the executive and legislative operations of the County, as well as its budget, in an all-female Board of Supervisors. She says the makeup of the Board is indicative of the progress that’s been made by women in County leadership. “Over 50% of our department heads are now women, but 10 years ago that was not the case. A decade ago, probably not even a third were women, but now we are giving opportunities for women to meet their potential and compete on a level playing field. It’s not that we are choosing one or the other, but we are actually recognizing that there are more women applying for jobs than there were probably 20 years ago.”
Addressing the Issues
Barger’s policy priorities revolve around improving and maintaining the quality of life in the district, with the top issues being public safety and homelessness. “Every time I go out into a community, that is what they want to talk about,” she says of homelessness. “They want to know what we’re doing, because it is the most visible crisis that our county is facing.” Barger and Third District Supervisor Lindsey Horvath declared a countywide state of emergency over the homelessness crisis in January to expedite the hiring of homeless services providers and the delivery of resources to the tens of thousands of people living on the streets. The County is focused on encampments, increasing housing, and investing in mental health and substance abuse services. “While I do believe that housing is important, it is not going to get us out of the situation,” she notes. “We have to address some of the core issues as to why people are ending up and languishing on our streets.”
To effect change in these areas, Barger focuses on not only engaging with her colleagues on the Board and in the City of L.A. (she works closely with District 2 Councilmember Paul Krekorian on Toluca Lake matters), but also uplifting the organizations that are improving their communities, “because government alone is not going to make this county better; it is about working with all of our nonprofits, our community-based organizations, our Neighborhood Watch groups, and really collaborating.” For example, she partners with the Tierra Del Sol Foundation, which provides vocational training services to people with disabilities. “It’s a constant working with the community to identify where the needs are and ensuring that we’re providing the resources and the support to maintain quality of life, which goes well beyond public safety and helping the homeless,” she reiterates.
Barger says an issue on the horizon for Toluca Lake is affordable housing development, as state mandates are in place that require local communities to increase the amount of affordable housing. That development typically brings traffic and congestion to neighborhoods, so the challenge will be “balancing responsible development with the needs of the community.” She adds, “Since Toluca Lake is a finite area, and there’s not a lot of open space to build on, they’re going to be building up. So I think it’s important for us to work toward addressing the infrastructure.” She says community involvement and dialogue with the City of L.A. will be crucial in this decision-making.
Connecting With Toluca Lake
Barger remarks that Toluca Lake’s civic-minded residents make her job easier. After the redistricting, the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce was the first group to introduce themselves to her. “The fact that they reached out tells me they’re engaged, and that’s how I do my job better, by being involved with these types of organizations who are the eyes and ears in the community; they understand what the needs are,” she says, adding that this level of involvement helps her be proactive rather than reactive to the needs of the district. For instance, when the County puts together small business grants, the supervisors reach out to local chambers so that they can let the businesses know what is available financially for them. They also connect with homeowners groups to address public safety issues. “If crime or burglaries are on the rise, they are the ones letting us know that this is not right, or if things are going well, or whether numbers are coming down,” she explains. “It’s important that we coordinate, work and communicate.”
Having a local field office has given her an opportunity to facilitate this collaboration, as well as experience the neighborhood firsthand. So far, she’s been enjoying interacting with the many community organizations in the area, exploring the small businesses along Riverside Drive and frequenting eateries such as Ca’ Del Sole and Ernie’s Mexican Restaurant. “It’s a historic town that has maintained that small community feel despite being in an urban setting, and the people here reflect that,” she shares. “They are very proud to say they are from Toluca Lake, but they’re also very involved in Toluca Lake. I love that.”
Barger encourages the community to stay informed and involved on county issues and invites them to connect with her field office directly for assistance. “This is a cornerstone of our democracy; public involvement is key,” she says. “We’re there to serve the people, and so I want people to feel free to call. There’s no problem too small or too big.”
“I’m here to serve my constituents, and I want them to know that. They can stop by my local field office or call, or they can call my downtown office as well,” she continues. “We’re open five days a week, and there’s someone always here, including me. I want them to feel that they have representation that reflects the quality they should and will get.”