A Dubious Title for L.A.'s

Sewage System: Spill City

Los Angeles is racking up some dubious accomplishments. The City of Angels vies with Houston as the nation's smoggiest. With the homicide rate soaring well above 600 this year, it may recapture its title as Murder Capital, USA -- thanks to the gangs, which make L.A. the gang capital of the country, too.

This just in: Los Angeles may be leading the nation in sewage spills.

Last week, a federal judge found the city and its bureau of sanitation in violation of the Clean Water Act. The city now faces fines of $27,500 for each of the 297 spills that occurred between July 2001 and July 2002. The city was sued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board and a watchdog group called Santa Monica BayKeepers. A few thousand more spills occurred since 1998, for which the city may also be liable.

To have rivers of effluent flowing into waterways and the Pacific Ocean is a bad idea for a community that relies upon and loves its coast, according to Francine Diamond of the water quality board.

Sanitation officials point out that L.A.'s sewer system has 6,500 miles of pipe, covers 550 square miles and serves 4 million people, making it the nation's largest -- and that for a system its size, it is actually less "spilly" than the national average.

The problem has been caused by old collection systems that are overwhelmed by grease discharges from restaurants and food processing plants, and tree limbs, which get flushed into the system during the region's infrequent but torrential rains.

-- William Booth

Ohio County Weighs Boosting

Pay For Those Serving Jury Duty

Hamilton County in Ohio is set this week to more than double the pay for jury duty, partly as a way to ensure that more poor people and minorities are able to serve on juries.

Two of three Hamilton County commissioners plan to vote to increase the daily pay from $7.50 to $19.50. They argue the change is needed because the current daily rate, in some cases, does not cover parking and lunch.

As a result, many prospective jurors have been excused because of financial hardship. A 1999 Ohio Supreme Court report on racial fairness also found avoiding jury duty might be linked to poor economic status. "It's a big concern whether juries who judge people are really juries of our peers ethnically and economically," Ronda Deel, a spokeswoman for the Amos Project, a coalition of 39 congregations working for equity and justice, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

But opponents contend that the county can't afford the increase and that there's no evidence pay has anything to do with diversity. Hamilton County, which encompasses Cincinnati, ranks last among Ohio's 88 counties in juror compensation -- $32.50 below the state's maximum allowance of $40.

-- Robert E. Pierre

New York City Council Bans Using Cell Phones in Theaters, Galleries

The New York City Council has voted to ban the beeping, bleating, brrrnnnnging cell phone from Broadway shows, art galleries, libraries and even the less than genteel precincts of the Madison Square Garden rock concert.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who like his predecessor Rudolph W. Giuliani rarely blanches at an opportunity to regulate behavior in this most unruly city, nonetheless opposes this bill. He says it's not enforceable and will veto it. But the City Council says it has the votes to override the mayor.

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller describes the legislation as "essentially self-enforcing."

The legislation requires either an announcement or a sign banning the cell phone. If the owner of the phone so much as lets it ring, he or she is subject to a $50 fine. No other large city in the nation has mandated such a ban. Phones will be permitted at basketball arenas and baseball stadiums, albeit at an overtalkative patron's own risk.

-- Michael Powell

School Board in Kentucky

Argues Over Gay-Straight Club

A high school without clubs?

It might happen in Kentucky. The school board in Boyd County has banned all clubs at Boyd County High School in Ashland, a tiny town in the state's rugged northeast industrial belt.

The board took that unusual step in an attempt to keep a group of 30 students from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance, a club similar to groups in hundreds of other high schools across the country.

The battle goes back to late October, when a school council -- a governing body comprising parents and teachers -- approved the club. There was an instant uproar. Several Baptist ministers complained that the school was advocating homosexuality. Hundreds of students stayed home from class one day to protest the club.

The school board reasoned it might be unlawful to ban a single club, so they banned them all. Someone noted that the ban would also affect the Human Rights Club, the Pep Club, the Bible Club and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But they didn't budge.

The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in, arguing on behalf of the Gay-Straight Alliance.

"It's not unlike the 1960s, during the civil rights struggle in which the majority in some communities tried to repress the rights of minorities," said Jeff Vessels of the Kentucky ACLU.

-- Manuel Roig-Franzia