Bandit Queens Bring Reign of Lending


Rusty Robertson at a fundraiser for Count Me In, a women's lending organization, with loan recipient Kendra Lewis and "Bandit Queen" Nell Merlino.

VOL.26 NO. 22
October 31 - November 13, 2002


Actress and Topanga resident Catherine McClenahan with comedienne Nora Dunn and Melanie Kareem, Topanga Chamber boardmember and Middle Eastern dancer.

By Susan Chasen

A gang of "bandit queens" recently descended on the home of a new Topanga resident, Rusty Robertson, but she has lived to tell the tale. In fact, she asked for it.

Only eight weeks after moving in, Robertson threw a big party to support the work of one bandit queen in particular by the name of Nell Merlino.

Merlino is president of an online "microlending" organization called Count Me In that helps women start businesses and gain economic independence. Rusty, who has her own public relations company, RPR Associates, is on the national advisory board for Count Me In and is a passionate supporter of the cause.

Bandit queens were in good supply on that chilly October 16 night in Topanga. "The most dangerous woman on Earth"--Lucia Rijker, women's boxing world champion, was there along with singer-songwriter-artist Exene Cervenka of the band "X," actress-comedienne Nora Dunn, legendary L.A. session musician Carol Kaye, and singer-songwriter Kim Shattuck of the Muffs. All have been deemed "bandit queens" thanks to another special guest of the evening--photographer-author Ali Smith, who recently published a book titled "Laws of the Bandit Queens,"celebrating 35 of today's "most revolutionary" women.

Nell Merlino, who created Take Our Daughters to Work Day in 1993, is one of Smith's non-showbiz bandit queens.

Most recently, as co-founder of New York-based Count Me In, Merlino helped create a "women-friendly" credit-scoring system that takes the realities of women's lives into account in lending decisions.

"Nell is in the book because what she is doing is amazing," said Smith.

About 100 turned out to support the cause, greeted by a phalanx of white-suited valet parkers on the Boulevard. A shuttle delivered guests up a short hill to the house. Soft outdoor lighting shimmered off a glowing blue pool, while partygoers enjoyed the open bar, catered delicacies and live music by Heather Sullivan. Recommended donations were $20 to $150 and there were numerous larger donors there as well.

The original "bandit queen" was an Indian woman named Phoolan Devi, a low-caste village girl born in 1957 who suffered terrible abuses, including rape, and eventually became a Robin Hood-like figure as leader of a gang of armed bandits. Though never charged with a specific crime, she served 11 years in prison. When she was released, she became a politician and was elected in 1996 to India's parliament where she became a champion of rights for women and the poor. She was shot and killed last year in revenge for her alleged crimes.

Smith, who also lives in New York, said she got the idea for the "bandit queen" book a few years ago when she was turning 30. It became a personal quest.

"I was not really with people who shared my philosophy," said Smith. "These people helped me put form to my philosophy."

Rijker, for example, she said, is an inspiration.

"She fought a bout with a man. She's proceeding as if anything is possible."

Merlino said she is proud to be a bandit queen, but that as president of Count Me In, she hopes to provide options for women that Phoolan didn't have.

"It gives people an opportunity to be Robin Hood and not have to join some kind of gang of thieves," said Merlino.

Count Me In has provided start-up loans from $500 to $10,000 for nearly 300 women's companies across the country, 25 in California, and boasts a 92 percent repayment rate. Merlino said businesses and foundations run by women have been especially supportive.

"They all got it so fast. There's enough to go around," said Merlino.

Count Me In is now also offering securities of $2,000 or greater through its "Invest in Women Notes" program.

Count Me In encourages women to create businesses out of what they already do, even if it has just been for family or friends.

One woman designed a new comb and treatment regimen to get rid of head lice because her daughter was allergic to chemical treatments. Another woman, once an inmate herself and a prison visitor when her son was incarcerated, started a business outfitting people traveling on buses from New York City to upstate prisons. She provides toiletries to for freshening up after the trip and prison-approved gifts and necessities for their loved ones.

Kendra Lewis, who started Development Concepts, a fundraising service for small non-profit organizations, with a loan from Count Me In, came to Rusty's party from Sacramento to meet Merlino, her mentor.

"I went online and I was shocked that I had been accepted," said Lewis, who had never applied for a loan before.

Rijker, who is from the Netherlands but now lives in L.A., turned out to support Smith and her book. She said she has been in books about women athletes before, but Smith's collection is special.

"This is different, this is just women," said Rijker. "I'm honored to be associated with all these amazing unique, powerful women who believed in a dream and made it happen."

Rijker is currently negotiating for a main event fight. It will probably be with Cristy Martin, who also claims world champion status.

"Hopefully, it will be the biggest thing ever, and a dream come true for me," said Rijker, who began boxing at 14.

"My brother took me to a gym to try out kick boxing and I never left."

Cervenka also liked the company of the other women in the book.

"It's not so specific of a type of women. They look different, they're different ages, they don't conform to any classification."

Nora Dunn offered a dramatic reading of pictures in Italian Vogue as the character Pat Stevens from "Saturday Night Live." She loves to read, said Dunn, and her favorite book is Vogue. Leafing through the pages, she made a poignant discovery--"Here's a touch of sadness, this model has died."

There were men at the party too. Two of them gratuitously professed a conviction that women are in fact smarter than men.

Several of Rusty's television producer friends were there, like Woody Fraser who produced numerous TV shows from "Mike Douglas," to "Nightline" to "The Home Show."

Big corporate sponsors of Count me In have been Morgan Stanley, BP, American Express Foundation, the Listwin Foundation and Crown Plaza Hotels.

Quite a few Topangans were at the party as well--Pat Burke, of Pat's Topanga Grill and president of the Topanga Chamber of Commerce; Melanie Kareem, Middle Eastern dancer and Chamber boardmember; singer-actress Catherine McClenahan; opera singer Dale Franzen; and writer Rachel Resnick.

Also, Rusty and Ed Robertson's nearest neighbors, T-CEP's Pat and Jack Mac Neil, were there, making their first visit ever to the house that was built 12 years ago on a piece of their property they had sold off.

"It's nice to have nice neighbors," said Pat.

Rusty said she and Ed, who is a former professional golfer, moved to Topanga to live in the mountains and because she values its preservationist philosophy.

"I really want to be a part of the community of Topanga. It's a fabulous community and I'm looking forward to getting to know it better."

For more information about Count-Me-In's online loan and business education programs visit .


Republican Wissot Challenges Pavley

Republican Michael J. Wissot, 28, a candidate for state Asembly, talks with campaign volunteer Ilse Erpel.

By Susan Chasen

Michael Wissot, a 28-year-old Republican of Woodland Hills, is running for state Assembly in the 41st District against incumbent Democrat Fran Pavley who he accuses of acting too much in the interest of "environmental extremists" at the expense of other concerns.

He says he has been very influenced in his approach to politics by Senator John McCain, having worked on McCain's presidential and senate campaigns and on his senate staff.

"I've always been a Republican who likes to shake things up in both parties," said Wissot.

He said he is running because he believes that Pavley devotes too much attention to environmental concerns.

"We all care about the environment, but there are a lot of other issues people care about too," said Wissot. "I haven't met one person who does not care about the environment, but no one favors environmental extremism to the extent that Fran does."

Other problems, such as transportation congestion, which exacerbates air pollution problems, he said, need to be addressed.

"We need to create better means of transportation," said Wissot.

He has said he thinks new freeway lanes should be added instead of converting existing lanes for carpool use. But when asked if he thought more freeway construction would improve air quality in the long run, he said, other alternatives should be explored as well, such as light rail, bullet trains and public education efforts to take into account driving patterns.

According to Wissot, Pavley's landmark legislation, AB1493, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will only have a miniscule effect on pollution because less than one tenth of 1 percent of global greenhouse gases comes from California cars.

Like Pavley, Wissot opposes the proposed Ahmanson Ranch Development.

"The developers have not made a strong enough effort to mitigate traffic and sewage impacts," he said.

He criticized other political leaders for not making more progress toward stopping it, such as by buying the land.

He said he supported both Proposition 12 and Proposition 40, the last two parkland initiatives providing $4.7 billion for parks since 2000, but that some good environmental goals are turning into pork-barrel spending.

Another area he thinks should get more attention in Sacramento is education.

"I'm amazed," said Wissot, " that [Pavley] having been a teacher, I would assume that she would spend more of her time on education."

"Teachers don't have a voice, the unions have a voice," said Wissot.

He suggests creating local teacher councils like neighborhood councils to learn what teachers' needs are. He supports incentives such as college tuition credits for teachers and "better pay for the best teachers."

He also supports breaking up the L.A. Unified School District, which he believes would empower parents.

"A small school district is going to be more manageable," said Wissot.

Wissot's background is surprisingly varied for his 28 years. In addition to his work for McCain, his biography describes sports marketing "stints" with the San Francisco Giants and the Baltimore Orioles as well as public relations work for "high profile" clients of Hill and Knowlton in New York, and employment with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

Currently, he is managing general partner of, an internet dental referral service. Wissot's father Jeffrey Wissot has a dental practice located next door to Wissot's campaign headquarters in Woodland Hills.

Wissot is a graduate of James Madison University with a master's degree in business administration from the University of Arizona and in international management from Thunderbird.

Other issues that Wissot has taken up in his campaign include the controversial Malibu Local Coastal Program recently adopted by the California Coastal Commission.

If elected, he said he would seek repeal of AB988 which gave the Coastal Commission the authority to create Malibu's coastal land-use plan.

"Malibu can better decide its destiny," said Wissot.

Campaigning door to door in Topanga, Wissot said he talked to about 50 people and heard about an interest in lowering the speed limit through Topanga, in common sense environmentalism and learning more about the candidates. "Topanga is the quintessential example of a town in need of both conservation and economic growth," said Wissot.


Pavley Runs on Record, Service

Democratic Assemblymember Fran Pavley is running for re-election.

By Susan Chasen

Assemblymember Fran Pavley, the Democratic incumbent in the 41st District, is running for re-election after two dramatic years that have seen the state's fortunes plummet, but she has still managed to get 15 bills passed–many intended to further environmental goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting watersheds and water quality.

When she was elected, there was a large budget surplus, but soon came the energy crisis and then this year's huge $23 billion budget shortfall.

"How do you balance that?" asked Pavley.

Her top priority if re-elected, she said, will be to work on a long-term solution to prevent this sort of budget crisis and create more stable revenue sources.

Stock market and capital gains losses, she said, caused 50 percent of the deficit.

"Too much is based on personal income taxes and growth," said Pavley.

One of Pavley's most notable achievements in the Assembly was passage of AB 1493, the Clean Car Bill, that calls for new standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars by the maximum amount possible, to go into effect in 2009.

Pavley said she is equally proud of numerous other bills she authored, as well as, her record for responsiveness to her constituents.

"Yes we carry legislation in Sacramento," said Pavley. "But the other part of our role in government is to be responsible to the constituents we represent."

She created a "mobile district office," which she takes to various locations – such as coffee shops and farmer's markets – to reach out to her constituents directly.

"I enjoy the interaction," said Pavley. "That's been a good way to find out what's on people's minds."

Also, she established an email newsletter, available to anyone on request, that makes it easy to give feedback.

Despite the state budget problems, many projects in the Santa Monicas have gone forward because they are paid for by bond initiatives and are not subject to the spending constraints that affect other kinds of programs.

According to Pavley, debt service consumes 8 percent of the state budget, and that is not viewed as a problematic amount.

Pavley says she is convinced that Ahmanson Ranch owner Washington Mutual might become a willing seller and drop its mammoth development plans. If that should happen, she says she will work with all parties to acquire the land for public ownership.

On the subject of Lower Topanga, she said the $6.6 million expense to eliminate an affordable residential community is probably the best decision for the public interest. She said with housing prices "exploding" in the area, the relocation expense would not likely be any cheaper in the future.

"I wish the relocation could have been handled a little more smoothly," said Pavley, but she added that State Parks is trying its best to be sensitive to residents.

"It's probably in the long-term best interest of the state of California to have that area serve as a potential access to Topanga State Park."

Pavley said she is interested in possibly retaining Lower Topanga's visitor-serving businesses, including the restaurants, which can generate money for the park and for wetlands restoration.

She authored the Watershed, Clean Beaches and Water Quality Act of 2002 which appropriates $213.4 million for beach and watershed projects from Proposition 40, the $2.6 billion parks bond measure passed last March

Pavley said she is also looking into the improving standards for beach replenishment sand to avoid repeating the debris problem at Will Rogers State Beach.

Asked if she believes Los Angeles County should acquire its own SuperScooper aircraft to assist with firefighting, she said, "I would love to have them."

Unfortunately, she said, "There is absolutely no money for additional expenditures....The general fund for the next year or two would make it almost impossible."

Pavley has the distinction of being the great, great granddaughter of the famous orator William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic candidate for president. He is also remembered for arguing, in the famous Scopes "monkey" trial, against the teaching of evolution.

"That's not me," said Pavley. Though, on second thought, she did find several points in common.

"He cared a lot about the common man," said Pavley. "And he would stand up to well-funded interest groups, and that's what I've had to do."

Pavley faced a multi-million dollar campaign to defeat her clean car bill.

Also, said Pavley, he believed women should be allowed to vote. Pavley said she would like to see more people exercising their voting rights on election day.


Fire Threat, Voodoo and Lower Topanga at Annual Watershed Meeting


Topanga's 2.2-acre lagoon could one day be expanded to 8 acres.

By Susan Chasen

The third annual State of the Watershed meeting on October 19 was an opportunity to honor 19 volunteers who have been watching turtles and bats, catching crayfish and helping to keep the creek clean since the Topanga Creek Watershed Committee was formed in 1998.

Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist with the Resource Conservation District and Watershed Committee coordinator, presented certificates of appreciation to Megan Heille, Janet Lin, Dorothy Steinicke, Kevin Gautrey, Annabel Simer, Yannick Trapman-O'Brien, Hayley Safonov, Jackie Safonov, Steve Williams, Noel Rhodes, Delmar Lathers, Dennis King, Scott King, Ken Widen, Cody Wheeland, Ken Wheeland, Kevin Reed, Gorby Just and Karelle Just.

They were also recognized by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's senior deputy Susan Nissman and Assemblymember Fran Pavley's representative Jenny Toder.

Apart from the volunteers being honored and numerous community groups and agency representatives participating in the meeting, attendance was very limited, with less than 40 people at the start.

Even fewer were present for a second annual design "charrette" as it is called, on the Lower Topanga lagoon restoration project and on a proposal to put Topanga Canyon Boulevard on pilings along a fifth-mile stretch called "the narrows," about 2 miles from Pacific Coast Highway.

Dagit reported on plans for new water-quality testing that will use DNA to determine who among us is responsible for fecal coliform hotspots in the creek--which species, that is, whether it's from humans, pets, livestock or wildlife.

Lack of rain this year, she said, resulted in only one 15-minute opportunity for resident trout to migrate in or out, which meant that no migration occurred, an essential part of a steelhead's lifecycle.

Dagit reported that nearly 300 crayfish have been taken from the creek to protect amphibians which are preyed on by crayfish. They were given to Mollie Hogan to use at Wildworks for feed.

Numerous other groups provided updates on their activities over the past year. A pitch was made for more Arson Watch volunteers to patrol Topanga during this unusually dry fire season and T-CEP's Pat Mac Neil urged more neighborhood groups to form disaster preparedness committees.

She said T-CEP is prepared to help anyone who wants to get a neighborhood organization going. Many neighborhoods have formed groups, she said, but some areas, such as Fernwood, have not. Anyone interested in creating a neighborhood preparedness group of any size, she said, should call T-CEP at (310) 455-3000.

She cautioned that the end of summer is not the end of fire season.

"This is the very beginning of our fire season," said Mac Neil. "We're not out of the woods yet. We are just putting our first foot on that path....Please don't let your guard down."

She said there will be an open house for the new EOC, located behind the Christian Science Church off Old Topanga Canyon Road. It's larger than the old EOC and has a classroom for first-aid and CPR classes.

Maria Grycan, community services representative with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, urged Topangans to dial 911 and not to call Station 69 directly in a true emergency because, if the firefighters are out on a call, a little bit of time is wasted. Currently, she said, 50 percent of Topanga emergency calls are made directly to Station 69.

"It's not a problem unless they are not there," she said. "If it's not a dire emergency, it's not a problem, they love to hear from you."

Steve Hoye of SCAT, Santa Monica Mountains Coalition for Alternatives to Toxics, reported on efforts to ensure that removing invasive plants from the Topanga watershed is done without adding herbicides into the ecosystem. As a TASC board member, he said that TASC will be comparing the county's draft Local Coastal Program with the controversial Malibu plan "to find the best possible result for our watershed.

"It will be the bible for the foreseeable future for the coastal zone," said Hoye.

Lola Babalon reported on changes at the Topanga Community Club.

"We've had a really exciting year," said Babalon, TCC president. "We've made a lot of changes to the structure. Next year we really want to make it more fun."

She said TCC will begin having potluck dinners at its meetings on the second Thursday each month, beginning January 9.

Upcoming TCC events include the Swap Meet and Chili Cook-off on November 9; a holiday bazaar on December 8; the senior holiday dinner on December 1; a Valentine's Day party to raise money for CHIC as well as monthly senior lunches on the first Friday, at noon.

Babalon said the TCC board is considering making Topanga Days two days to make it easier for everyone who works on it. A parade is still planned if permits can be obtained.

Dagit also reported, on behalf of the Viewridge environmental group VOICE, that evidence of some kind of "voodoo" type offerings with effigies and smoldering fires has been found off of the Viewridge Trail linking Viewridge and Santa Maria Road.

Suzanne Goode, ecologist with State Parks and Steve White, State Parks superintendent for the Topanga sector, reported on the status of Lower Topanga. Goode said drafting of a Topanga State Park general plan amendment will begin in early 2003 to create a long-term plan for the property.

White reported that in the previous six weeks, State Parks spent 912 "person hours" on clean-up and patrol of Lower Topanga. That comes to an average of 21 hours per day. White estimated the cost of the work at $13,000 to $15,000 for that period.

He said 14 illegal encampments have been cleared out of Lower Topanga. Three encampments in other Topanga parklands have also been removed. State Parks is expecting to spend $20,000 to dispose of old paint cans, car batteries and pesticides found so far, he said.

He said demolition of houses in Lower Topanga promises to be very expensive because of possible lead paint and asbestos disposal costs. Permits are currently being sought from the Coastal Commission to begin demolition of houses.

Lisa Roberts with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, reported on the federal Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program or WHIP that provides cost-sharing of up to 75 percent for habitat restoration projects, such as replacing non-native vegetation, for private and other non-federal landowners. The 2002 Farm Bill provided $360 million for the program, with $30 million authorized for fiscal 2002-03. For more information visit


Following the State of the Watershed meeting, a handful of Topangans joined with resource and parks officials to sketch out how a Lower Topanga State Park and a lagoon might be designed with respect to parking areas, preservation of historic structures--specifically Wylies Bait Shop and the Topanga Ranch Motel--relocation of the Pacific Coast Highway, and safe crossings to the beach.

They also discussed putting the boulevard on pilings along the "narrows" to allow a more natural flow of Topanga Creek under the roadway. The goal of the narrows project is to slow the creek down by widening it to reduce landslide and sedimentation impacts downstream.

On Lower Topanga, three of the four groups proposed keeping the Malibu Feedbin, though State Parks has not deemed that local landmark to have historical significance requiring preservation.

Most suggested putting a large parking lot along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, north from the Feedbin. The current beach parking lot of 100 spaces would be eliminated by a lagoon restoration project.

Participants were also encouraged to freely move the historic structures--including the many bungalows of the motel. Moving Wylies and at least part of the motel is required to allow excavation would be about 800,000 cubic yards of fill material.

A State Parks relocation project for the businesses is expected to be completed by fall 2004.

Participants also explored alternative placement of PCH, which would be rebuilt with a 490-foot bridge to accommodate an expanded lagoon.


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