Lillian Kawasaki, a director for the Water Replenishment District (WRD) of Southern California for the past six years and a longtime Los Angeles city official who was instrumental in air- and water- quality initiatives, passed away July 18. She was 62.
Kawasaki, the first Asian-American woman to be appointed as general manager of a city department in Los Angeles, began her career with the City as a marine environmental specialist at the Los Angeles Harbor Department in 1978, later becoming the Port’s chief environmentalist. Kawasaki worked at the Port of Los Angeles for 12 years in the environmental management division, responsible for managing water-quality, air-quality and other port environmental issues.
In 1990, Kawasaki was appointed to head the then newly created Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) for the City of Los Angeles and ran it largely on grants from the federal and state governments, according to a statement from former Los Angeles Councilmember Ruth Galanter. The EAD advises the City of Los Angeles on environmental policies and programs. Major environmental initiatives spearheaded during her years at EAD included: the Los Angeles City Brownfields Revitalization and Job Training Initiative; the City’s Clean Air Plan; and the CEQA Thresholds Guidelines and Environmental Justice program.
“Lillian was one of the most creative department heads I worked with,” Galanter said. “She helped the City of L.A. establish its environmental credentials internationally through our participation in the International Congress for Local Environmental Initiatives.”
Kawasaki also served as the general manager of the City of Los Angeles Community Development Department for three years, managing 500 employees and more than $300 million annually in federal block grants and other public funds earmarked to promote economic/community revitalization, neighborhood improvements, human services and workforce-development programs for low-income and disadvantaged members of the community.
During Kawasaki’s time working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, she introduced new programs and improved the department’s relationships with state water agencies.
In 2006, Kawasaki was elected as a board director for the WRD, which manages groundwater for nearly 4 million residents in 43 cities of southern Los Angeles. She represented 800,000 constituents in Division Three, which includes the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, La Mirada, Lakewood, Long Beach and Signal Hill.
“In the six years Lillian served on the WRD Board, she made an indelible imprint on District policies and programs,” said WRD Board President Robert Katherman in a statement. “Based in part on her distinguished career with the City of Los Angeles and her membership on multiple state and federal water policy committees over the years, she brought to her WRD service extraordinary expertise. Personally, of course, Lillian was a force of nature, continually effervescent, always cheerful, always on the run, always interested in what she could do to help others. Her personality was a constant and welcome presence at WRD.”
Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, also issued a statement about her experience working with Kawasaki.
“I have never known a person who worked as hard as she did or put in as many hours as she did,” Knatz said. “She was brilliant, dedicated and passionate about her work but a ton of fun to work with. She gave out ‘acts of random kindness’ to everyone constantly,” said Knatz.
Both of Kawasaki’s parents were interned during World War II. Kawasaki was co-chair of the Friends of Manzanar, a national historic site, where Japanese-Americans were interned during the war.
A Bixby Knolls resident in Long Beach since 2002, Kawasaki run for the 8th District Long Beach City Council seat in 2012. Councilmember Al Austin, who ran against her in the election, issued a statement on Facebook, stating that she has been an “inspiration” for him.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lillian Kawasaki,” Austin stated. “She was a light of inspiration to me and many others who knew her. Lillian’s generous heart, thoughtful perspective and unyielding commitment to public service will be truly missed. I join with many local leaders and 8th District residents in honoring her memory and expressing sincere condolences to her family. May she rest in peace.”
Kawasaki is survived by her husband, Craig Carter, her father, Toshio Kawasaki, her brother, Glenn Kawasaki, and her sister, Nancy Kawasaki.
Services are scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 3 at 10am at Long Beach Forest Lawn. In lieu of flowers, people are encouraged to direct any tribute donations to the Todd Cancer Center at Long Beach Memorial Hospital in her memory.