West Hollywood’s new $64 million library, officially opening Saturday, and the 10th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair, taking place the next day, are impressive projects for a city only 1.9 square miles with a population the 2010 U.S. Census has at just over 34,000.
The two events, both to be held in , are reflective of a culturally minded community, featuring special collections, highly valued artwork and other costly features.
Yet to some residents, the glamorous projects are also symptomatic of a city losing much of the counterculture character for which it was once known, transformed by excessive spending and commercial growth into a congested municipality preoccupied with image and personal political agendas.
Some see library and book fair as pet Heilman-Land projects
From the outset, the award-winning book fair has been a special project of John Heilman, a city founder and councilman since 1984. Adding strong support has been Councilwoman Abbe Land, Heilman’s longtime political ally, who joined the council in a 1986 midterm election.
Heilman and Land have long been perceived by some as a savvy
political tag team, dominating council politics and at the detriment of lower-income residents.
On the other side, their supporters have seen them as dedicated and dynamic leaders who have helped transform West Hollywood into a vibrant and progressive community with admirable social services dependent on continued retail growth and a strong tax base.
Throughout much of their long council tenures, the routinely elected incumbents have built well-funded and formidable campaigns, mustering three-vote coalitions on the five-member City Council and strongly influencing the city’s pro-development and culturally enriched direction, including the ambitious library and book fair projects.
Who controls the two costly cultural projects?
For all the praise and recognition the two projects have generated, some local political figures and community activists contend that
the book fair and the new library have been operated as personal office projects by Heilman and Land, to the exclusion of other council members and their input, and without sufficient scrutiny.
Some critics of the new library have also questioned whether
the money could have been better spent on more worthy programs, particularly in a digital age when downloadable books are gradually replacing printed books, children make up only about 4 percent of the city’s population, and with an excellent public library available nearby in Beverly Hills.
“We conducted numerous public surveys and the need for an
improved library was always high on the public's list,” Heilman told Patch in a recent email exchange. “I think people are correct that libraries have changed in the digital age, and our new library is designed to respond to the different ways people now access information."
He noted that the new library will provide 150,000 printed volumes, along with more computer stations and laptops. “We will have a dedicated children's area and dedicated LGBT collection," Heilman said. "We will have an area featuring foreign language publications, as well several community meeting spaces.”
The new library will also include an employment assistance section, a new auditorium for civic meetings, parking, and the addition of “substantial amounts of open space for the community," he said.
Responding to claims that he has personally controlled the library’s development, Heilman said numerous people have been involved.
"We've had input and involvement from several task forces and from numerous board and commission members over the years," he said. "All of the significant decisions regarding the new library have been approved by the entire council, usually unanimously.”
Library Park Fund raises conflict of interest concerns
Some questions have focused on fundraising, including the Library
Park Fund, set up as a nonprofit to accept private donations. As a nonprofit, the Library Park Fund donor list can legally be kept confidential and after briefly being posted, has been sealed
from public access.
Some who viewed the list before it was sealed report that most of the major donors are developers, contractors and others from the
business sector who might gain financially from contributions to a pet project of Heilman and Land, potentially currying their council votes.
The board of directors for the fund is likewise stocked with business executives and others who have .
“Abbe Land and I have served as liaisons to the Library Fundraising Committee, so we have played a larger role in that regard,” Heilman said, adding, “The Library Fundraising Committee was created with the
support of the entire council to separate the fundraising effort from the city. We maintain very clear guidelines to ensure all donations are solicited properly to avoid any conflicts of interests.”
March election changed political balance at City Hall
Some of these issues surfaced during the city’s hotly contested March election when rookie candidate John D’Amico, who ran on a platform favoring slower growth and more government transparency, won one of three available council seats.
His victory broke up the alliance of Heilman, Land and Lindsay Horvath, a political novice who was appointed to the council in 2009 after the death of longtime Councilman Sal Guarriello, another Heilman-Land ally who ran with them on a three-candidate ticket during the previous election.
D’Amico’s addition to the council ostensibly ended what some have characterized as an entrenched Heilman-Land power bloc at City Hall.
Questions have since been raised about Heilman’s and Land’s alleged control of the book fair and the new library, including concerns about a no-bid contract awarded to Roz Helfand, a paid consultant to the city and a vital figure behind the book fair each year.
As an intern in Heilman’s council office, Helfand was a primary organizer of the first book fair in 2002 and is now generally regarded
as the key coordinator of the annual event, working out of a City Hall office. Her unique status has given ammunition to some Heilman critics, who claim he has created his own unofficial “extended
staff” that affords him disproportionate power in City Hall matters.
When the issue arose during a July council meeting, Heilman angrily defended Helfand.
“Roz has done an extraordinary job with this book fair,” Heilman said. “She is the one who has caused this book fair to grow initially from a very small event to one that is recognized regionally. Yes, she did start out as an intern in my office. There are a number of people at City Hall who are currently full-time employees who started out as interns.”
Both council members concur on value of two projects
As for the costs involved with the new library, Mayor John Duran pointed out that West Hollywood is financially strong in these bleak economic times, putting the city in a better negotiating position with construction companies eager for work.
“We’ve made some very good construction contracts, and have been able to save the taxpayers considerable money," he said. "Due to the
economic reality in the U.S. today, it’s rare to see a city constructing
capital projects, which the library is. While other cities are cutting services and worthwhile projects, we’re actually expanding them.”
For his part, Heilman hopes residents will put politics and
complaints aside this weekend and turn out for West Hollywood’s two historic events.
“I've talked to a number of residents who are very excited about the opening of the new library,” Heilman said. “I hope people will come
out and discover their own favorite component of the new library. Many people have already discovered the parking structure and the artwork in the rear of the library, but the inside also has some spectacular art and some exciting design finishes."
The opening of the new library also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the West Hollywood Book Fair, which features authors, publishers and book vendors.
“This year, the Book Fair wll not only be in West Hollywood Park, but it will also utilize space within the new library facility," Heilman said. "And the lineup of authors this year is one of the best ever.”