Discussion on campaign reform at the West Hollywood City Council meeting turned contentious Monday night, despite the council approving, 4-1, a proposal to eliminate the six-month deadline for campaign committees to raise funds for candidates’ post-election debts.
Councilman John Heilman proposed that City Attorney Mike Jenkins craft an ordinance that would “close [a] 'loophole' that allows lobbyists who are required to register with the city to also serve as campaign consultants for candidates in City Council elections."
“We had an issue that arose during the last election, and I’ve seen people commenting on it as if it were the anti-Steve Afriat ordinance,” Heilman said.
Afriat is a well-known lobbyist who reportedly managed the reelection campaigns of both Mayor Jeffrey Prang and Councilman John Duran and who also helped raise funds for Steve Martin, who made an unsuccessful attempt to get elected to the City Council earlier this month.
“I want to first make clear that this is not targeting Steve, who has done a lot of things in the community—and a lot of positive things,” Heilman said. He then added that he did not raise the issue of lobbyists running candidates’ campaigns in the run-up to the March 5 municipal elections, “but a number of people did in the community.”
Eleven people spoke—many of them in emotionally charged voices—about the issue of campaign reform during the public comments period of the council’s proceedings.
The first of them was West Hollywood resident Larry Block. “It does seem odd to me that this [issue] comes before the council on the day of certification of your two colleagues,” he said, directing his statement at Heilman.
“My question is, how come you didn’t speak up about this obvious conflict of interest prior to the election when your voice may have made a difference?”
Heilman’s proposal to tackle campaign reform on the same day that the reelections of Prang and Duran were scheduled to be certified is “an admission of the failure during the last election,” Block said, adding: “Reform should be a unanimous goal among the City Council, but putting this on today’s agenda merely is an embarrassment to the reelected Council members.”
Weho resident Donald Elmblad pointed out that Afriat “negotiated a deal” recently between the Pacific Design Center owner Charles Cohen and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to discuss developing a sprawling multiuse complex on the MTA bus depot lot on the southeast corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente Boulevard in West Hollywood.
“I think it’s totally inappropriate for Steve Afriat to have been your campaign manager,” Elmblad said, referring to both Prang and Duran. One sign of a conflict of interest in the relationship, Elmblad asserted, was that none of the 35 or so residents who live on Huntley Drive, near the MTA lot, were consulted about the proposed multi-use project, which has “three 14-story buildings.”
Duran responded to the charges of conflict of interest by saying that on at least four occasions he has voted against proposals put forth to the City Council by Afriat, including the lobbyist’s proposal for the multi-use development on the MTA lot.
“I always decide and do what I think is best for the city,” Duran said. “So just the fact that Steve is a lobbyist or that Steve represents moneyed interests and that Steve and I have been friends for 20 years doesn’t mean that I am going to vote that he or any particular lobbyists believes.”
Heilman’s proposal for a campaign reform ordinance is “too broad—it attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Duran said, adding: “This was made an issue on the campaign by many of the people who spoke at the podium tonight—at the debates, in the mail, on their blogs, knocking on doors, flyers they put on windshields of people’s cars. Some of the women over in Plummer Park, they all made this an issue. And yet Jeff Prang and I did get reelected.”
The discussion turned heated when Councilman D’Amico accused Heilman’s office of being hostile toward his deputy, Michelle Rex.
“In this document,” D’Amico said, referring to Heilman’s proposal for an ordinance, “there is an employee that is targeted by Council member Heilman, and I strongly object to that sort of targeting by his office,” he said. “Michelle Rex is a qualified individual who works every day and we need to extract that language from this document.”
Heilman asked D’Amico: “Is it okay for somebody to both work as a city employee and simultaneously be a campaign consultant?” He added that he was not questioning Rex’s qualifications. “I don’t have a problem with somebody who has previously run a campaign being hired as a city employee. But I don’t think—and I don’t know that this is the case—that somebody should be a city employee and a campaign consultant simultaneously. That’s what I’m trying to get at”—to “prohibit somebody from serving in those dual roles going forward."
The answer to his question "is another question," D’Amico shot back at Heilman, adding: “When your office extracts dollars from nonprofits in the community, is that an acceptable use of your office’s time?”
Before Heilman could respond, D’Amico interjected: “I have to say, Council member Heilman, that it doesn’t say ‘simultaneously’ in the language here, and if it were not two years of hostility from your office toward mine, I would think that your ethics were clear.”
Added D’Amico: “So I cannot sit here and believe that you’re all daisies and pineapples. This is a discussion that we could have had offline for two years but you refused to speak to me. So I’m going to press my green button and however we all vote will be the answer to that question.”
Prang recommended in a motion that an ad hoc committee of the city council comprised of himself and Heilman be appointed to consider the issue of campaign reform and report back to the council in six months.
The council voted, 3-0, in favor of Prang’s motion to refer the campaign reform issue to an ad hoc committee. Prang, Mayor Pro Tem Abbe Land and Heilman voted in support of the motion, while Duran and D’Amico abstained.