Councilman John D’Amico is coming under fire for his decision to keep a campaign promise. With plans to reappoint John Altschul back to the Planning Commission in March, D'Amico's current appointee Lauren Meister is getting the boot.
Considered by many to be an elder statesman of the city, Altschul served on the Planning Commission for 15 years as an appointee of Councilman John Heilman, but after publicly supporting D’Amico during last year’s City Council election, Heilman opted not to reappoint him. D’Amico promised to appoint his longtime friend if Heilman didn't reappoint him.
Meister has been hailed as the residents’ advocate since joining the Planning Commission in May 2011. She was made aware of D’Amico’s promise to Altschul before she accepted the appointment, but hoped it would not happen. Choosing not to resign her appointment, D'Amico was forced to have her removed from office.
The rare action has stirred up controversy and finger pointing. With so many rumors swirling around town, Weho Patch interviewed D’Amico, Meister and Altschul separately to get the facts.
A dream offer
The job of planning commissioner, which pays $50 per meeting, requires reading staff and environmental impact reports, visiting sites or meeting with developers. It could mean hours of work outside the meeting.
Meister, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2003 and 2009, describes herself as a “land-use nerd.” She told Patch she studied city reports extensively during her seven years as president of the West Hollywood West Residents Association.
“[It was] an opportunity for me to do something that I knew I would love doing,” Meister said of being appointed commissioner, admitting she hoped D’Amico’s promise to Altschul would not come to fruition.
“I knew it was out there, but I just chose to be the best planning commissioner I could,” Meister said. “If you take it with you everywhere, you’re not going to do the best you can. I just chose to keep going.”
Performance not in question
D’Amico told Patch that replacing Meister had nothing to do with her performance and everything to do with keeping a campaign promise.
“Lauren is amazing. She’s really terrific,” D’Amico said. “Her research was amazing. Her thoughtfulness about the issues was terrific.”
Planning Commission Chair Alan Bernstein concurred, noting that most new commissioners take 6 to 12 months to find their footing on the commission, but Meister hit the ground running at her very first meeting.
“She came in with more land-use experience than most of us,” Bernstein said. “She’s well prepared, she’s inquisitive, she’s respectful of the public and her colleagues. She has elevated our discussions.”
Longtime resident Jeanne Dobrin called Meister “the best commissioner we’ve ever had” during public comment at the Feb. 16 commission meeting. Dobrin said that Meister “understands the needs and wants of the residents” and is not afraid to speak up for them.
Some rumors say Meister is being replaced due to her reputation as “Miss No,” meaning she always votes “No” on items before the commission, but a Patch survey found that not to be the case.
Examining Meister’s votes during her 10 months in office, Patch found she voted “No” on about half of the projects before the commission. The two times she was the lone “No” vote was on the and .
No pressure from Altschul
Contrary to rumors, D’Amico told Patch that the 75-year-old Altschul did not pressure him to get back on the commission. D’Amico said Altschul never once mentioned the appointment during weekly chats over coffee; that whenever the subject was discussed, D’Amico was the one who initiated it.
“John [Altschul] has a limited number of years left participating,” D’Amico said. “I just want to give him the chance to be in that position [on the Planning Commission] again.”
D’Amico also said that wished he could appoint both Meister and Altschul to the commission, but since he could not, he intended to honor his promise.
Some people about town have said that Altschul should have declined the appointment since Meister is doing such a good job. Altschul responded, “My job is to serve the councilmember. If he says he wants me in that position, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Even though Altschul left the planning commission at the end of June 2011, D’Amico said he did not immediately appoint him, because he was busy trying to get alterations to the General Plan implemented.
Once the General Plan was behind him in October, D’Amico informed Meister he wanted to make the change in March, which would be the one-year anniversary of his being elected. As that transition drew closer, Meister opted not to resign, forcing D’Amico to fire her via an official letter that she was scheduled to receive this week.
D’Amico said the firing is Meister’s choice, that it would have been easier if she had resigned.
“I told her we would do it anyway she wanted to do it. This is how she is choosing to handle it,” D’Amico said. “I am sorry that it’s happening the way it's happening, because I wish it wasn’t happening. . . . It is something that is important to an important person in my life and it’s important to me."
D'Amico continued, "I would think it would be important to her. She knows what it’s like to be on planning commission. She knows what it’s like to be a person of her word and do what you say.”
Meister said she felt she had no choice but to be removed.
“I felt that it would be misconstrued, if I resigned,” Meister said. “If not now, then a year from now or two years from now or five years from now. All you see then is the resignation. You don’t know why. It would be only after 10 months. I just didn’t want that.”
Some are calling Meister’s decision “political suicide” since no other councilmember is likely to appoint her to a commission or board now. She disagreed, saying, “I’m not expecting to get back on this commission or be appointed to any other commission.”
D’Amico reported that he initially promised Meister he would reappoint her to planning commission once Altschul was ready to retire. However, he told Patch that offer is now no longer valid.
Questioning Altschul’s effectiveness
Heilman and D’Amico seem to have different philosophies about land-use. Heilman tends to have a pro-development agenda. D’Amico is not against development, but campaigned against the “bigger, faster, louder” approach to development that had taken over the city prior to his election.
Meister and others say Altschul represents the “old guard” and question whether Altschul can serve D’Amico’s interests properly after being Heilman’s appointee for 15 years.
Altschul believes he can.
“Heilman never ever in 15 years told me how to vote on any issue,” Altschul said. “He doesn’t do that with his commissioners. I never represented Heilman’s interests. I reflected Heilman’s policy on land-use. In cases where I didn’t, he never mentioned it to me.”
D’Amico, who became friends with Altschul while D’Amico served on the planning commission from 2003 to 2008 as an at-large appointee, said Altschul will serve his interests well.
“John and I have had long and deep conversations over coffee every week for eight years,” D’Amico said. “I think he very much understands what my ideas are about West Hollywood city life, about planning and urbanism, and how best to bring that forward.”
Planning Commission Chair Bernstein called Altschul the “godfather of the commission.” With so much expertise on land-use, Bernstein said Altschul should not have any trouble representing D’Amico’s interests.
Meister is upset that D’Amico did not make his pledge to Altschul known publicly prior to the election.
“I supported D’Amico because of the promise of change,” Meister said. “Appointing a long-time Heilman commissioner is not change, it’s just preserving the status quo. Had I known, I probably would have run for City Council myself [in 2011]."
D’Amico responded, “The direction and dynamic of the city has already shifted and John Altschul has helped from the beginning to design the new status quo. His early commitment to a new future is exactly why he lost his seat on the commission.”
Others in town charge that Altschul never should have supported D’Amico during the 2011 election if he was worried about keeping his planning commission seat. Altschul pointed out that, in addition to D’Amico, he also supported Heilman, both financially and publicly.
“I did not want to support Lindsey [Horvath],” Altschul said. “I felt it was much better for the city to have D’Amico as a council person than Lindsey.”
Amid much controversy, a 26-year-old Lindsey Horvath was appointed to City Council in May 2009 upon the death of longtime councilmember Sal Guarriello. She ran for reelection in 2011, but lost to D’Amico.
D’Amico told Patch he is grateful for Meister’s contribution.
“For the last year, Lauren has been a good, interim commissioner, helping to set the direction for planning in the city,” D’Amico said. “She accepted this appointment on an interim basis and took her role seriously. She, along with the rest of us, understands the residents’ concerns, the new direction of the city and how to make that a reality.”
Although Feb. 16 was Meister’s final planning commission meeting, she did not make a good-bye speech, her dismissal not being widely known at the time. She told Patch she will miss the work and miss her fellow commissioners.
“I think we had a good dynamic,” Meister said. “We had a lot of good discussions when we talked about policy or economic hardship or historic preservation. We probably agreed on a lot more things than not. There was mutual respect and that’s why it was enjoyable to be on there.”
As for a possible run for City Council in 2013, Meister reported she has not decided yet.