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Meister out, Altschul in as D'Amico Keeps Campaign Promise

Councilman John D'Amico to replace interim appointee Lauren Meister with longtime Planning Commissioner John Altschul. It's not about Meister's performance, but about keeping a campaign pledge, D'Amico says.

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.” 

Timing

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.

Other charges

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.

Parting words

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.

Sheila Lightfoot February 27, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Sorry, WeHoOne, I don’t think I worded some of my thoughts very clearly. While John D’Amico made no public campaign commitments re: appointments (most candidates don’t), the promises made to the voters were predominantly about fighting “bigger, louder, faster.” My point was that to keep those promises to the voters, making the right choice for his appointment to the Planning Commission was and is particularly critical. His simultaneous non-public promise of that appointment to an individual many voters may have and still do find suspect re: less dense development, therefore, raises questions about whether public promises to the voters will be broken to keep a non-public promise to an individual. Beyond what is perceived as a slight to the well-liked, conscientious Ms. Meister, that is obviously the issue that has so many residents questioning Mr. D’Amico’s decision.
WeHoOne February 27, 2012 at 01:31 AM
Thank you Shiela for clarifying that - & I agree. (And thank you for bringing the dialogue back to the subject matter at hand on this particular "news" article.) Obviously D'Amico could not have made a "promise" to the public to appoint Altschul when Heilman hadn't even made his decision public yet. I don't think it can really be put in proper perspective because of the obvious deceitful course it took. Most unfortunate for so many..
Chloe Ross February 27, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Lauren Meister is and has been an asset to our city. I don't know Mr. Altschul, but he is a tad long in the tooth to be planning for a future many of us will never see. I am not an ageist - I am 65 - and 65 is the new 55 - but Ms. Meister brings an energy and enthusiasm that speaks to future planning in a forward motion. To be honest - the comfort zone of many on these councils/commission members seems to extend to the grave. I call it the Strom Thurmond Syndrome. You (and I) may be older and more experienced but to everything there is a season and it is a wise person who realizes this and passes the seat to another. I have always thought so-called campaign promises were campaign hopes writ large. Perhaps the power to appoint and disappoint should not be one person's decision.
WeHoOne February 27, 2012 at 02:11 AM
Chloe, it is not up to me to thank people for commenting, but thank you for commenting. You have made so many strong points so concisely as well as wisely. I don't know how things can change, i.e. improve, as long as bad situations like this aren't responded to and acted upon more assertively by more people. You have my vote.
Chloe Ross February 27, 2012 at 02:40 AM
Thank you.
joninla February 27, 2012 at 02:41 AM
Sheila - so glad to have you and your calm thoughtful and civilized input back in the discussions.
Donna February 27, 2012 at 08:52 AM
@Paul - I think the working women and the non-working women alike are more than bothered by this travesty and have communicated directly with Lauren. I know if I had posted my thoughts when I first read the article, I'm not sure famiy friendly Patch would have been pleased.
Paul February 27, 2012 at 09:07 AM
Good to hear Donna!
Lynn M. Hoopingarner February 28, 2012 at 05:38 AM
Head cold has slowed me down so I am still trying to catch up on the facts of this bruhaha. 1. At the swearing in ceremony for Ms. Meister did it say that she was an Interim Commissioner? 2. Do the rules of conduct for Commissioners state that they should vote as their appointing Council Member directs or as their good judgement and the best interest of the citizens of the City directs? 3. Are there any laws that require a Council Member or Candidate to disclose that they have made prior commitments for appointments and other favors? 4. If Ms. Meister had "resigned" upon request would she be remembered as the Sarah Palin of WEHO after the dust had settled and no one remembered that she had been "asked" to resign? I am still in novice in all this so just wondering....
Shawn Thompson February 28, 2012 at 07:21 AM
@Lynn Good questions!
Shawn Thompson February 28, 2012 at 08:20 AM
@ Stephanie. Yes yes yes! I so agree with you! I was educated the other day in a conversation about the how, why and who of the bigger buildings in Weho. The term "Spot Zoning" was mentioned to me. In doing a web search I learned that it was attempted in the palms project by the city . So the city hall can’t just say on this "spot" we have new rules and we are going to say yes to more density and height. On the palms project the whole city government system approved a 62' 6 story high building. When zoning on the books would only allow 45' 4 stories. A land use lawsuit was filed against the city. So then “General Plan” was “Restructured” by obvious developer influence in Weho city hall to allow this height and density in “zones” With the 5 member city council who has the final say in everything in Weho voting yes. Many levels of the process seem to be non-democratic and full of a heavy hand by the building lobby’s influence in the city. To this day So the large buildings going up are the result of the broken system that’s lost many doors of democracy in its pipeline. This is my interruption of it all. I could be wrong, but for now I’m going with it. The Wehonews article is that I found and helped me understand it is here: http://wehonews.com/z/wehonews/archive/page.php?articleID=2049 The “General” and or “Master” plans are what needs to be re-done in my view to stop this sell out of the Urban Village to the highest bidder.
Shawn Thompson February 28, 2012 at 08:39 AM
@Lynn I agree with you 100%. I would personally add my two cents in by also recommending that social media, Facebook and Twitter have a strong following now. They both have been shown to get individuals informed and involved. Social media has really helped level the playing field in politics. So I would encourage anyone who is a real "Stake Holder" in Weho, if you like the web to get in the mix, it is another way to effect positive change https://www.facebook.com/PlummerPark & https://www.facebook.com/pages/WeHo-Residents-Alliance/286504498063913 Both currently exist to inform, involve and affect solutions in Weho.
joninla February 28, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Shawn - I seem to have realized the same 'bigger problem' behind the city's efforts to thwart existing zoning restrictions that are supposed to protect local city govrrnments to do exactly what WeHo has and continues to get away with. The worst part of what I think you understood correctly is that the City's 25 year Generaal Plan was finally forced through by Heilman. it wasn't until a nov or dec meeting, when it was said without ceremony ot notice, that the city could finally get the zoning changes (which were supposed to be done with residents input, but at the last minute they didn't take any of the work done) approved since it was being held up by the State's requirement to make such major changes zoning, a city must submit a very detailed 25 Year Plan (supposedly done with actual growth studies and the like) and to Heilma's relief, it was finally passed. Every Planning Commission Meeting since then (dec 2011) all references to 'new Zoning' never mention they were only a month old or in any way something just now being implemented for the first time. The new zoning was passed with a reading so fast nobody could possibly follow what the changes were.
joninla February 28, 2012 at 11:37 AM
Turns out to be both for the benefit of the chosen mega developers as well as punitive against any plans that followed all rules, but bypassed the Planning Commission (where there is a back room shakedown forcing a project to give substantial benefiits to improper 'non-profits' which are anything but the pockets of the mega developers who control everything.
Manny February 28, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Can you imagine the outcry by some if this were a John Heilman issue? In the article, John Altschul is quoted, "Heilman never ever in 15 years told me how to vote on any issue,” Altschul said. “He doesn’t do that with his commissioners". But apparently the rookie councilmemer has different requirements and expects that "Altschul will serve his interests well". Some should ponder this:... Maybe Heilman ain't so bad after all.
allegra February 28, 2012 at 03:58 PM
These three people are all my friends & I love and respect all three...so, this situation is not fun. It is also not a women’s issue. Lauren has been the shining example of change... not simply taking staffs direction on every development they try to ram through. She takes every issue on it’s own merits and every item had to be good with all i’s dotted for Lauren’s vote. Between Lauren and my close friend, John Altschul, in my eyes, she’s the best choice for the city. I’m sure some developers, lobbyists, staff & the City manager feel otherwise. He’s a wonderful man....wonderful unless you’re a resident he needs to cut down to size for opposing a project. Altschul actually ran the commission vote that would have destroyed Tara and, yet, I adore him...personally.
allegra February 28, 2012 at 03:59 PM
Continued... I think this was the wrong decision for the residents...for the City... but, I’m also sure that John D’Amico’s action is not sleazy in any way. He doesn’t have that in him. He doesn’t have a sleazy bone in his body. & I think he’s doing a wonderful job. If not for D’Amico, Plummer Park would be a hole in the ground. He has shined a light on and eliminated some of the backroom unethical practices at city hall, asked for campaign reform and started an arts lecture series and a move to refresh Gay Pride...& on & on & on... If it wasn’t for John D’Amico (& Prang & Duran), Tara would be a crappy development instead of a creative possibility for the city. He’s even brave enough to call Tara, “Tara”, instead of the Heilman/Land run “Laurel” name requirement. So does Lauren but, Altschul can’t quite bring himself to say the T word. This has happened. I wish it hadn’t. We can only hope that John Altschul will represent John D’Amicos stand, and ours, of being against BIGGER, Louder, Faster. We’ll see the results very soon.
Manny February 28, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Allegra, thank you for finally commenting. Your absence was disconcerting. I hope that you will continue to further evaluate all the players in this unfortunate mess.
allegra February 28, 2012 at 04:39 PM
It’s a tough one Manny...and yes, an unfortunate mess. The one thing I have no doubt about, though, is that John Heilman is a monster.
WeHoOne February 28, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Councilmember D'Amico asked for public input, for people to call, email him, etc, and tell him how they felt this action would affect the community. I think the opinions (& facts) stated on this site are a very good gauge for him to assess the community reaction. Based on the community's distaste & disgust for this action perhaps Councilmember D'Amico will consider reversing his decision as an indication of his respect for the community & their input. It may be hard but I think it would be taking the high road and provide an easier road to recovery for the city. I hope he will seriously consider this so we can look foward again- instead of being compelled to look backward at the same old predictable stuff.
WeHoOne February 28, 2012 at 06:49 PM
And I might add, I agree Heilman is a monster - & that is putting it kindly. I hope he bows out gracefully at the end of this term and retires from the city council with some semblance of dignity, if he actually knows what grace & dignity mean.
WeHoOne February 28, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Lynn, to the best of my knowledge: 1. No 2. The latter 3. I think Under some circumstances but not all, but there are ethical questions here 4. Possibly. I think this would have been more damaging to Ms. Meister had she not been so well know & highly regarded in the community. I think she could/can recover from this debacle easier than Councilmember D'Amico.
Susan February 28, 2012 at 07:47 PM
This is a disappointing turn of events. Will Altshul honor D'Amico's pledge for measured land development? Will D'Amico honor his own pledge? I am truly sorry to see Lauren Meister go. She's a breath of fresh air in a musty old boys club.
Shawn Thompson February 29, 2012 at 02:02 PM
@joninla. Thanks for more info. Do you have the date of the meeting and the time in the clip your referring to? It peeked my interest to learn more. Going back into the meetings and clips takes some work thought. So post the date and time? Thank You
michael March 02, 2012 at 12:47 AM
Calling one of the founders of our city, John Heilman, a monster, is sheer crazy talk.
Ali March 02, 2012 at 05:38 AM
The mixed use developments currently under construction are going to include 256 apartments between the one on the corner of SM and La Brea and the one on Fountain and La Brea. That is a lot of apartments. Both lots are cleared and the pits dug for the underground parking and foundations.
Ali March 02, 2012 at 05:46 AM
No it isn't. The power went to his head and he turned into a monster.
Shawn Thompson March 05, 2012 at 01:18 PM
That's what we need the same guy that was there for 15 years back on the planning commission! Rotation of leadership WeHo style!
Juan C March 13, 2012 at 05:57 PM
This sort of mess couldn't happen to a better bunch of sanctimonious, arrogant, self-serving liberals. These guys make Putin look humble and honest. When will Heilman and Land ever abdicate their thrones?
Shawn Thompson March 15, 2012 at 10:08 PM
I agree with you Pat 100% It's time to give other residents of Weho the opportunity to serve the city. I think it's fair and honorable to thank those who have been on council for a very long time for all they have done. And now could you let some one else get a chance to serve the city? The current system has not created this reality. In my view it would make our democracy and system stronger here in weho.

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