West Hollywood is a special place. It is known for its tolerance, progressive politics, raucous nightlife and bohemian diversity. We are a young city that was formed to protect our special qualities. Unlike other cities that were created by business interests or real estate developers, West Hollywood is the product of grassroots democracy.
Progressive residents labored under the belief that a small town could forge its own future, a future that was inclusive of everyone who lived here and that would celebrate its diversity of lifestyles and economics. West Hollywood was founded on the notion that the people, collectively, could create a small-town democracy that would embody the best of our progressive values.
But in the twenty eight years since West Hollywood burst on the world stage as a progressive bastion that enacted cutting edge gay rights guarantees and special protections for tenants, the aura has dimmed. We still celebrate our progressive values yet our government strays far from the values upon which the City was founded.
Today we are told that we need to sacrifice our neighborhoods to make way for a new West Hollywood. Our elected leaders tell us that without large scale development, the City will no longer be able to afford to provide generous social services or adequate law enforcement or pay some of the highest wages for management of any City in Southern California. Our rent controlled buildings need to give way to luxury condos. Our walkable urban village with familiar neighborhood serving businesses and restaurants needs to give way to a congested jumble of mixed use high rises. We are told that we need to destroy our City in order to pay for it.
These have been painful times for those who love West Hollywood. There is an increasing reality gap between those who govern and those who are governed. As demonstrated during the General Plan process, the development of the Plummer Park Master Plan and at scores of hearings before the City Council, residents rightly believe that their voices don’t matter. It has become clear that Council members are far more beholden to developers and land use consultants than they are to the very people who elected them.
Residents are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the City’s purported embrace of diversity and economic justice with the policies of City Hall. What was meant to be a grassroots democracy has become rule by an entrenched, intellectually stilted, unimaginative and self congratulatory City Council who does not feel that it is particularly accountable to constituents.
While term limits are perhaps not the best solution, it may be the best of any other credible options.
When it comes to the issue of term limits, twenty eight year Council member John Heilman, has a stock answer: “We have term limits; they’re called elections”
While that’s a clever retort, Heilman is being more than a little disingenuous. Incumbent Council members invariably raise $100,000.00 for their re-election, nearly all of those funds coming from developers and businesses that have contracts with the City. In the last decade, the only person who successful challenged the incumbents was John D’Amico. But D’Amico was able to raise over $100,000 from friends and professional associates, a situation that he himself admitted would be difficult for other challengers to emulate. To date, the incumbents have only enacted cosmetic election reforms that have not unduly hindered their ability to raise money from developers.
The amounts spent by West Hollywood incumbents are shocking when compared to the amounts spent by incumbents in other Westside cities. West Hollywood has a reputation of “pay for play” politics that garnered our City a front page expose in the LA Weekly in 2010. “West Follywood” chronicled the slimy under belly of West Hollywood’s political culture that has more in common with Bell and Southgate than most of us would care to admit. With huge campaign war chests, the incumbents can bury challengers in an avalanche of political mailers.
If the incumbents are so enamored with elections, why didn’t they hold a special election to fill the vacancy created by the demise of Sal Guarriello in 2009? Clearly the City is flush and we could have afforded a special election. But the incumbents did not want to give the public the right to vote. Instead, Heilman, Abbe Land and Jeff Prang appointed eighteen-month resident Lindsey Horvath to fill the seat.
During the selection process, these Council members passed over several highly qualified and experienced commissioners. Instead, they appointed someone with little experience and even less aptitude for governance but was someone they believed would be indebted to them and that they could control. Clearly Prang, Land and Heilman were not motivated by what was best for West Hollywood but what was best for their personal political agendas.
Once Horvath was in office, the trio pressured developers to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to her “re-election” campaign. The cynicism of the Horvath appointment created a backlash that helped propel John D’Amico to victory in 2011.
History shows us that all politicians have a shelf life. Eventually they become too convinced that they have exclusive insights that make them indispensible. That allows them to become dismissive of public input. We see that sort of arrogance played out at every City Council meeting.
The disrespect for the public is often on obvious display. At each Council meeting, residents waiting for the business agenda to start are subjected to long winded announcements and endless presentations. Indeed we spent millions on a new City Council chambers that seats half the number of our old auditorium. Clearly this is not a Council that encourages public participation.
What is worse is that the job of being a City Council member is not even a priority for most of our Council members. Abbe Land’s main interest in returning to the Council in 2003 was to raise money for an unsuccessful bid for State Assembly in 2006. Thereafter, she has focused primarily on using her contacts with West Hollywood developers to raise money for whatever non-profit agency happens to be employing her at the time.
Developers know you can’t get John Duran’s vote unless you have made a generous contribution to the Gay Men’s Chorus. While these may be noble causes, there is a clear conflict of interest. We didn’t elect these folks to raise money for their favorite charities, which may also be their employer.
Some of our current Council members have too many extracurricular activities that take precedence over the duties they assumed when elected. Mayor Prang recently told a neighborhood group he needed to bail early from a community meeting as City Council members “often have four or five meetings to go to on the same night.” While Prang may have had other meetings, none of those other events were directly related to the business of West Hollywood.
John Duran has publicly stated that he does not have time to review his City Council agenda with his deputy unless it is over lunch or dinner (and is paid with a City credit card). Recently Duran did not want to schedule an additional City Council meeting as he was concerned it would conflict with one of his rehearsals with the Gay Men’s Chorus. Obviously we don’t want City business interfering with Council members’ social lives or other political activities.
These examples are simply evidence of the malaise that inevitably follows when you have elected officials who believe that they are entitled to life seats.
Arguably, some of our long term Council members bring years of institutional memory and experience and that the City would suffer without their wisdom and intellectual insights. Unfortunately, little of that wisdom and few of those insights are on display at most Council meetings.
It is not retroactive in application. It is the same number of terms that a member of the Los Angeles City Council or the Board of Supervisors can serve. Clearly it is sufficient time to make your mark on the City. The proposal is a balanced approach that allows for new blood while insuring that there is not so much turn over that the City loses valuable experience.
West Hollywood is full of talent. There are literally hundreds of people in this community that would make excellent Council members. You need to remember that when John Heilman got elected he was right out of law school. Abbe was employed at a catering service. None of these people seemed particularly remarkable when they were first elected.
Beverly Hills functions under an informal ban on third terms. Council members generally only serve two terms for a total of eight years. No one claims that Beverly Hills suffers from a lack of competent leadership. Council members are constantly mentoring a new generation of leaders and incumbents don’t get too comfortable. As Council members don’t intend to serve for life, developers don’t have the same powerful hold that they do in West Hollywood.
Term limits will create more opportunities for people to serve and thus spark more interest and participation in local government. It will ultimately create a more accountable and responsive government.
Many people are disappointed that the term limits proposal will allow the incumbents to serve another three terms. The proposal is a compromise and it allows for a transition period so that a new generation can be mentored over a period of time. That will make for a smooth transition to the post-Heilman era. The proposal is not perfect, but it is a start toward real reform and meaningful change.
West Hollywood might be able to recapture its progressive roots if we had a government that was more in touch with the community and focused on issues and ideas rather perpetual re-election. In a real democracy, no one should be irreplaceable.