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BLOG: West Hollywood Has Talent: Why Term Limits Will Work

Term limits will create more opportunities for people to serve and thus spark more interest and participation in local government.

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. 

Steve Martin

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mike Dolan August 07, 2012 at 06:45 PM
The downside of term limits is that they kick-out the good leaders who have done leading-edge and progressive work.
scott ferguson August 07, 2012 at 06:54 PM
I've heard the reaction that districts would be unworkable - I have no idea what that means. Why? I know in CA we are used to staggeringly high numbers of residents in legislative districts - our State Senate districts actually represent MORE people than our US Congressional ones. LA has only 15 city council members (Chicago, with a million few people, has 50). But there are smaller examples - New Hampshire has one state house member per 3300 residents. Mid-size cities all across the country have non-at large councils representing people in smaller numbers than WeHo has. Other also have mixed systems - combination of at-large and individual district. Maybe a compromise would be three districts and two at-large, with staggered elections as now (with one at-large each election). But back to the start - someone please explain this would we unworkable. This is the first of several cities I've ever lived in that had at-large members (although this does seem to be common in CA).
Chloe Ross August 07, 2012 at 09:52 PM
Good blog.
Chloe Ross August 07, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Maybe Tom Brueggemann should run under another name.
Chloe Ross August 07, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Gerrymandering WeHo - now that is an interesting and thoroughly strange idea - why not just have the Gang of Four divvy up the 35,000 in groups they like and who like them and cater to their needs. The Left Behind Council Member would have his pick of the rejects - which might give him the very best group of all. Ward Heelers, District Reps, Mudslinging, Muckraking and Jingoism - sounds just about right.
Riley August 07, 2012 at 11:39 PM
@Scott or Lindsay, or whomever... Here's a little background on term limits... Term limits, or rotation in office, date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years. (See Cursus honorum)[1] According to historian Garrett Fagan, office holding in the Roman Republic was based on "limited tenure of office" which ensured that "authority circulated frequently," helping to prevent corruption.[1] And it was George Washington who started the two term Presidency... read more on Wikiopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Term_limits_in_the_United_States
Riley August 07, 2012 at 11:43 PM
@Scott - you have a strange naivete about how people get elected. It's about money. But then isn't everything?
scott ferguson August 08, 2012 at 01:01 AM
I understand how people get elected. I explained the role of money earlier, and how for incumbents the influence is frequently less than on challengers, who more often rely on special interests that then cash in afterwards. And this last go round, from the evidence in my mail box, the challengers had as much or more money than the incumbents.
Rudolf Martin August 08, 2012 at 02:59 AM
I would support term limits when phased in as proposed and would also hope for some sort of rotation in city management (to avoid increased leverage in city staff over elected council) as well as better campaign finance regulations. term limits are not ideal but (as steve martin argues quite convincingly) they would at least be a start toward reforming a stale system and getting more voter participation.
joninla August 08, 2012 at 07:54 AM
Back to fact-checking. According to Mr. Martin, Councilwoman Abbe Land "was employed at a catering service." I don't think that is a fair representation. A long time personal acquaintance of Abbe Land to me numerous times that Ms. Land's full career history prior to getting elected, reached her highest level and remained for years as a Waitress in a local restaurant. When pressed, I found no one who thought her Waitress skills were ever far (either way) from being 'satisfactory'. She did however put in extra effort and was just able to qualify for a loan to purchase a small condo inside WeHo's boarders as part of her plan to get elected to the new city council. Servicing her new mortgage sounded like it was initially difficult, but she was handed the position leading the Saban Free Clinic (recipient of WeHo Social Service budget money) at $165,00 a year until a recent scandal arose. Current rumors of scandal notwithstanding, someone with a whole lot of pull got Abbe Land named the new head and director of The Trevor Project. An older heterosexual waitress marred in scandal heading a gay youth suicide hotline seemed to someone to be the best candidate to lead the largest gay teen/youth hotline and council services and she was quickly appointed with a salary in excess of $250,000. Who would have that kind of pull and why? She votes in line with Heilman & he sold out to rich developers years ago. If it looks like a duck .....
Riley August 08, 2012 at 09:21 PM
...quack, quack.
scott ferguson August 09, 2012 at 08:00 PM
That's not remotely a serious comment Chloe. With either 3 or 5 districts in an already oddly shaped city, there are real limits as to how these could be mapped. Add in that gerrymandering when done is nearly always done by looking at party registration, so with most WeHoans being Dems, this is not a way to do it. Add that my recollection is that the votes for council members have been fairly evenly cast across most of the city, there is virtually no way they could be gerrymandered to benefit themselves. This is a very constructive proposal, could be done immediately if the council decided to go this way (I am totally opposed to a referendum on it to be consistent.) And it would do vastly more than term limits to provide accountability, citizen interest and even turnover. I'd respectfully ask for you to give this further consideration. This would get you most of what you want, and more quickly.
Chloe Ross August 09, 2012 at 08:26 PM
well Tom - that was interesting.
Chloe Ross August 09, 2012 at 08:28 PM
@joninla - I have never seen a CV on Ms. Land. I do know because she told me, that she grew up in Newton, MA and went to Newton public schools which are exceptional. The other CC guys all have one or two degrees.
joninla August 09, 2012 at 10:17 PM
noted. As for the other members, I always focus on comments about John Heilman. Everybody seems to have a strong opinion about him (mostly bad, many love him) but when a ranting starts to go I ALWAYS step in to defend anyone who call John Heilman "stupid". He may have any number of unfavorably attributes in peoples opinions, but he is definitely not stupid. Indeed very well educated, but that alone does not equate to smarts. Heilman is extraordinarily intelligent and professionally sophisticated and experienced in Municipal Law and how to use the existing codes, and get around ones that might impede a less intelligent licensed attorney. It's the smart ones you have to worry about and the dumb ones you just try to avoid since they will never learn and will screw up on their own. Any attempt to help the stupid, makes bad decisions even worse. Not that I know for sure Abbe Land is stupid. Just that she has said many stupid things, made stupid votes and lacks the background education, skills, knowledge and experience to make the statements she does under the notion she understands part or any of the complex issues. Nobody has all the skills necessary. But to believe one does and hold themselves out as being well versed or at least know something about development schemes that favor the bad developers before publicly stating 'what a lost opportunity for then city' when a destruction plan is nixed.
joninla August 09, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Also - I've said it before, but it is worth saying again. My comments and opinions about our elected city leaders, however negative, doesn't mean I think they aren't perfectly nice people in their private daily lives or that their personal lives are part of any opinion I have. I don't know any of the Council Members personally, and only met (a handshake hello = nothing) a couple of the board members - Not Ms. Land who lives next door to me for 15 or so years and I've never once seen or met. I don't have any hate towards them (or anyone) as people. I may hate their decisions, manipulation, lies or net result to the detriment of our city - but only as to their office they hold. I don't care about their personal lives and never want to stir up any kind of negative hate towards people. There is way too much of that already. I may sound more intense than I am in reality, but I suffer from an extreme allergy to Hypocrisy that causes me to point it out when it happens and when it keeps happening by the same person on the same issue, it taints my beliefs as to the character and honesty of anything they same person may publicly say on other subjects.
George Martin August 10, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Re the ongoing discussion about creating council districts, from yesterday's LA Times: Anaheim City Council votes down district election proposal The Anaheim City Council on Wednesday night voted down what would have been a historic ballot proposal to create voting districts to help increase Latino representation in a community that has been riven by two recent fatal police shootings. The proposal, which was supported by Disneyland Resort and many of the hundreds of people who packed the special council meeting, was killed in a 3-2 vote after several hours of emotional testimony. Council members voted instead to establish a citizen advisory committee on elections and community involvement. The move angered dozens in the audience, who began chanting, “We'll be back.… We’ll be back,” as they left the auditorium at Anaheim High School... It could happen here.
scott ferguson August 10, 2012 at 06:42 PM
Wow, Jon, just wow. Hypocrisy? My character? My honesty? Seriously? This in a post where you say your often vicious comments about council members aren't "personal." You seem obsessed with me. I fear you might even become a cyberstalker or worse from how you react to me. You need to find a new hobby. This one looks very unhealthy. We disagree - that doesn't make us enemies, or someone to whom you need to devote energy to disparage and destroy.
Chloe Ross August 10, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Tom - you take far too much too personally. And you have painted a target on your own back. Your posts scream for personal attacks and I suspect it is intentional. I can't KNOW it but you do seem to bait others. Cyberstalker? This is a public thread. Paranoia - you seem to have it whether it's factual or not. Charlie Brown took a hit, Jon is taking a hit and there have been others. I get shot down all the time. I am not afraid I will be stalked - which is why I don't hide behind a nom de net TOM. Hope you have a great weekend and when you aren't mentioned by name - don't assume comments are always directed to you. This one actually is, Tom.
scott ferguson August 10, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Chloe With all due respect, if you were attacked anything remotely like a few people have me, you'd likely react the same as me and then some. I actually was stalked after posting a comment under my name on WeHoNews some years ago (I only posted a handful of times, then stopped) - odd phone calls in the middle of the night and some concurrent malicious damage in my front yard. So yes, I do believe I have reasons to at least be a little worried. (The comments I made were criticizing some of the personal attacks against some incumbents is a previous election). I note that you were the first to post my real name, against my expressed wishes. I don't know if you the one who spent long hours trying to determine what I did, but it was a mean-spirited, malicious action on your part. Will you now tell me who joninla is in the spirit of openness? And now that you know who I am, will you admit you made a mistake when you accused me of somehow being directly connected to the city or developers or otherwise being anything other than I said I was? It is the least you can do to show your intentions are different from what they seem to be.
Chloe Ross August 10, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Tom - I have no clue who joninla is. I have been called many names in many blogs - look them up. You are very egocentric in my opinion and you will simply have to accuse someone else of finding your real name because it was not me. As I said - you devote too much time wondering who will "get" you and I am not sure anyone would waste the energy. Advice: Stay off the blog, get an order of protection, hire a rent a cop and get real. And take a look back - I was NOT the first to post your real name and I never got express wishes from you in in terms of names period. How about this check your facts before you use mine.
joninla August 10, 2012 at 08:32 PM
Thanks Chloe - but there was no hit on me. I chuckeled a bit about privacy/cyber stalking/ real names .... I am the anti-stalker and ignore most of scotts posts. I glace at others, and when Allegra disclosed his 'real name' it didn't mean anything to me and I don't care. But I have in the past been accused of things such as 'bullying' or obsessing, cutting down, following or stalking in a paranoid way when if one pulled all the posts and comments I think the number and one sided direction towards and not from me are as described, but not about me, but the name caller. I did see someone mention that most people have no problem with the Council an I was akin to the crazies and Obama's Birth Certificate. I used to not only be one of those content with the City Council but thought they were doing a great job. I never had a problem until I started to pay attention, see what was going on in the city, read articles quoting council members and watching City Council Meeting (and of course actively participating here on Patch). I think the Plummer Park Story exemplified the situation the best. Each time a new person joined the discussion they wanted something done to improve Plummer Park and were a bit ticked off people were protecting. Each time I watched as the same commenter would read the plans, change their mind then come back outraged exposing to us (as if we didn't realize) how terrible the proposal was. Same thing with the council's history of actions.
joninla August 10, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Just fyi chole - I am absolutely nobody but a guy with a dog and am well know for my dog (and when I walk around without him, the people who always stop and chat when I have my dog with me don't even recognize me and pass by as if I am nobody - which I am. I certainly have no influence, pull, friends who owe favor or friends who had any favors with with to pay me if they did ow me something. I kiibbitz a lot with my Yenta Friends and the fun Long Time Russian and other European Ladies who make our city what it is. A lot of people really like me and stop to chat with me (when I have my dog with me - as I already said). That's about it.
joninla August 10, 2012 at 08:44 PM
And look Chloe he has "all due respect for you" ... How can you object to that ;) (lol - water under the bridge I hope)
George Martin August 11, 2012 at 01:10 AM
Scott, Chloe, joninla -- getting a little bit off-topic, are we?
Chloe Ross August 11, 2012 at 03:38 AM
Ask Tom, George - he is the one with a paranoid delusion. This a public board and no one is threatening a soul in truth - I am pretty public in WeHo and am not concerned unduly with "stalkers". I was invited to blog by the former editor and asked the current editor if he was amenable to my continuing. I go to CC meetings, state my name and have been in town for 23 years. Neither do I have influence or pull - I am not on anyone's payroll nor do I have an agenda that includes public office. And yes, things do get off th subject - but that's the nature of conversations - you never know where they will take you. :)
scott ferguson August 11, 2012 at 05:01 AM
The paranoid delusion is from those when I began to ask some innocent questions that went against the group think here a whole bunch of you thought I was with the city and working behind the scenes to upset your little club. Why else accuse me of not being an ordinary unattached city relevance? You're projecting - you were among the paranoid. If they ever remake Heathers with senior citizens, a whole bunch of you guys would be good candidates for role models.
Jake Finney August 15, 2012 at 09:06 PM
the properties being redeveloped have been neglected by landlords for so long that they have become eyesores. Do folks really miss the dirty Carl's Jr at Santa Monica and La Brea? or the decrepit Movie Town Plaza that has been the scene of robberies, shootings and other violent crimes?
scott ferguson August 16, 2012 at 08:30 PM
I just read in the Beverly Hills Press that there already was a referendum about term limits in West Hollywood, and it already lost (before I moved here). Interesting that supporters of this idea don't ever mention it. I imagine other like me also will find this to be important and very relevant information. So just as term-limits supporters come from groups that usually back candidates who lose fair and square, they now want a redo on something that has already been voted on. I can't find the results of this vote - I'd be interested if someone could fill us in. I know the 1997 referendum was for two terms, rather than three, but that only makes a difference in the margins - most people are either for term limits or against them. The article also has all members quoted (Jon Heilman wasn't reached) oppose this. The most eloquent was John D'Amico, who said that his election proved that they weren't needed.
joninla August 16, 2012 at 10:08 PM
Assuming your sincerity in your comment, your words are music to the ears of the developers of the Carl's Jr. Lot. No ordinary residential landlord had anything whatsoever to do with neglected Carl Jr. and in fact it is the owner of that land who 'let it get so run down' to warrant the description you have for what was there before the wrecking ball came in. The "Owner" who let Carl's become the disgusting mess that it was is the Developer who wanted to develop the lot with projects that exceed all existing zoning laws for size, height, number of units, set backs, parking spaces by a full third or more by manipulating the RDA (no dissolved) and the City's misuse of power, authority and money for the private developers financial benefit. The 'plan' included letting Carl's go from a gross fast food restaurant into the blight and all that the last days of Carl's had become - intentionally. Why? So that there would be a lot fewer local residents who would complain about a project so over sized and the effects it will have on the adjoining neighborhood if everyone got as fed up and disgusted with the Carl's Jr that the "ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN THAT CARL'S JR." I don't know if you had any implication that the long held vilification of all small landlords over the last 25 year of rent control - but in general that is not fair. The crumby landlords are all gone. The remaining landlords are the 'good guys' who didn't 'Ellis-out' their property.

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