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West Follywood 

How a progressive town founded on renters' rights and diversity ended up gridlocked, angry and elitist

Thursday, Apr 1 2010
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By late March 2007, West Hollywood City Councilman John Heilman had come a very long way — some say not for the better. Once a 20-something rabble-rouser, elected in 1984 on a grassroots, renters'-rights slate, Heilman, with dyed-blond hair and a runner's physique, was now hobnobbing with the rich and politically connected at an invitation-only event at the swanky nightclub Area, where he and longtime ally West Hollywood City Councilwoman Abbe Land were pitching the city's plan for a $64 million library.

As dinner was served, John D'Amico, a West Hollywood planning commissioner, sat next to Latham & Watkins lawyer James Arnone, who often represents developers doing business in West Hollywood. D'Amico noticed that half the room was made up of wealthy real estate developers and their high-salaried entourages of consultants and lawyers — many seeking to build multimillion-dollar projects in the small, congested 1.9-square-mile city, sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

"It was clear John [Heilman] and Abbe were presenting the library to big donors," D'Amico recalls. Heilman and Land openly urged the assembled diners to "donate" to the West Hollywood Library Fund, "and they just happened to be mostly developers.

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"It happens all the time," D'Amico adds. "Birthday parties [for West Hollywood City Council members] turn into fund-raisers for their favorite charities." But for years, D'Amico didn't think much about the ethical problems of West Hollywood city events at which City Council members routinely expect developers and businesspeople to write checks.

Two months ago, D'Amico, who served on the West Hollywood Planning Commission between 2003 and 2008, made a major break with his former allies, standing at a podium at a televised West Hollywood City Council meeting and calling for the ouster of "entrenched elites" who under city law face no term limits: Heilman, who has been on the City Council since Ronald Reagan was president, and Land.

To the casual observer, D'Amico might seem like a gadfly. But the respected City Hall insider was bearing witness for those who believe West Hollywood, which aggressively markets itself as "one of the most progressive cities" in the United States, is being run like a private business by its semipermanent bosses Heilman and Land. It's a fear voiced by citizens, and now examined regularly by the scrappy online newspaper WeHoNews.com.

"It has spun out of control," says D'Amico, of the shift in focus by West Hollywood elected leaders from renters' rights and diversity to luring big development and embracing the rich.

"The city needs to welcome dissent," says D'Amico, an openly gay resident whose plain-spoken ways have annoyed many on the part-time, five-member City Council. West Hollywood needs to "be more welcoming to middle-class people, who are totally shut out of the system right now," he says.

Celebrating the city's 25th anniversary, West Hollywood elected leaders portray the densely populated "urban village" as an oasis of tolerance, diversity and creativity, where celebrities such as Elton John and Sandra Bullock hang out and party after the Oscars and city leaders faithfully tend to residents' needs with social services and "innovative" policies such as requiring emergency training for occupants of high-rises in case of a fire or earthquake.

"It's going in a great direction," says current West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land, who this month hands the job of mayor back to Heilman. A sassy, hard-core feminist whose day job is co–chief executive officer of the Saban Free Clinic in Los Angeles, she says, "We've accomplished a lot over the past 25 years, and we're still committed to spending dollars on social services."

But community activists and renegade City Hall insiders say something quite different: that vindictive politics reigns, big development trumps citizen concerns, and deep-pocketed incumbents maintain their long hold on power by taking money from developers, fighting term limits and encouraging anti-outsider cliques.

"The political culture is very closed," says Lauren Meister, who ran twice for City Council, most recently in 2009. "You're either one of the insiders or you're not. As much as we'd like to think that West Hollywood is very progressive, the politics is actually very old-school."

Last year, West Hollywood council members Heilman, Land, John Duran and Jeff Prang decided to shun the most basic, and possibly most important, of progressive principles: a democratic election. They refused to let West Hollywood's 4,000 to 5,800 active voters elect a council member to fill a rare vacant seat on the City Council, choosing by "consensus" to handpick someone for the seat.

Heilman, Land and Duran recently voted to spend $115,000 on high-end "production-related services" for the city's 25th anniversary — Prang voted against it. But the four justified their opposition to a special election, in part by citing its unbearable $150,000 cost — in fact, a modest expenditure from a $71.5 million general fund that has a reserve of several million dollars.

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