By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The four chose 26-year-old advertising executive and political unknown Lindsey Horvath, who had lived in the city for just 18 months. But Horvath had a big advantage over the other 38: She is closely tied to Heilman and Land. Land was one of "the first people I met" in town, Horvath says, and they got to know each other when Horvath was chairwoman of a city Women's Advisory Board.
It's a sweet job for the five part-time council members, all of whom have other careers but who receive from the city full health coverage and stipends of $825 a month. They take turns being mayor once a year.
When asked about giving voters the right to elect the fifth City Council member, Heilman says, "I don't think that's progressive. I don't see why it's needed to call a special election, and spend a lot of money."
Like the other council members, Horvath, who pooh-poohs the idea of special elections, saying they can be "very negative campaigns with low voter turnout," faces no term limits. She could remain in office as long as Heilman — 25 years — or longer.
The insiders' grip on elective power is impressive. Since the city's founding, only one outsider has won a council seat — Steve Martin, in 1994. In 2003, Martin was ousted when Land, Heilman's ally who had left city politics, decided to return. Ruth Williams, a public-safety commissioner, says residents are happy with the job done by Heilman and other longtimers, or they'd vote them out. "I think we have a damn good city to be proud of," Williams says, "a model that other cities follow." She feels that some people criticize City Hall "because something didn't go their way."
But there are rumblings that the behavior of the city's politicians could provoke a grassroots shake-up now that former planning commissioner D'Amico is making waves at public meetings, WeHoNews is covering City Hall issues in unflattering detail, and a heated controversy is brewing over a proposed outdoor-smoking ban.
"The change that needs to be made in West Hollywood is with the City Council members," says resident Ed Buck, a hard-charging activist and animal-rights advocate. "They've heard us repeatedly, but they continue on their own path." Buck cites overbuilding, the severe traffic problems it has created, and the need to protect renters as some of the key issues the city's politicians won't address.
Whether driven by the power, the money or the celebrity that have increasingly flowed into West Hollywood, altering its economic landscape and often leaving its lower- and middle-class residents unable to afford rents of $1,800 (for a one-bedroom), the city's politicians have lost their way, in the eyes of critics.
In one recent official press release from City Hall, a headline read: "WEST HOLLYWOOD PLAYS A LEADING ROLE IN 2010 OSCAR CELEBRATIONS." In the press release, West Hollywood city workers provided a complete rundown of the movie stars who partied at exclusive WeHo events, with red-velvet ropes and beefy bouncers in place to keep away the general public.
It's the sort of thing that prompts D'Amico to remark, "The city has abandoned its bohemian roots. West Hollywood, as an idea, is extinct."
Inside Basix Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from upscale Gelson's and not far from West Hollywood City Hall, John Heilman orders a muffin. An avid runner, he raced in last week's Los Angeles Marathon, whose new route this year passed through West Hollywood, the city he has served since its 1984 creation. No one has sat on the City Council longer.
Dressed in a blue-and-white-striped shirt and jeans, Heilman, now in his early 50s, wears his hair spiked. He's trim, handsome and, by all accounts, smart — he teaches full-time at Whittier Law School in Orange County, where he was once voted Professor of the Year. Many City Hall watchers also say he's ruthless.
"Heilman is commonly referred to as the puppeteer," says Buck, who in 2007 ran unsuccessfully against Heilman and Land for one of West Hollywood's at-large seats.
"John Heilman calls all the shots," says former City Councilman Martin, who attended years of closed-door council meetings run by Heilman and now views their public meetings, generally, as a sham. "The City Council is intimidated by him."
Many government workers who staff such agencies as West Hollywood's economic-development and planning departments have been working at City Hall for decades. City Councilman Duran, a longtime gay-rights activist and criminal defense attorney, who considers Heilman a friend, says the longtime employees constitute a "very loyal" following for Heilman.
But Ryan Gierach, editor of WeHoNews.com, says, "John Heilman has, what many people have told me, a cult of personality, and people do things after he gives them a wink and a nod." Gierach adds, "Abbe [Land] is a strong hand, but John's is the invisible guiding hand. He's easily the smartest on the council, and he's the best parliamentarian because he's been doing it for 25 years."
At Basix Café, Heilman, who is not easily ruffled, appears on edge. He's been told that L.A. Weekly has been interviewing activists and residents about how West Hollywood does its civic business — particularly after the City Council made headlines globally with its February decision that largely bans stores from selling dogs and cats within city borders, earning derisive critiques days later after it became clear that West Hollywood had no stores that sold dogs or cats.