By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Heilman rolls his eyes when asked if the middle class is being squeezed out by years of policies heavily geared toward the erection of luxury buildings and high-priced condos. He disputes the notion, saying, "I think there are a lot of things to be proud of. We provide a lot of services to the community."
And in fact, when Heilman was elected in 1984, the first order of business was to make sure "we were a model of efficiency." The stakes were particularly high. The gay community — along with a baffled world — was just starting to deal with a mysterious wasting disease known as AIDS. Gays faced a harsher homophobia in comparison to today. "When we started," Heilman says, "there was a lot of attention to the fact that there was a gay majority [on the City Council], and we couldn't run a city."
West Hollywood elected officials proved those critics wrong. The city's retail-based economy grew, and, in dramatic contrast to the Los Angeles City Hall fiscal debacle, West Hollywood's budget is in the black — so much so that the city government helps to pay for two popular and costly local events every year, Halloween Carnaval and L.A. Gay Pride. City planners pulled off a major renovation of Santa Monica Boulevard, and they're building a $64 million library. Real estate development — typified by the towers and clubs on and near Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards — is king.
Yet some residents see the glitzy development aimed at the rich and question whether it goes against the core values West Hollywood was founded on. Like several of the council members, Prang works outside West Hollywood each day — he is assistant city manager for the working-class city of Pico Rivera. Prang, the third gay member on the West Hollywood council, agrees that under West Hollywood's policies, "developers are not building apartment buildings. They're building condos, and the middle class is being displaced. ... Middle-income housing is slowly being demolished."
City Housing Manager Jeff Skorneck concurs that "nearly all" of the new housing units since 2001 have been market-rate condos — dwellings with price tags from $500,000 into the millions. Yet Heilman says it's a "false notion that being against development is progressive. If you look at pictures [of city neighborhoods] from 1984, with a lot of run-down areas, a lot of progress has been made."
Heilman is firmly against term limits, which would have long ago forced him from office, scoffing, "We have term limits, they're called elections." But in a city with slightly more than 35,000 people, where only 4,100 of 2009's 23,000 registered voters cast votes, Heilman has a unique hold on power that, arguably, only Land also enjoys.
"In smaller cities like West Hollywood," says Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, "it may be easier for a small group of people to take control because they only have to reach out to 20,000 voters." With only about 4,000 actively participating in West Hollywood city elections, the insider grip on governance becomes a "very dangerous situation."
"You have a tendency to only talk to people who support you," says Feng, a good-government expert. "You only talk to a very small cross-section of voters — and try not to wake anyone else up."
It was Heilman who relentlessly pushed the City Council's controversial decision to appoint newcomer Horvath rather than let voters speak. In fact, the last real race for West Hollywood City Council, involving a true newcomer and not just incumbents or past council members, was nine years ago, when Duran was voted into office with strong backing from Heilman.
Heilman's insistence that he didn't want to blow $150,000 of the people's money on an election — a claim that is pilloried by many critics, including Meister and former councilman Martin — gives Feng pause. "You have to be concerned with people in power — that they may be using the appointment process to get an advantage," she says. "You have to ask the question, 'Does [the appointee] basically fall in line and shift the debate' " to favor the views of certain elected officials? Horvath, with close ties to Heilman and Land, fits that profile.
West Hollywood elected leaders continually, almost incessantly, tout their municipal policies as "innovative" — thus, the banning of retail dog-and-cat sales, the rewriting of city codes to replace the word pet with companion, and their vote to prohibit the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Feng suggests that Heilman, Land, Duran and Prang could have held a very cheap "mail-in" election for the open council seat — an "innovation" now practiced in Burbank and the state of Oregon.
For about $50,000, Feng says, West Hollywood could not only have easily carried out a special election but also possibly generated a bigger and more enthused — and therefore far less predictable — voter turnout. As one top Democratic consultant who has run many Los Angeles–area campaigns notes, incumbents oppose "anything that would expand the base of voters," because that brings fresh eyes to the ballot box, and those residents are often "less supportive" of incumbents.
While City Councilman Duran says Heilman has carried out "a vision" for the city, he still asks, "So is it time for a new vision — and to hand it over to other people?"
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