Weiss Recall Quickly Turns Ugly

Forget the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall. When it comes to political theater, the hot ticket in town over the past few weeks just might have been the Councilman Jack Weiss Goodwill Tour, a show that traveled from Westwood to Hollywood to Sherman Oaks and — now that a recall campaign is out in the open — might finally be winding down.

You may remember that, a few months back, a few dozen homeowners got fed up with Weiss, a six-year representative of the Westside seeking a new job as city attorney in 2009. Those groups concluded that Weiss was more interested in campaign fund-raising and photo-ops with the mayor than nuts-and-bolts neighborhood issues, like traffic and overdevelopment.

Once the group took steps to recall Weiss, things started getting interesting. First, a handful of neighborhood leaders received calls from Weiss, who wanted to meet with them personally to discuss ways the city could serve them better. Then recall organizers found that some of the meetings were being attended not just by Weiss but by Ari Swiller, a fund-raiser for and political adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — Weiss’ nearest and dearest political ally.

Weiss took his charm offensive to the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, where he talked about development on Ventura Boulevard. He secured an environmental-impact report for a seven-story apartment project on La Brea Avenue, something sought for months without success by a local neighborhood group. Weiss even unveiled a proposal to rework the way development projects are evaluated — suggesting that the city, not the developers, should control the environmental-review process for a change.

Recall organizers described his charm as too little, too late, launching their campaign formally on Tuesday. Meanwhile, even some homeowner groups with no ties to the recall saw a change in their councilman. “Over the last few months, Jack Weiss has become more focused on neighborhood issues,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. “Whether it’s related to the recall discussion or his realization of what the public is most interested in, I wouldn’t want to speculate.”

The new Jack Weiss is even being nicer to his colleagues on the City Council, a group that has not spoken favorably about him in the past. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, frequently derided by Weiss during closed-door meetings about the council’s legal strategies on various issues, received a lovely fruit basket for his birthday last week. Naturally, it came from Weiss.

The charm offensive came to a screeching halt on Tuesday, the day the anti-Weiss group officially launched its recall campaign. Weiss’ pro-bono campaign consultant, Larry Levine, described the recall organizers as “shakedown artists” — groups that demand money in exchange for keeping quiet. Levine also argued that the group formed its recall because Weiss would not allow them to control $5 million offered to the community by the developer of two 47-story skyscrapers in Century City. “They’re not anti-development, they’re just asking developers for millions of dollars,” he said.

Recall organizers argued the opposite, saying Weiss wanted his own $5 million “slush fund.” And they argued that Weiss’ goodwill initiative always came with an implied threat. West L.A. neighborhood volunteer Ty Vahedi said he met with Levine to try to avert a recall and was told that “if they push the recall button, they will be targets and he will go after them.”

“Basically, Larry said that he doesn’t take hostages because he doesn’t want to feed them after the war,” said Vahedi, who ran against Weiss and lost in 2005. “And that was the message that I sent back to the group.”

Even as they held meetings with Weiss, the recall group’s first campaign treasurer, Burbank-based Kinde Durkee, contacted the group to tell them she could no longer represent them. The recall group found a replacement in campaign consultant Steve Mele, warning him in advance that he might feel pressure to resign from City Hall. “He assured me that since he’s in West Hollywood, and mainly a Sacramento [consultant], he didn’t feel he was touchable by these types of political influences,” said Kevin Singer, one of the recall organizers.

After signing a contract with the recall, Mele — who represents legislative candidates running for office in San Francisco, Walnut Creek and Sacramento — dropped out too. “He said he was contacted by clients of his out of Sacramento that told him, more or less, that if he took us on as a client, they would stop using him as their treasurer,” Singer added.

Needless to say, none of this has improved the recall group’s assessment of City Hall. They argue that it shouldn’t take a recall threat to make a politician responsive. And they questioned whether the mere possibility of mayoral involvement on Weiss’ behalf is scaring off their fund-raising consultants. “It’s like the freaking Mafia,” said Mike Eveloff, one of the neighborhood activists involved in the recall effort.

Eveloff is particularly dismayed by the resignation of Durkee, who bailed out one day after the initial paperwork for the recall campaign arrived at the city’s Ethics Commission. Singer said Durkee told him that she had been contacted by elected officials who told her the recall created a supposed conflict of interest.

“She said, ‘To be perfectly honest with you, one of my council-member clients is not happy with this,’” Singer recalled.

But the four council members who retain Durkee as their treasurer — Tony Cardenas, Tom LaBonge, Ed Reyes and Dennis Zine — insist that they made no calls on Weiss’ behalf. Zine said he couldn’t have pressured Durkee since he’s planning to write the recall committee a $1,000 check. (He later said he was joking.) “Straight up, dude, it wasn’t me,” said Cardenas.

Durkee’s firm did not return calls seeking comment on her resignation. But Mele said it was the investors in his firm, none of whom he would name, who advised him that a Weiss recall is politically dangerous territory — not his clients. “We want to stay out of races where there could be hurt feelings and animosity, where we could get caught in the crossfire,” said Mele, who represents labor unions and San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno.

Swiller, the mayoral adviser and fund-raiser, said neither he nor the mayor had anything to do with the disappearing campaign treasurers. While he attended six meetings with the recall organizers, Swiller said no one should reach the conclusion that the mayor was keeping tabs on the recall strategy talks. “I happen to count Jack as a friend and would like to see him succeed. When I see people this upset, that surprises me,” he said.

The discontent goes way beyond a dispute over settlement money, recall organizers say, touching on mansionization in Benedict Canyon, zoning and growth issues in Hollywood and mounting traffic around the 405 freeway. They argue that Weiss has been dismissive of his constituents and too willing to give developers a pass on megaprojects. “In order to make life good in L.A., you have to have a representative who wants an area to be the best that it can be,” said recall organizer Monique Kagan. “And I really resent the condescending attitude that Councilman Weiss brings to meetings.”

Kagan, a one-time aide to former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and a former chief of staff to Council President Alex Padilla, said she became more determined to pursue his recall after two city employees warned her that she would never work in City Hall again if she got involved.

Kagan, who would not name the employees, said the message was portrayed as a simple fact, not a threat.

Weiss’ effort to satisfy the Melrose Neighborhood Association apparently also missed its mark. That homeowner group had complained for months about a 219-unit apartment building planned for La Brea Avenue. Weiss, who originally supported the seven-story project without a detailed environmental-impact report that would give opponents a chance to slow down or stop the project, switched gears and instructed the developer on May 1 to draft an environmental-impact report.

Despite Weiss’ reversal, Melrose Neighborhood Association volunteer Lucille Saunders said she still wants to pursue the recall. Without a recall threat, Weiss would never have asked a developer to take the neighborhood seriously, she said. “I knew that was what it would take.”

Weiss does have constituents who say he tried to find a middle ground on development. Recall foe Bruce Kaye praised Weiss for crafting new restrictions on development in an eastern section of the district. And he argued that Weiss shouldn't be blamed for problems that are affecting the entire region.

“There is a massive amount of denial by people about the change that's going on in this city, and they want council members to be the scapegoats,” Kaye said. “The city is growing, and not just in council district five. And to say that Jack Weiss is somehow responsible for increased traffic in his district, as if his district is divorced from the rest of Los Angeles, is patently absurd.”

David Zahniser previously wrote about Jack Weiss in March 2007


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