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.
"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.
Los Angeles Angels vs. Cincinnati Reds
TicketsMon., Aug. 29, 7:05pm
UCLA Bruins Double Header: M Soccer vs Duke & W Soccer vs Penn St.
TicketsFri., Sep. 2, 5:00pm
UCLA Bruins Men's Soccer vs. University of Akron Zips Men's Soccer
TicketsMon., Sep. 5, 5:00pm
UCLA Bruins Women's Soccer vs. North Carolina Tarheels Soccer
TicketsFri., Sep. 9, 7:00pm
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.
Instead, Heilman, Land, Duran and Prang held a citywide "application" contest in which 39 residents vied for selection by the four for the City Council seat — a process applauded by some residents but seen by others as an embarrassing City Council excess. In a remarkable flexing of power, Heilman presented the city clerk a list of "desirable traits" for a West Hollywood lawmaker, and Mayor Land decided how many minutes the contestants would be given to present those traits to the City Council.
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.
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?"
In the home office of Ryan Gierach's apartment, a short walk from the French Market on Santa Monica Boulevard, the workhorse behind WeHoNews sits at a computer wide screen as his dog, WeHo, sleeps on the floor. Gierach wears a gray West Hollywood T-shirt and orange pants, and his head is shaved close. The Hollywood Hills can be seen out his window.
"My motto is, 'Sometimes you just have to build your wings on the way down,' " says Gierach, a purpose-driven, Midwestern native who works 60-hour weeks on his Web-based paper. "Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith."
Before Gierach started his Web site in 2005, he was a freelance journalist for such gay publications as The Advocate, Genre and Frontiers. In 2003, Arcadia Publishing, which produces the popular Images of America history books, asked him to write about West Hollywood.
In West Hollywood, Gierach explains how the 1.9 square miles of unincorporated Los Angeles County territory between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles morphed from a rail-yard settlement to a bustling Prohibition-era center for movie studios and speakeasies, where the rich and famous played hard.
"Drugs such as cocaine, ether and marijuana, not yet illegal, found favor among the new Hollywood stars through the Roaring Twenties," Gierach writes. "Drug peddlers and rum runners, pimps and hit men, gamblers and con men, all flourished in the lawless environment of West Hollywood."
By the 1940s and '50s, screenwriters, actors, set designers and the extended families of Jewish movie-studio executives had taken up residence. Gays and lesbians found a sanctuary in the bungalows and low-slung apartment buildings, all governed by the relatively loose policies of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and out of reach of the Los Angeles Police Department — then infamous for its brutal treatment of gays.
Rents were cheap, tolerance prevailed, and political beliefs were decidedly liberal.
But according to Gierach, soaring land values in Beverly Hills drove up housing costs in adjacent West Hollywood, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors began green-lighting towering hotel and condo projects, angering community activists who believed low- and middle-income residents would soon get squeezed out.
Around the same time, Jewish activists in West Hollywood were demanding that the Soviet Union allow Jews to move to the United States, which eventually attracted many Russian-speaking immigrants to West Hollywood.
The city's streets buzzed with political activity in 1984, when a grassroots coalition, including many Jewish seniors and young gay men, was formed — to wrest control over land-use decisions from the development-happy L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Heilman and Land were among those activists who took on a powerful group of county politicians, wealthy land speculators and developers, and landlords who wanted the area to remain unincorporated and the rents uncontrolled.
Yet after writing his book years later, Gierach began to notice that West Hollywood was rarely in the news. The city had sometimes attracted headlines if movie star Halle Berry crashed her car in a hit-and-run or the City Council banned the declawing of cats. Although Beverly Press and L.A. Independent published some good articles, no newspaper was closely following West Hollywood's government.
"There was a huge need for news, and no one was covering it," says the editor.
Gierach launched WeHoNews.com in April 2005, intentionally staying away from the snarky vibe of a blog. He wrote five to six news stories every week, edited articles by more than 20 contributors, and published on Monday and Thursday. The Los Angeles Times began linking to the site, and last year WeHoNews got more than 600,000 unique hits.
Gierach and his contributors covered public-safety issues such as pedestrians getting hit by cars, the City Council elections of 2007 and 2009 and, of course, the seemingly endless luxury-hotel, retail and condo projects aimed at the monied. "I'm looking at all of this stuff with a healthy skepticism," Gierach says.
His work has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be.
"It's the best-read paper at City Hall," says Martin, now a WeHoNews contributor. "If I write something on Thursday, I'll hear all kinds of things by Monday."
Gierach and his freelancers cover West Hollywood as it is today: a city that caters more to money and bling than to past ideals.
His site has reported that Land received a $1,000 campaign contribution for her unsuccessful 2006 run for the California Assembly from IAC Corporation — less than 10 days after she supported the company in a dispute over an outdoor-advertising sign IAC said obscured the street view of its building. WeHoNews stood out for its blow-by-blow coverage of a heated controversy in which Heilman and Land fought preservationists trying to save a historic home known as Tara.
Most recently, a WeHoNews scoop revealed that Heilman and Land were trying to hurriedly push through a smoking ban on the iconic outdoor patios of West Hollywood restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Gierach says he now endures an "endless cannonade" from angry politicians and government workers in West Hollywood's City Hall. "Because I give a voice to the people, who have been voiceless for decades, there's been an effort by [Heilman's] minions to undercut WeHoNews' credibility."
Allegra Allison, a quick-talking, blond-haired community activist wearing a black skirt and top with black-leather boots, stands outside a chain-link fence surrounding the 1914 Colonial Revival mansion and property called Tara. She was one of the tenants who lived in it for more than 25 years. Situated half a block from Sunset Boulevard on Laurel Avenue, the property is a historic landmark; its late owner, Elsie Weisman, donated it to the city in the belief, Allison says, that it would be preserved as a park.
Weisman's dream is wildly popular in a city that is one of the most dense communities west of the Mississippi, with 18,000 people per square mile and more than 24,000 housing units. About 86 percent white, and with children making up only 6 percent of residents, it is more than 40 percent gay and has a sizable Russian-speaking community. There's little open space — a Chicago developer who plans to raze the original Tower Records store on Sunset is touting a 12-foot strip of grass at his proposed five-story retail-and-office project as a "pocket park."
Instead of a park at Tara, West Hollywood politicians decided to build a 28-unit affordable-housing project for seniors. "That property came to us with no stipulations," Land tells the Weekly.
Allison had never paid attention to West Hollywood politics, but in 2003 she went to a City Council meeting and begged the five council members, who sit high above the public on a stage in the West Hollywood Auditorium, not to overrun Tara and its leafy grounds.
"It's a progressive city," she says, "and I figured they would get it and do the right thing. But immediately they started fighting us."
Allison collected more than 2,000 signatures of support and found herself at the center of a war between affordable-housing proponents and citizens tired of destruction of the old and overbuilding of the new.
The fate of the picturesque old structure "created a huge schism in West Hollywood," Gierach says. By 2008, a lawsuit against West Hollywood by Save Tara, a group led by Allison, ended up before the California Supreme Court. Allison maintained that Heilman, Land and other council members rammed the project through by using subterfuge: The city leaders made agreements with housing developers before an environmental-impact report was even completed. Under law, an EIR must first go before the public for scrutiny. The California justices ruled in Allison's favor.
"It was an eye-opening experience I never wanted to experience," she says. And for many, it was a prime example of everything that has gone wrong. The enduring impression among park proponents is that the West Hollywood City Council is indistinguishable from the much-despised, backdoor–dealing L.A. County Board of Supervisors of 25 years ago.
Activist Buck says such chicanery feeds the low voter turnout plaguing the city. "People care, they get involved, and they go to meetings," he says. "Then they get shut down, they get marginalized, and they get disengaged" — complaints that are strikingly similar to ones a much younger Land and Heilman once leveled against the county government for ignoring citizens.
The need for extensive development of West Hollywood is often cited by Duran, Heilman and Land as necessary to pay for social services and to subsidize affordable housing.
In a city that is home to many a liberal, it's a politically astute argument. At one point, there was some truth to it.
In the early 1990s, according to former councilman Martin, who was a member of the budget subcommittee, the city faced tight budgets and some social-service cutbacks. "There was a feeling the city needed to expand its tax base," Martin says. At the time, West Hollywood generated revenues from "four pillars," as Martin calls them: a hotel-occupancy (or bed) tax, property taxes, sales taxes and parking fines.
Then, in the late 1990s, two big projects came along: the huge, $300 million Millennium complex on Sunset and the $80 million Gateway/Target mall, the latter so tightly squeezed onto land at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard that rush-hour traffic frequently grinds to a halt. Although the Millennium project stalled, other development took off. The City Council approved an 11-story hotel-and-condo complex at Sunset and Doheny Drive and the 10-story mixed-use project, Movietown Plaza, very near the gridlocked new Gateway mall.
Developers began demolishing affordable rental housing and quaint single-family homes and replacing them with luxury four- and five-story condominiums.
Around the same time, in 2001, the City Council threw out a zoning rule called "height averaging," which prevented developers from erecting anything taller than the average height on any given block.
Critics say the vote to upend the height-restriction rules opened the floodgates in West Hollywood. "Developers came sweeping in," says Elyse Eisenberg, chairwoman of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, "tearing down old housing stock" — often inexpensive units.
Councilman Duran isn't convinced that the end of height averaging made much of an impact, and Heilman describes the complex height-averaging rule as a "disaster" because it was difficult for developers and land speculators to apply.
Ironically, West Hollywood Rent Stabilization Commissioner Agassi Topchian, a former journalist from Moscow who has a day job with the city of Los Angeles, may soon have to vacate his own rent-stabilized apartment in West Hollywood. A developer plans to demolish it for a luxury condo. Topchian doesn't have much of a problem with it. "What can you do?" he asks.
By the mid-2000s, the city's budget revenues were bulging, increased by nearly 50 percent thanks in large part to the now-burst real estate bubble. But expenditures on social programs have stagnated for years, vastly surpassed by an exploding city bureaucracy.
In 1985, according to Social Services Manager Daphne Davis, West Hollywood spent $1.5 million on social services. Today, the tab is $3.5 million for various programs, including medical, senior and HIV/AIDS, serving nearly the same population size — 35,716 — as in 1985.
Correcting for inflation, $1.5 million spent in 1985 equals $3 million today. Thus it's false when City Council members claim that by embracing big development projects, they've brought in new dollars to grow social programs.
So where is the City Council really directing money from its much-expanded budget? To "wages and fringes" for city-government employees. Payroll costs grew from about $1.3 million in 1985 to $24.5 million in 2009, outstripping the U.S. inflation rate during Heilman's reign — almost 10 times over.
"Every [development project] is 'wrapped up' in social services and affordable housing" as the justification for its approval, says Martin. City Council members sell West Hollywood residents on accepting the congestion and construction, such as the hotel-and-condo project on Sunset and Doheny, "but people don't pay attention" to what they get back. "The money is mostly going toward payroll, health care and pensions" for city employees.
Utilizing a tool called a "development agreement," the City Council now routinely gets around zoning restrictions in its pursuit of bigger buildings. Under this scheme, the developer agrees to a deal that is in the "best interest" of the city — a vague notion sometimes involving the developer pledging money to city coffers. In one deal, $700,000 was to be paid by developers of a five-story tower of residences and shops that would loom above the Palm restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. When residents sued, the city agreed to get $1 million from the developer, but to only slightly reduce the project's size. "Any local [zoning] rules go out the window with a 'development agreement,' " says Steve Smith, a planning commissioner for 12 years who left under pressure because, he says, he was too hard on developers. West Hollywood zoning maps are increasingly meaningless documents "neighbors rely upon to maintain the character of their neighborhoods, [that] can't be relied upon," says Smith.
This is in some ways a cliquish city, where an unfamiliar face at a public meeting can prompt a city official to lean into his microphone and ask, "Who are you?" City officials, unaccustomed to detailed outside queries about city policy, claim to have no definitive list of their development agreements to provide to the public.
West Hollywood City Clerk Tom West says they don't "maintain a list." He handed the Weekly a makeshift record from the past 25 years. It appears to show no development agreement deals from 1985 until the early 1990s — and a flurry of proposed development agreements since 2007.
The agreements, quietly hammered out between developers and elected leaders, are no small thing. One deal seeks to eventually demolish the landmark Sunset Strip venue House of Blues — to erect another outsized hotel-and-condo project awkwardly dubbed Sunset Time.
"I feel like our city is now for sale," says longtime resident Jeanne Dobrin, a feisty 89-year-old who religiously attends City Council meetings, sometimes clad in a faux-fur coat.
Dobrin, a former Realtor, championed the lawsuit over the Palm restaurant tower, and is viewed by City Hall watchers as a land-use expert. "One of the reasons we became a city was because we wanted to keep development from getting out of hand," she says. Instead, "The No. 1 issue is runaway development and the city going along with it."
With their extensive use of development agreements, the council members are practicing a form of often decried, secretive government that is substantially out of line with progressive values. "Essentially," says California Common Cause Executive Director Feng, "you have created a system where the wealthy get to go around the law while everyone else has to live by a different set of rules."
Smith and D'Amico also point to the example of the new library being built on San Vicente Boulevard, across the street from the famous blue Pacific Design Center. "There's a 'For Sale' sign on this city," says Smith, "and that sign hangs on the library."
The anger arises because some residents believe major donations are flowing from developers into the library, Heilman's dream civic project. They are the same developers, critics allege, who want to erect huge buildings. The donations process has been shrouded in secrecy, with West Hollywood Library Fund Campaign Manager LouAnne Greenwald refusing to provide details about the library donations, saying they are private and confidential (under California law, nonprofits can refuse to divulge their income sources).
Web site weholibraryfund.org shows that real estate players in West Hollywood are prominent on the library board of directors: Christopher Bonbright, chair and CEO of Ramsey-Shilling Commercial Real Estate Services; James L. Arnone, land-use attorney at Latham & Watkins; Jeffrey Seymour, president of Seymour Consulting Group, a lobbying outfit used by developers; and Jason Illoulian, principal and attorney at Ivy Property Group, an emerging development firm in West Hollywood.
Also on the Web site, there's a page for "Donor Recognition." Suggested contributions to get your name on a plaque or sign range from $2,500 to $1.5 million.
Some who have already made the honor roll are Ronald Haft, developer of the Sunset Time project, being considered right now by city officials (Haft will have a stage named after him); Arnone of Latham & Watkins (Arnone will get an elevator vestibule); and Jeffrey S. Haber, an influential land-use attorney (Haber is supplying library furnishings).
Many residents are clearly thrilled with the library, designed by Steve Johnson and James Favaro. But with it comes a sense of unease. D'Amico says, "It's a sleazy way to run a city. Meanwhile, it makes citizens wonder if their neighborhoods are up for sale."
Some West Hollywood residents may be outraged about tall projects, impossible traffic, Manhattan-priced rentals, developer agreements and Heilman and Land's elitist manner of governing, but oddly enough a proposed smoking ban might be the issue that finally shakes up City Hall.
Heilman and Land, facing elections in 2011 along with Horvath, have been joined by Councilman Prang in a push to end smoking on outdoor patios at streetside restaurants, nightclubs and bars. Councilman Duran is against it, and appointed Councilwoman Horvath's position is unknown; she is playing her cards close to the vest.
The plan is under attack by owners and managers of the nightclubs and bars, who charge that Land and Heilman are obsessed with maintaining an aura of West Hollywood as a national leader in feel-good issues.
Beverly Hills has already banned smoking on outdoor patios, as has Los Angeles. As if to bolster the accusation made by the nightclub owners, Land says, "We as a city are behind, and all of these other cities have adopted a smoking ban."
But this is not Los Angeles, or even Beverly Hills. This city has virtually no industry. And unlike the more mixed economic base in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood relies heavily on peddling its partying and nightlife to tourists, young suburbanites, the rich and celebrities. A sizable chunk of its sales tax comes from drinks sold at bars and nightclubs.
So bar and nightclub owners are stunned that Land and Heilman would push such a ban — and with the autocratic arrogance of longtime politicians to boot.
"I was shocked," says Sandy Sachs, owner of the Factory nightclub on Robertson Boulevard, who is angry that no "general meetings" were sought with leaders of the nightlife industry "before the smoking ban got on a roll." Sachs says, "We're in a really, really tough economic time. This is tougher than 9/11, than the earthquake in '94, than the riots. And to add something like this, when times are tough already, what are they trying to do? Stomp us out like a cigarette?"
Trip Wilmot, owner of East/West Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard, agrees, saying, "The city has underestimated the impact of the smoking ban, and they've underestimated the people who aren't happy about it. ... It seems like they've really overstepped on this one."
According to Wilmot, bar and nightclub owners are organizing to stop the City Council. If that doesn't work, they may consider backing other council candidates in the future. "I wouldn't put it past us," he says.
Will West Hollywood's seminal political shake-up be over smoking, of all things? Sounding very much like Heilman and Land circa 1984, Sachs says, "It used to be 'Live and let live' around here. ... At what point do we stop telling people how to live their lives?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.