Members of the city’s civic elite were wringing their collective hands last week, stunned over the dismal participation shown by the electorate in the March 6 municipal election. With turnout falling to single digits in even the most competitive contests, the city’s leaders were left wondering what went wrong.
It was in the middle of this yeasty civic debate that Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss stepped forward to tell election-weary Angelenos that he was launching his campaign for city attorney — for 2009, that is. And at that point, it was hard to tell: Was his timing perfect? Or impossibly bad?
Weiss made his announcement last week in part because he had finally reached the day when — yay! — the city’s election rules would allow him to start raising money for a citywide campaign. But his announcement also came just days before a band of disenchanted neighborhood leaders from Weiss’s council district — a group miffed about traffic, high-density development and the councilman’s frequently imperious ways — chose to conduct their own vote, deciding overwhelmingly that now just might be the time to yank Weiss from office.
Nearly two dozen representatives from homeowner groups stretching from Cheviot Hills to Westwood to the western edge of Hollywood agreed to draft a petition seeking to recall Weiss, a former federal prosecutor first elected to the council in 2001. And what made Saturday’s vote so unusual is that those pushing for the recall know full well that they could simply ride out the situation and wait for Weiss to leave in 2009.
“Quite frankly, he can do much more damage in the next two years,” said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, who voted to draft the petition. “We’re hurting so bad already that we need to take some kind of action, and I think people understand that.”
Now, recall bids have a way of petering out in Los Angeles, due to the overwhelming power of incumbency and the high bar placed on such contests by the Los Angeles City Charter — the rules for how the city is governed. To force a recall, foes of Weiss would need to collect more than 22,000 signatures, or 15 percent of the district’s registered voters, in just 120 days.
That’s normally the kind of trick that only lobbyists and political consultants can pull off. Think L.A. strip clubs, which gathered enough signatures three years ago to rescind a law banning lap dances, or the hotels near LAX that recently stopped implementation of a living-wage law that focuses exclusively on them.
Weiss spokeswoman Lisa Hansen said Weiss would not comment. But political consultant Larry Levine, who is handling Weiss’s run for city attorney, brushed aside the threat, saying that recall talk erupts in the district from time to time from “some of the dissidents on the Westside who are never happy with anything.” “Nobody has filed anything or taken any formal action,” he added. “It’s just some people batting their gums together, and every once in a while a reporter hears it and thinks he’s discovered something.”
Still, the Westside group that voted Saturday dropped a few anvil-sized hints that they may be serious. For one thing, they approved the bylaws necessary for their fledgling group to create a political action committee so that, like politicians and special-interest groups, they can collect donations and weigh in on their preferred council candidate. For another, they met Saturday with City Controller Laura Chick — one of the people flirting with a run for Weiss’s seat.
The man spearheading the recall effort said there are too many burning issues, from park repairs to clogged intersections, to stick with someone like Weiss, already looking for the door. West L.A. will be the subject of a new long-range plan for development and deserves a representative who isn’t raising thousands of dollars from developers and their lobbyists, said Mike Eveloff, president of the Tract 7260 Homeowner Association.
With major homeowner groups pursuing a recall, “elected officials in our area and throughout the city will understand that they represent the voters, and not the developers and not the lobbyists,” he added.
Eveloff recently sparred with Weiss over two 47-story condominium towers planned for Century City, both of which were approved by the council with Weiss’s blessing. Before that project was approved, city planners asserted that the 483-unit condominium project would produce less traffic than the existing one-story bank and fading nightclub. The developer, AP Properties, also happened to give $100,000 to a campaign committee controlled by Weiss’s closest political pal, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Homeowner groups are also scrutinizing a development planned for Century City by mall owner Westfield, which also gave Villaraigosa’s committee $100,000. The now-ubiquitous mall developer and operator hopes to build a 39-story tower that houses 260 condominiums, three stories of office space and three stories of retail.
Residents are equally agitated in the east end of the district, where a developer is pushing a pair of condominium projects on La Brea Avenue, including one near Santa Monica Boulevard that could reach seven stories. “We feel that the traffic is going to be unbearable,” said Melrose Neighborhood Association board member Mark Ganshirt, who voted to draft the recall petition.
Yet as potent as the campaign fund-raising issue is on the Westside, an equally powerful factor is Weiss’s temperament, both on the council floor and in the district. Weiss infuriated members of the Benedict Canyon Association by walking out of their regular meeting after he was confronted by residents angry over his handling of district matters.
Weiss also drew boos in Van Nuys after he protested that the public speakers at the council meeting, which is held in the Valley once a month, were taking up too much time with their testimony.
“I don’t see how you can be in public service when you have a fundamental disdain for the public, and he has disdain for the public,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has scrapped with Weiss over the years. “He’s clearly annoyed by public comment. He gets upset when they go on for more than two minutes. He has no patience for the people he governs.”
Levine, the councilman’s political consultant, argued that Weiss’s take-no-prisoners style had little to do with the discontent being fomented against him. “It’s a little hard to say it’s Jack style or Jack’s fault, since some of the people have the same gripe about the guy who was [on the council] before him, and the person there before that.
“There have always been people in the 5th District upset about development,” he added. “And the reality is, Jack acknowledges that people have certain property rights. If they own property, they’re allowed to develop it, so Jack says ‘Can we mitigate it so they do the least amount of harm.’”
Levine is correct in that anti-development ire has driven the politics of the 5th District for at least half a century. In 1965, attorney Ed Edelman — who went on to become a county supervisor before retiring from politics — ousted incumbent Councilwoman Roz Wyman, in part because of anger over high-rise development approved for Carthay Circle.
A decade later, the issue of growth helped 26-year-old former Hebrew teacher Zev Yaroslavsky squeak ahead of Wyman and make the 1975 City Council runoff election, where he defeated his opponent handily. Thirteen years later, Yaroslavsky channeled his district’s anti-development ire by spearheading Proposition U, a measure that restricted the size of buildings allowed on the city’s major boulevards.
Like Edelman before him, Yaroslavsky went on to become a county supervisor, representing much of the Westside. That move paved the way for Mike Feuer, an attorney who defeated Yaroslavsky’s wife in the runoff election. Feuer too had to confront angry questions about development in Westwood, but gave up his seat and ran unsuccessfully for city attorney.
In 2001, Feuer was replaced by Weiss, a federal prosecutor who defeated state Senator Tom Hayden, a politician with much greater name ID. Weiss portrayed himself as part of a new era of post-term-limits politicians at City Hall. Weiss — behaving a bit like New York Governor Eliot Spitzer or former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — soon showed that he relished a fight, alienating colleagues and constituents alike.
Eveloff agreed that development has been a long-standing issue for the district’s constituents. But he argued that Weiss set himself apart from his predecessors. “The prior council person submitted tough questions to developers as part of the [environmental] process. Jack has not,” Eveloff said. “The prior council person would make time to meet with community leaders. Jack does not. The prior council person would not only meet with them, but engage the issues and maybe even change his mind sometimes. Not true for Jack.”
He added: “Every time people are stuck in traffic, they need to understand why it’s happening. And they should ask Jack.”