Cityhood has brought a multitude of changes to the one square mile of county retainment known as West Hollywood: a new government, a new city hall and more recently, a new mayor.
Presiding over only his second Thursday Council meeting at Plummer Park, Mayor John Heilman was more soft spoken than his predecessor, Valerie Terrigno, but firmly in control of the lengthy agenda the Council had before them. Adjourning after almost four hours of work study session dealing with the tedious provision of an Interim Zoning Ordinance, Mayor Heilman was understandably weary as he tackled the pile of official business that lay in front of him. Still wearing the parliamentarian mantle of his responsibilities, the Mayor was preoccupied with signing checks as our interview began. But, after I informed him that I had no intention of asking him what kind of tree he thought he would be, he laughed, leaned back in his upholstered chair and relaxed.
Mayor John Heilman, you are quite young, by political standards. A year ago, you were a private citizen with a demanding law practice, a volunteer ACLU attorney and active in many other political organizations. Then came cityhood, the election to City Council and most recently, the mayorship. What motivated you to embark on the road to public life at this time in your career?
That's a question I ask myself all the time. I think that what motivated me was the concern about the community and a desire to make sure that what I believe the citizens want to see happen to the community is implemented. And the people here have some real concerns about development, certainly about the housing situation, and if I can help the citizens get what they want for the community, then I will feel I have done my job. That's why I became active, because I felt I was able to help people in the community.
Has the Council been finding themselves getting the input they need from the community?
I would like to see a lot more public input. Part of the problem is the process of setting up. It was difficult to get the decisions made that we needed to make, and at the same time have a lot of public input. It was a problem because we didn't have the staff.
Certainly the process of incorporation and cityhood was a tremendous job and the burden has obviously fallen on five sets of very strong shoulders. Has it been an enjoyable process or a frustrating one?
It has its moments of both. I couldn't honestly tell you that this has been the most enjoyable experience in my life. I also couldn't honestly tell you that it has been total frustration. There are elements of both in the job. Overall it has been a very exciting experience.
Well now, you have the media prying into your private life and trying to pigeonhole you on the issues. Has the transition from private life to public life been difficult for you?
To some extent, yes. All of us on the Council have had to give up a lot of our private lives. Because of the Brown Act, we have had to do a lot of the decision making right out in front of the public. I have no problems with the concept, but it's difficult to make mistakes, and we have made mistakes in front of people—and then had to go back and correct them. It's difficult to do the job that we have to do with the intense amount of scrutiny that we have had, not only from the local citizens, but scrutiny from the international media as well. It's difficult to learn, as we have all had to learn, with everyone watching you.
Could you explain more about what the Brown Act requires of you?
The Brown Act is a state law that requires that all public bodies, such as the City Council, conduct its business in public. So whenever more than two of us meet together, we have to meet together in public at a regular scheduled meeting. We can not meet together privately to discuss issues.
I think the public in general is more than a bit confused as to why there was a change of mayors after only eight months and perhaps has the impression that this was a result of "smoke-filled room politics." As I understand it, this was more a requirement of the incorporation process.
Well, most small cities such as ours almost always rotate their mayors on an annual basis. They usually do that in April, when they have their municipal elections. We incorporated in November. Our next municipal election will be in April of 1986. That gave us a 16-month period starting off and the decision the Council made when we took office in November was that we wanted to be on that "every April" rotation pattern. We had to make a decision between having somebody serve for 16 months or two people serve eight month terms. In terms of who the people would be, Valerie [Terrigno] clearly wanted to do it and since she was the top vote-getter, it was the Council's decision that she serve first. And it was an important statement also, that she was elected the first lesbian mayor. Alan [Viterbi] was the second largest vote-getter and he decided that he did not want to do it. I think I was chosen Mayor Pro Tem in recognition of the role CES [Coalition for Economic Survival] played in helping to elect four out of five councilmembers. This was a decision that was publicly announced in November of '84. The rotation has occurred. It is history. To say that there were any "smoke-filled room politics" involved suggests something sleazy, and that simply is not true.
So this means that in April we can expect to have municipal elections?
Yes, in April Steve Schulte, Helen Albert and I will all be up for reelection. Alan and Valerie's terms end in April of 1988, and so after those elections in April, there will be an election amongst the Council as to who will take over as mayor.
Under Valerie's administration there have been several landmark gay rights ordinances that have been adopted that have put West Hollywood on the map and in the news. Do you feel the city government will differ under your guidance?
Well, you have to keep in mind that all I do is preside over the meetings and try to facilitate the decision process. I could say I want us to do X, Y and Z, but unless I can convince two of my colleagues to go along, it doesn't mean anything. In small city government, the mayor doesn't have veto power, just one vote like the rest of the councilmembers. One of the problems we had was that we have not been able to adopt any bold long-term goals for the city and prioritize them. We have been popping from one crisis to another or one crucial issue to another without any perception of what overall direction we want to be heading. I have a list of ideas and goals that I'm hoping I can get the Council to agree to adopt, and then we can be heading in those directions. I think at one point we appeared rudderless. We have been doing some very good things, but we still have been missing the very big picture.
During the Council meeting there was a suggestion to postpone the long-term goal study session and I saw you shaking your head vigorously no!
That's something we had discussed a long time ago and has been put off time and time again, and it would really solve a lot of problems if we knew what our goals were for the city.
You mentioned that you had some priority issues that you would like to see the Council concentrate on. Would you mind commenting on this?
No, not at all. In the first eight months we adopted a flurry of legislation and a lot of it has symbolic importance. What we need to start focusing on are projects to follow the long-range planning. One of the big issues for me is affordable housing. I think there is a big fear among seniors—and among gays and lesbians—that they will be pushed out. They are being pushed out. This community is becoming less and less affordable for either the young people or the seniors. You can see it on King's Road where a lot of units were torn down or converted into condos. The community recognizes that we need to get the development process under control and that we need to be actively promoting affordable housing opportunities. We need to begin addressing the issues that affect the entire community. The Neighborhood Watch program has been funded, but the city needs to help develop those programs, because they do help reduce crime and they do help to increase the perception of safety and security. We need to talk about some self defense programs for seniors and young people. Seniosr particularly, because they are such a vulnerable age group. There are programs around bus stops, because they seem to be high area for crime. I think we really need to roll up our sleeves, like we did with rent control.
Since we're talking about issues, let me mention a few and if you could give your evaluation as to where the city government has been or is going with these issues.
Rent control. It is in place. I basically think it is a very good law, overall. There are hardships on both sides. There are some landlords who are hurt by it, and there are some tenants who are not completely protected. It's impossible to draft an ordinance that protects everyone, but doesn't hurt anyone. It just isn't going to happen. I do think that there is a commitment on the part of the Council to make sure that the administration of the law and to making changes that are necessary. I wasn't completely satisfied with the law, but overall I think it is a good law for the tenants.
Senior citizens. I think there is a perception among the seniors that the city has been concentrating more on the gay and lesbian issues and has been ignoring their concerns. There may be some validity to the perception, but it is not correct overall. If you look at the programs we've funded, a lot of them deal with senior citizens, it's just that the media has only concentrated on what we have done with respect to gay rights. When RTD said that they would no longer provide subsidies to senior and disabled persons, we stepped in and said we were going to do it. The media ignored all the money that we awarded to Jewish Family Services to provide programs for seniors, and the media ignored what we did for alternative living for the aged. We're now submitting applications for funds for a multi-purpose senior center.
Gay and lesbian rights. The Council has done a great deal; the AIDS discrimination ordinance, the sexual orientation ordinance and the domestic partnership issues. It is amazing, for a Council that is so new, to be recognized as one of the leaders in the area of human rights, gay and lesbian rights—and civil rights in general. That in itself is an accomplishment and I'm sure that we will continue to lay that role. But, there comes a point where there is little more the city can do, other than enforce those ordinances. We have made it clear that we will. There will always be issues in that area that will come up. I think it is now time to focus on issues that affect gays and lesbians as people. We can enact all the progressive legislation we want, but if we are not providing the basic services then we are not doing our job.
Land development. People talk about rent control as being the big dividing point in the community. I think that land development is probably more serious. A lot of people are very insular. Once their particular problem, their apartment and their rent is solved, they shut out of the process. That is something we have to prevent. As I see the development process, we're not doing a general plan so the developers are going to be happy. We are doing a general plan to project the needs of residents and the business community. There are a lot of people who have different views as to where they want the community to go. There are powerful people in the community who would like to see West Hollywood turned into another Westwood, and I don't think I want that to happen. What I want to happen is for the citizens to devise what the general plan is going to be. Overall the people in this community are a little tired of development. I think they want to control the development. Cityhood has given the residents the opportunity to have the control, and that is one of the real victories.
Is the process of land development going to be an ongoing process?
In terms of the planning process, the general plan that we are going to adopt is going to be just that—the general plan for the city. It can be revised periodically, but it is devised to be the Bible, in a sense, for development in the city. That is why it is so important that the people get involved in the planning process now. It will become late in the game to come to the Council and say, why is that four-story building going up down the street. At that point, it's too late to stop it. We are going to have public hearings, a community workshop and the Council is having another work study session and the public needs to participate now.
Crime. We have already begun addressing crime. Since cityhood, there has already been a reduction of crime in West Hollywood. We've already approved the budget for the Sheriff's Department. Because we do contract out for law enforcement, we tend to forget that it is something that we need to be concerned with on a daily basis. The Council needs to take on a whole range of issues relating to crime. A lot of victims of crimes feel even more victimized by the system.
We now have foot patrols on Santa Monica Boulevard. Is it too soon to know whether they have made an impact on crime in West Hollywood?
In terms of their impact on West Hollywood, it is too soon to know. The research I have seen shows that they do have an impact on reducing certain types of crime and they also have an impact on increasing the preception of safety, and that's important. They have been making arrests, that is for sure.
At the onset, certain people wanted to see West Hollywood have their own police department. Do you think that was an issue that was bound to come up?
I think it is a dead issue. At least for the next five years, it's just not economically feasible. There is no way we could start up our own police department, as I see it. In terms of desire, I don't think there is much desire on the part of the community to get rid of the Sheriffs. In general, the Sheriffs are respectful of the differences in the community. Certainly, they are better than our neighbors in Los Angeles city. There have been problems. There are bound to be problems when you have a force of that size, but you don't just throw them out. We have worked with Capt. Cook and he has agreed to do some training programs sensitizing the force to the concerns of the gay and lesbian community, to everyone in the community. Whenever there is an incident, we definitely instigate an investigation and try to follow up on what happened. In terms of switching, I think it would be political suicide for anyone to suggest it. It's just not going to happen, and I don't want to see it happen.
In the past eight months since cityhood, all eyes have been on West Hollywood as you have indicated. During the debate for cityhood, opponents heated the issue with horror stories of rampant sex in the parks, higher city taxes and rent control abuse. Obviously, none of those things have happened. Can you divorce yourself from what the Council has accomplished and give yourselves a report card on your performance so far?
I'd like to say that we deserve an A for doing all that we have done, given the intense media attention, given the difficulties in finding adequate office space and the intensity of some of the issues we have had to deal with. I'd like to say that we deserve an A, but if I were being objective, I would give us a B+—with the potential for an A+—as we resolve some of the issues that we have not been able to up to this point.
West Hollywood has seen some important physical changes such as the median strip beautification program and the ramping of the street corners for disabled persons. Are there any other important physical changes that the citizens can look forward to in the near future?
We also began tree trimming and we expanded street cleaning along the major arteries. We're also committed to restoring Plummer Park and West Hollywood Park to their original design and condition. We've done what we can, in terms of getting the physical condition of the city to its original condition. In terms of long-term changes to the physical environment, that will have to come out of the planning process and what the citizens want. The median strip, providing we can obtain ownership of it, can really be a showcase in terms of representing West Hollywood, but it takes planning. The flowers are nice. The grass is nice. It's a nice temporary improvement. We need to decide what we want in the long-term. Do we want shade trees? Do we want arches? Do we want fountains? I'm sure there are artists out there, just licking their lips to design something. Given the fact that we have money and a real creative community, it could be something that could really be the envy of the entire world, but it will take time. You don't do that sort of thing overnight, especially if you want it to last.
Is there any one thing you would like to say to the citizens of West Hollywood?
The one thing that I would like to say is that the level of sophistication and intelligence among the people of West Hollywood has made this job so much more enjoyable when the people know what's happening. And we are still not near our potential in that area. The one great thing about doing this is that the people are so great. The seniors for instance. You have this stereotypical view of them, but most of the ones that come to our meetings are extremely aware. They want to remain active in the process, and it makes it a real delight to work with them. They can't be fooled and they can't be manipulated. It makes it easier to deal with people when you know they are politically astute. They care about the community and not just about themselves. The younger people are worried about having a place to live when they are 65 and the seniors are saying, we have to do something about AIDS. They understand the suffering. That's what is wonderful. They care about the community and each other. That makes the job worthwhile.
Ending on the appropriate bright note, I switched off the tape machine. The mayor was gratefully surprised that I had not bombarded him with the irritating personal questions that so often become the norm of public life. The graciousness turned to candor as he withdrew a department store catalog from his briefcase, turned to the section of sheets and pillowcases, and proceeded to ask my opinion between the teddy bear or bunny rabbit designs. Having four felines at home, I told him I would have to opt for the pussycats. As I packed up my things to go, I wondered to myself if someone like Mayor Bradley would be as self-effacing. It was nice to know, that even after eight months of the glare of media attention, our councilmembers were still, just folks.