The Feb. 16 West Hollywood Candidates Forum, sponsored by a coalition of West Hollywood resident associations, seemed considerably less angry than the forum sponsored the previous week by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. For the most part, the nine candidates for the March 8 City Council elections observed decorum during what often seemed like convoluted and repetitive questions about parking and overdevelopment. But, said several observers, “the long knives came out” for the last 30 minutes of the forum, after City Channel 10 stopped their “live” 90-minute broadcast.
Not so, said James Litz, the longtime resident and former planning commissioner who helped organize the neighborhood forum with Lauren Meister, Allegra Allison and others. “There was nothing insulting, nothing outrageous,” Litz told Frontiers. “It was the same decorum. There was no ruckus. Everyone was polite to each other.”
About six supporters of candidate Mito Aviles held up signs in the back of the room calling for the ouster of incumbent Mayor John Heilman. But, Litz said, representatives from the League of Women Voters were on hand and said nothing about the signs violating procedures. Litz also clarified that candidate Steve Martin had nothing to do with writing the questions, which Martin mentioned during one response.
“You could see the anger on the faces of the incumbents—their dislike for even being there with the contenders,” Litz said. “They just sat there stonefaced and didn’t interact with the other candidates.”
The nine candidates sat in a row in West Hollywood Park Auditorium: renter Mark Gonzaga, law professor/incumbent Mayor John Heilman, attorney Steve Martin, designer Mito Aviles, advertising executive/incumbent City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath, UCLA building consultant/former planning commission member John D’Amico, business owner/former transportation commissioner Scott Schmidt, co-director of the Saben Free Clinic/incumbent City Councilmember Abbe Land and law firm manager Lucas John.
However, the structure of the tightly run forum didn’t really allow for interaction. For instance, moderator Michael Willens asked a question alluding to how some residents do not think they are being heard by councilmembers. Heilman said the council hears from a lot of people during council meetings, and while they might not always agree, “some input has been very helpful” and the council has adjusted and modified projects based on community input. (Land later concurred.)
Martin said, “That’s blatantly untrue,” adding that Heilman didn’t care about community input. He said that Heilman had “fired” a consultant for the city’s General Plan because the consultant was listening to the community. “The public is not being respected,” Martin said.
Heilman was afforded no opportunity to immediately respond, however. Heilman later told Frontiers that the council unanimously decided to go with another consultant for the second phase of the project. “What Steve alleged is not true,” Heilman said. “Their contract was up for renewal and we felt we could get the General Plan finished more efficiently with other people.”
Heilman has often been the target of nasty, spurious attacks during the 26 years he has been on the council. During his closing remarks at the forum, he pointed out what he has accomplished, including drafting the city’s rent control ordinance, starting the affordable housing corporation, creating a network of social services, running more than 10 marathons that raised over $200,000 for AIDS Project Los Angeles, taking the lead on developing the new library and starting the city’s Book Fair, drafting the non-discrimination ordinances based on HIV and gender identity, among other accomplishments.
Heilman did not mention that he was instrumental in founding the city as part of the Coalition for Economic Survival. As mayor right after cityhood, in 1985, Heilman negotiated with L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block about whether the new city would contract for law enforcement services or start a city police department. Heilman told Block that the city had a non-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation and the LASD would have to abide by that city law. Block later told this reporter that he not only agreed to Heilman’s demands, but decided to institute that policy with all contract cities.
Nonetheless, the persistent theme throughout the forum was that Heilman and Land have been on council too long and Horvath’s membership on the council is essentially illegitimate because she was appointed over 38 other applicants to assume the seat of the late Sal Guarriello.
“We need new blood,” Gonzaga said, echoing the sentiment of all the challengers.
Lucas John, however, went further, saying Heilman has a “stranglehold” on the council, with Horvath “in his back pocket.” In both forums, John repeatedly talked about the “corruption” of West Hollywood, which the John-supporting website WeHo Confidential lays at Heilman’s feet, calling him a “corrupt sell–out.” In a poster under Heilman’s name, the website claims: “Illegal fundraising activities have been conducted from offices at City Hall, prompting action by the L.A. District Attorney’s office.”
Frontiers called the DA’s office to verify that allegation. Spokesperson Jane Robison said the DA’s Office of Public Integrity received a complaint regarding Councilmember Horvath last November. Horvath displayed the city logo on her campaign website but immediately removed it when advised it was a violation. Robison said the DA’s office opened the complaint, reviewed it and closed it in the same day, finding it had “no merit.” There was a complaint filed against Land in 2007, but the office quickly reviewed and closed that complaint, deeming it had no merit as well. There have been no complaints filed against Heilman.
During the forum, D’Amico said that in furtherance of good open government, he wants councilmembers and staff to acknowledge any meeting with lobbyists and developers who had business with the city before or immediately after a related vote was taken. West Hollywood Clerk Tom West notes that under the California Public Records Act, the city must provide copies of the receipts of any meeting during which the councilmember or staff member paid for a business meal; they must also report any gift. The councilmembers’ calendars are available under the Public Records Act. However, as Litz, a registered lobbyist with L.A. County, notes, if a lobbyist pays for a meal, there is no record. (Please go to Californians Aware to get more information about the Public Records Act and the Brown Act that governs how public meetings are conducted.)
Another point of contention in the closing section of the forum was the power—or lack thereof—of endorsements. The three incumbents have the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party, which D’Amico dismissed by noting that this was the same entrenched group of politicos that endorsed the incumbents in the city of Bell, who are now under indictment. But D’Amico apparently sought that endorsement before he dismissed it.
Of particular concern to some gay voters was the endorsement of the three incumbents—including straight women Land and Horvath—by the gay Stonewall Democratic Club over gay candidates. Stonewall President John Cleary told Frontiers their endorsement process involved an extensive written questionnaire, an interview by a recommendation committee that was open to the public and a final membership vote requiring a 60 percent majority for an endorsement.
“I am greatly disturbed that I have repeatedly been asked why Stonewall endorsed Lindsey Horvath, and for that matter Abbe Land, over gay candidates. The orientation and identity of candidates is absolutely a significant consideration for our membership in endorsements, but so is diversity in all its manifestations, as is support of progressive and LGBT causes. Context is very important, and how our membership votes is really the accumulation of all their individual subtle rankings of these priorities. Stonewall’s mission statement specifically calls for promotion and election of LGBT and feminist candidates. So in the context of a city with a current majority of openly gay male council members, and in an election where all the challengers of the incumbents are openly gay men, orientation of candidates naturally played less a role than it does in other elections,” Cleary said, adding that Horvath campaigned hard for the endorsement. “Lindsey received the endorsement because she is a champion of progressive and LGBT causes who has displayed in her short time on council a strong commitment to preservation and advancement of rent control and low-income housing and environmentally conscious development, and because she brings gender and age diversity to the council.”
Ivy Bottini—a feminist, longtime LGBT rights activist and well-known anti-assimilationist—agrees with that assessment. “I don’t want an all-male council,” Bottini told Frontiers. “I trust straight women to understand lesbians since lesbians are women first.” As for Heilman, she said: “I think he has done a very good job. I may not agree with him 100 percent of the time, but I truly believe he had the heart of the city in his heart.”
Micky’s bar owner Michael Niemeyer agrees that Heilman has done “some heroic things for the city,” but he thinks Heilman and Land “have lost touch with a lot of us and they need to address that. It’s time for a change. Enough already!”
Niemeyer—who says he’s supporting Martin, D’Amico and Schmidt—wants to see the city address the loss of gay bars and gay businesses, perhaps by creating a task force to see how the city can help. Bottini told Frontiers she’s already in the process of creating such a task force, as well as working on how gay culture can be preserved in the new library.
West said that while voter registration is high, the actual voter turn out in the last municipal election was only 18 percent. A number of the candidates have pointed to voter apathy, while others note that the turnout might be low because voters are happy with the direction of the city, in which parking enforcement is one of two top issues. The election is on March 8.
Full disclosure: In 1985, Karen Ocamb was appointed by John Heilman to serve on the General Plan Advisory Council, where she served on the social services subcommittee; she was not a reporter at the time.