In Government, Smarts Trump Ego and Experience

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

John Heilman loves us. That is what the 28-year City Council veteran told the Los Angeles Times in a recent story about the campaign to enact term limits in West Hollywood. Council member John Duran constantly tells us he loves West Hollywood. Okay, at least he loves the gay parts of West Hollywood. Okay, maybe just the young gay parts of West Hollywood. Mayor Prang loves to depict the council as selfless public servants who toil long into the night for no other reason than their love of public service.

At City Council meetings it is sometimes hard to feel the love. Council members snarl at the public. Mayor Prang indignantly scolds the audience whenever a council critic is applauded. John Duran openly proclaims that he does not give any credence to anyone who speaks at a City Council meeting. Indeed interacting with the public seems to be a real burden to the council members. Duran does not even attempt to hide the fact he is playing with his phone during public comment. No wonder he won the Grinder endorsement.

My observation is that the council loves West Hollywood in the abstract rather than particularly loving those pesky, opinionated people who live here and are so unappreciative of the council’s attempts to “revitalize” the city with outsized developments.

The council members love the West Hollywood they know. The entourages of sycophants. The nice lunches with lobbyists at the exclusive SoHo House on the Sunset Strip. The fetes hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and the meals charged to city credit cards.

“They’ve become so big-headed and greedy” said Melanie Levitt, a non-activist resident quoted by the Times. That pretty much sums it up. It definitely captures the disconnect between City Hall and the rest of the community.

Admittedly City Hall operates in its own reality, and you need to be constantly aware of the subtle and not so subtle attempts to turn your head as scores of people are stroking your ego. The altered reality is reflected in the “official” photographs depicted in the Times’ article. Three of the gay council members are using portraits that are at least ten years old. Mayor Prang’s is pushing fifteen. While the Mayor is quoted as saying “we see people in the grocery store,” if you relied on the City Hall photo, you might not recognize him. (Hint: trying looking in the baked goods section at Pavilions). At least Abbe Land has the personal integrity to use a current photo. Given that she and I are close to the same age, I can only applaud her courage.

John Heilman is quoted in the Times as saying that term limits “deprive voters of their right to choose who they want to represent them.” Now that is rich coming from the guy that decided to appoint Lindsay Horvath to the City Council rather than hold a special election to fill the remaining two years of the late Sal Guariello’s term. Indeed, all four of the incumbents who decry term limits as “undemocratic” had no problem with limiting our right of “choice” when they voted to install Horvath on the council. She had barely lived in the city eighteen months. Not only that, they skipped over a score of more experienced applicants in order to install Abbe’s protégé. Experience certainly was not a factor when Heilman voted to appoint Horvath. John Heilman should be thrown out of office simply because of his belief that he can insult our intelligence with his hypocritical and specious arguments.

Heilman is also quick to quip, “we don’t need term limits, we have elections”. But he sees no reason to honor the results. Although John D’Amico is now his colleague, Heilman refuses to speak to him. This is not only immature, it shows a lack of respect for the will of the voters who elected D’Amico to serve.

The thrust of the incumbents’ argument against term limits is that the city is safe, flush with cash and is reasonably well run and therefore there is no need to risk its future by giving the keys to City Hall to inexperienced amateurs. On the surface that appears to be a reasonable argument.

But the argument runs counter to West Hollywood’s history. In 1984, the City was run by five inexperienced amateurs with virtually no experience in running a city. True, they made a few mistakes in those early years, but none so memorable that anyone even recalls those mistakes today. If you looked at the cast of our first City Council you would find that John Heilman was just out of law school, Valerie Terrigno was only vaguely employed, and Alan Viturbi was barely out of high school. When Abbe Land joined the council in 1986, she had been working at a catering company. While the City Council was young and full of energy, many residents had reservations about its members lack of experience in both life and government. Yet we not only survived, we flourished.

Experience is only one factor that makes a good City Council member. Vision, creativity, an ability to listen, to think outside the box and the courage to ask hard questions are equally important traits. Clearly some of our more “experienced” council members lack those traits.

In the current City Council dynamics, it is obvious that the least experienced council member, John D’Amico, is easily the second most influential member of that body. That is because he is intelligent, reads his material and is willing to question staff rather than simply rubber stamp their recommendations. Then there is Jeffrey Prang, who with nearly sixteen years on the council remains at the bottom of the pecking order as the least effective and influential member.

If experience really mattered, why does D’Amico often lead the council discussions and why is he one of the most effective when it comes to debate?

The incumbents also rely upon the city’s current finances as a reason not to rock the boat. West Hollywood is very fortunate, blessed with a strong economic base, a Beverly Hills-adjacent location and a highly educated and creative population. Few cities are so fortunate as to have a dynamic economic foundation based upon the Sunset Strip, the Design District and Boytown. We started out with all of the right resources to be a successful city. With all due respect to our founding council, we would have had a great start regardless of who sat on City Council.

Some of the most vocal critics of term limits on the City Council were not even there when key decisions were adopted that made West Hollywood an economic power house. We adopted the Sunset Specific Plan and created the Eastside Redevelopment Agency, the pillars of our success, before John Duran or Jeff Prang sat on the City Council. The council voted to make over Santa Monica Boulevard before either Prang or Duran were elected.

While both Duran and Prang point to West Hollywood’s current economic success as being a personal accomplishment, neither played particularly relevant roles. Indeed a large part of our current budget is a result of the huge rise in real estate prices during the mid-2000s. They can’t claim credit for that.

In fact both Prang and Duran played a negative role on budget issues. In 2002 I introduced a measure to increase our hotel tax so it would be at the same level as that of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. The city was losing huge amounts of revenue and our lower tax was not attracting any additional tourists. But a tax increase would require a vote of the public. When I introduced the tax measure, both Prang and Duran voted against it, making noise that would have made Grover Norquist proud. Fortunately, the majority of the council was more courageous and had the common sense to put the tax increase on the ballot in 2003. It passed handily, and in its first year added over a million dollars to the city’s budget. Obviously Duran and Prang can’t claim to have demonstrated any leadership on that issue..

The LA Times quotes Mayor Prang as saying “every profession values experience; term limits is like saying ‘we don’t’.” This is clearly a case of someone who mistakes political longevity with competency. Just because you have been around a long time does not necessarily make you a wiser or more intelligent leader.

Mayor Prang’s recent experience as assistant city manager of Pico Rivera only reinforces the point. Chuck Fuentes, a political consultant, was able to install a new majority on the Pico Rivera City Council. As a reward, the new council majority hired Fuentes as the new city manager. The only problem was that Fuentes had no experience in running a city. No problem, Fuentes thought, we can hire my friend, Jeff Prang. After all, he has 14 years experience on the West Hollywood City Council.

But it turned out badly for both Prang and Fuentes. Within 18 months it was apparent that both were in over their heads. Fuentes was fired. Prang was demoted and then fired. Prang was then forced to ask his good friend, County Assessor John Noguez, to create a “special assistant” position for him. Noguez is now in jail, and Prang does not currently list that employment on his bio on his website.

The moral of the story is that “experience” does not insure competence. Prang’s arrogance was to delude himself into believing that his 14 years as a part-time council member would qualify him for a job that normally requires a masters in public administration.

Because council members are afraid they can’t win the term limits debate with logic, they are resorting to fear tactics. “The sky will fall and the barbarians will breach the gate if term limits are enacted.” They are already raising tens of thousands of dollars from developers in order to insure they can remain in office for life.

So when the incumbents tell you that the sun won’t come up in the morning if term limits is enacted, don’t be frightened, it simply is not true. We are looking at a new day in West Hollywood. Vote “Yes” on Measure C.

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Just a Thought...
Just a Thought...
7 years ago

I am glad that Donna was able to offer more accurate institutional history on City Council actions and am grateful for her service. I find it even more curious that a candidate such as Steve Martin continues to use this site and platform to further (his not so discreet) aspirations to return to City Council. Though I respect Mr. Martin’s prerogative to attend every Council and Commission meeting to espouse his “the sky is falling” critique as a ruse for such ambitions, his continual contribution here (this is the 6th article by him in the past two months) is starting… Read more »

Staff
Staff
7 years ago

WEHOville welcomes contributions to this forum from all residents, no matter what their political position or point of view. If you know of other candidates you’d like to see posting on our site, please join us in inviting them.

Donna Saur
7 years ago

I have decided that life is too short to tolerate extreme factual inaccuracies. Having lived in West Hollywood for many decades, serving the city in multiple positions, most prominently as Council Deputy to the late Sal Guarriello, I know a thing or two about this city. It is for this reason that I have decided to speak out against Steve Martin’s “factually challenged” piece entitled, “In Government, Smarts Trump Ego and Experience”. I remember very well the day back in 2002 when the City Council was considering an increase on the hotel tax. I was in the room. This item… Read more »

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