Editor’s note: In early December, we asked each of the candidates running in the March 2013 election for West Hollywood City Council to address four key questions that are either on the public agenda or relevant to the city’s future. For each of the next nine weekdays, we will publish answers from the candidates.
A native of the blue-collar town of Warren, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Jeff Prang has been involved in politics since he was a teenager. “I was chair of the Young Democrats in Michigan. I ran for city council at age 19,” said Prang, 50. “I love politics.”
He’s called West Hollywood home since 1987, moving here because it was an easier place to be a gay man. Prang quickly got involved with local political groups and has served on the city council since 1997. Employed as a special assistant in the LA County assessor’s office, Prang has been in a domestic partnership with Ray Vizcarra since 2004, married since 2008. The two met while Prang was working in the city’s booth at gay pride 2003.
PRESERVATION VERSUS COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Question: This is a very fraught issue, with some residents claiming the city is willing to tear down buildings that they see as an integral part of its past and important to quality of life today in favor of dense development. On the other side are those who argue that “old” doesn’t equal “important,” and that the city must strike a balance between preserving historic West Hollywood and building for the present and future. Does the city’s current process for designating cultural and historic landmarks strike the right balance? And if not, what needs to be changed?
Answer: West Hollywood can preserve its culturally and historically significant structure while still providing opportunities for new construction and building upgrades. As mayor and council member, I have been the leading advocate for historic preservation and restrained development in our residential neighborhoods. I was co-author to the development moratorium that stopped the wholesale destruction of affordable rental buildings and put new restrictions on overdevelopment. I also authored the city’s historic preservation survey that inventoried those buildings that are currently, or that had future potential, to be historically significant.
Things change and some redevelopment of residential buildings is necessary, but protecting and preserving culturally significant buildings while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods must be a priority.
URBAN DENSITY VERSUS URBAN VILLAGE
Question: This is another issue that, like most on the political agenda, involves development. Some residents see West Hollywood as an “urban village,” words that evoke an image of moderate density, low-scale buildings, easy walk-ability, and little traffic. People have moved here because of what West Hollywood is, they argue. So why change it? Others see the value of urban density — with an increase in apartment buildings meaning an increase in population and business revenues and, perhaps, a more competitive market for renters. Some also hope that increased use of mass transit and the walk-ability of the city will offset an increase in automobiles. Many press for construction of more parking garages, like those proposed for behind City Hall and underneath Plummer Park. City planners have devoted a lot of attention to this question and have produced some impressive reports. Now we need to know where our council candidates stand. Should we be happy with West Hollywood as it is, in terms of density and population? Or should we be pushing for growth? And if we are going to grow, what are we going to do with all those cars?
Answer: West Hollywood is California’s third most densely populated city, with about 20,000 people per square mile and surpassed only by Maywood and Cudahy. Despite this fact, West Hollywood does maintain an “urban village” feel with many neighborhoods rich in their walk-ability features.
There is a theory that more density better supports mass transportation, and I believe this to have some merit. However, West Hollywood already has substantial density to support mass transportation. I do not believe that a move toward Manhattan-ization is the right direction for West Hollywood.
More housing development theoretically can help reduce the pressure of rising housing costs. However, to have even a measureable impact on rents and housing costs would require an enormous investment in new construction and the accompanying density. It would be difficult for our small city to impact housing costs in a meaningful manner without massive up-zoning.
Since I was first elected, the city has created nearly 2,000 new public parking spaces. However, parking congestion remains one of the most pressing infrastructure issues in the city. Parking shortages in residential neighborhoods as well as business districts remain a priority. Parking structures, while expensive, provide relief to parking and traffic congestion in our neighborhoods, and help our small businesses compete and thrive.
TERM LIMITS VERSUS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Question: Also on the March ballot will be a proposal to limit city council members to three four-year terms. The proposal, which won’t be retroactive, is championed by residents who argue that some council incumbents, having always won their re-election races, aren’t responsive to the community. Another issue is civic engagement. In 1984, 17,000 people voted in the election that gave birth to West Hollywood. Last year, only a little more than a third as many voters turned out for the municipal election. Obviously we’d like to know where the council candidates stand on the term limits issue. But we’d also like to know what they think the city can do to engage more residents in civic life. Should municipal elections be shifted to the same date as national elections, when there’s much larger turnout? Should the city sponsor a campaign on the sidewalks to register voters? There’s little incentive to increase voter turnout for politicians who don’t want voters looking over their shoulders. But it’s the only way to guarantee the good government that West Hollywood deserves.
Answer: I oppose term limits. While it’s unlikely that this term limit measure will apply to me as I do not envision serving for another 12 years, terms limits are bad public policy. Term limits have been an unmitigated disaster everywhere they have been applied: Sacramento has been thoroughly dysfunctional since term limits were imposed, transferring power from the people’s elected representatives to permanent special interests and lobbyists. Moreover, few could agree that the nation was better off with George W. Bush as president as opposed to a third Bill Clinton term, who certainly would have continued to manage our nation’s economic and fiscal success.
Term limits deprives voters of the opportunity to vote for the candidate of their choice. People have a choice and they have exercised that choice in past elections. Council members have been defeated in West Hollywood. West Hollywood elections draw many challengers with diverse ideas and the voters in the city elect those candidates whom they think represent them well. In many respects, terms limits is a message to fellow residents that they aren’t making good choices, thus an artificial barrier needs to be implemented to stop them from continuing to vote for the candidates of their choice.
THE CREATIVE CITY
Question: West Hollywood promotes itself as “The Creative City.” Urban development theorists such as Richard Florida argue that fostering a “creative class” of knowledge workers is essential to the economic health and well-being of a city. Should the City of West Hollywood invest in making the city a more attractive place for residents and businesses engaged in the knowledge economy as opposed to the service economy of restaurants, bars and hotels? If so, what can the city do?
Answer: West Hollywood is among the most successfully managed cities in California. This city is fiscally strong, boasting a AAA bond rating and healthy reserves. During the height of the recession, unlike other cities, West Hollywood did not need to cut services or layoff or furlough employees. Indeed, as council member, I led and supported efforts to invest in our community, including expanded parkland, a new public library and new public parking opportunities.
As mayor and council member, I voted to increase our investment in public art, community gardens and enhance social services for those most in need, as well as increased public safety spending for our sheriffs.
West Hollywood’s economy continues to be bolstered by our central leadership role in the interior design industry, fashion, restaurant and hotel hospitality, and the movie, television, and entertainment professions.
As mayor and council member, I have supported policies and initiatives that will maintain and attract these industries in order to maintain the economic diversity of our community and to ensure that the city has the resources necessary to provide the high quality of services that our residents have come to enjoy, expect and deserve.