Opinion: Should We Restore the WeHo City Council Deputy System?

It has been eighteen months since the West Hollywood City Council voted to eliminate the five council deputies. The decision to dismantle the council deputy program that had existed since the founding of the city was rushed, made during a period of what can most charitably described as a highly charged period of political stress. But over the last several months I have heard more people questioning the wisdom of that vote and asking if the residents of West Hollywood have been well served by that decision.

At the time, eliminating the deputies seemed like a solution to the ongoing dysfunction on the third floor of City Hall. People were shocked by the deputies’ salaries, which had escalated in recent years and seemed excessive. While I made a rather lonely public argument that the council should not make a decision in haste, respected members of the community, indeed several of my friends, urged the council to dump the deputies. The city manager and city attorney were actively working against the deputies, who I believed were being made scapegoats for a lack of managerial leadership and political dysfunction.

steve martin
Steve Martin

I admit that I was perhaps being a bit naïve and nostalgic in regard to the issue of the deputies. When I joined the city council in 1994 the five council deputies operated quite differently, and there was a sense of camaraderie and professionalism that tended trump any of the rivalries between the council members. There was an open door policy at City Hall at the time; council deputies and council members tended to pop in to socialize and talk shop. Indeed the council deputies tended to keep the lines of communications open rather than exacerbate dysfunction between the council offices. But more importantly, constituents felt that the deputies gave them a direct line to city council members and city government.

Admittedly this was a program that was unique for cities our size, but then again West Hollywood always liked to consider itself special. There were occasional issues, and sometimes deputies’ efforts were duplicative or redundant, but given that the council member job is part-time and the council members have real jobs, the deputies were able to provide council members with an independent analysis of what was going on both inside and outside City Hall. In a city manager form of government deputies tended to provide perspectives that were not distilled by management.

The long and short of it, it seemed to me that the deputy program seemed to work pretty well for both the public and the city council for close to 30 years. It seemed to me that the program went off the rails not because the deputy system was inherently flawed but because of personal dysfunctions that were allowed to fester due to lack of political maturity by certain council members and an abdication of affirmative leadership by the city manager.

Under the current system it does not appear that the city is saving any money. It in fact appears to be more expensive.

The current system is more efficient when it comes to drafting agenda items. Indeed the city council agenda has increased dramatically and has become incredibly long and unwieldy as items seem to be crammed on to the meeting agendas without any rhyme or reason. The meeting agendas lack any sort of prioritization and regularly run past midnight, precluding meaningful public participation. In the past the city manager worked as a traffic cop to assure the agenda was not gridlocked, and back in the day, our budget placed limits on the agenda.

Ten years ago consent calendar items seldom reached Z. Now we regularly see items going to ZZ and even beyond. Having 50 or so items on the consent calendar, many of them approving expenditures over $100,000, does not lend itself to thoughtful deliberation by the city council.

In the days of council deputies, the calendar was self-limiting due to the duties of the deputies. Given the amounts of time deputies had to spend dealing with constituent services, their time to draft legislation was limited. That meant they tended to prioritize what items they placed on the agenda. The current system appears to be too efficient in getting items on the council agenda; indeed a council member merely needs to give direction, and the item is drafted. Now agendas are cluttered with items that are often ill conceived, redundant or self-promoting, with a tendency toward micromanagement. The council can’t seem to focus on issues of actual importance. Important items are heard in the dead of night when the public is absent and the council members are tired. Debate is stifled and rushed rather than deliberative and thoughtful. This is not good government.

Today it seems that when council can’t come to a consensus, they just hire an expensive consultant to investigate the proposal and kick the decision down the road. It is not a very economical way to conduct city business.

Maybe it is too late to resurrect the deputy program. But I often hear from residents that without deputies the council members are far less accessible, and residents do not believe their issues are being communicated. Perhaps, learning from the recent mistakes, we could re-design this program to provide the city council with more personalized support staff without the positions being politicized. Maybe something akin to an intern program or council aides, positions that would be a bit less grandiose in title and subject to supervision by the city manager. Certainly the pay could be less and the hiring process more open and professional. A system based upon cooperation rather than competition would be essential. Making government more accessible to the public is always a worthy goal.

Ideally we can have a discussion on whether the city should explore returning to a modified council deputy program to insure better communications between the individual council members and the public. Maybe this is not possible and maybe time for this sort of program has passed. Maybe the public simply does not believe a program like this can be non-political. But is a discussion worth having.

Let’s have an open discussion if this is a direction we want to explore and let the discussion start here. I look forward to your comments.

Steve Martin in an attorney and former member of the West Hollywood City Council who is a candidate in the March 7 election to fill two council seats.

  1. Martin raises excellent points.

    The Deputy System should be reinstated.

    Alleged abject behavior is insufficient reason to dismantle the entire Deputy System. There will always be those who abuse a system or persons.

    Council members will be more efficient if they have a paid assistant. Council is taxed for time, addressing routine matters rather than communicating with citizens – the best thing they can do.

    Presently, the City Manager has managed a pool of “assistants” into utter irrelevancy.

  2. I agree with all of Woody McBreairty’s points. No one is forced to run for city council. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Or something like that. The council duties belong to the council. No play, no pay. Capiche?

  3. It’s true that the WHCC is the only one with this form of government that had personal assistants. I think they have been spoiled through the years by having someone else directly at hand to share their office’s work load & didn’t really realize the extent of the burden until their “deputies” were eliminated & they were in for a rude awakening.
    When this Council says they are too busy to do their job on the Council, it doesn’t mean they are only busy with their regular job. Many if not most of them have numerous outside activities, volunteer work, belong to various clubs & organizations that take a great deal of time outside their regular jobs & Council duties, so it’s not only their regular day job that is taking up so much of their time & energy. I think it would be reasonable for constituents to ask campaigning candidates what their outside activities, volunteer responsibilities etc are & if they think they are going to be able to handle the extra work load of being on the Council. If they say they can, then they should not complain about the work load if & when they are elected. They may need to give up one or more of their extracurricular duties in order to fulfill their duties on the council or at least put their Council duties first. I reiterate that many people were stunned to learn the staggering amount of money & benefits these city employees were paid for what amounted to a job as a glorified secretary, in some cases more than the governor of California. And I don’t think the turbulent situation that they were allowed to create at City Hall reflects well on the judgement of the City Council members,

  4. Hi Woody; I was only drawing on my experience on the City Council. When Council members work 40 hour weeks it was nice that you had an assigned deputy to take all the calls and keep their ears to the ground when you can’t be at City Hall. As a Council member I found that each member tended to surround themselves with a small group of supporters which tended to limit views of what was going on outside City Hall; I was fortunate that my deputies understood the need for me to have a diversity of input from numerous sources. I found City Hall to be very insular and there is a gravitational pull to bring each Council member into orbit of City Hall mindset. Independent thinking is not considered a virtue in a “go along to get along” culture.

    The only reason I even considered running now is that my law practice is in a position where I can spend a lot more time at City Hall because I am not counting on having a deputy. But not all Council members are that lucky and I just think an assigned aid would be helpful. This discussion has been great because from what I hear, if the real issue is professionalism. Your comments about the history of some on the deputies was sadly accurate but that was more of a snap shot of recent years. The issues you raised are good ones, I am just hoping we can structure a program in a way that addresses the very issues you raised. If the program reverts back to how it functioned recently, then it would be a failure. There have been a number of good ideas expressed in the Comments on how to make such a program more effective, less political and more professional.

    At the end of the day, if people feel we are better served without deputies or assistants, I am fine with that. With or without a deputy, I will be physically present at City Hall to meet with residents.

  5. Weighing in, as a candidate running for City Council, I have never had an issue getting in touch with any council member, via email, nor receiving a response(s); however, that does not mean the deputy system at present is 100% functional. Change takes time. And a leaner deputy system may prove to be more effective and less bias. I think it was a prudent change, eliminating unnecessary conflict. Many factors are at play and it is also based on the individual deputies as well, their execution and collaboration, able to work efficiently, provided that the leadership is clear from the council members and city manager. If it is true that loaded agenda items are muddying process, then, that is something to explore and to be decided. The city also is growing and developing in leaps, adding to the agendas. I have found questions and comments are always welcomed at City Hall. Email addresses are on the city’s site. I encourage residents to ask or comment away, exercising their rights. Deputies are not the gate keepers.

    I agree that Council members should be able to manage duties, though the council members have other jobs, in addition to their roles as council members. One benefit I may be able to offer is, as an independent business woman not going to a 9-5 job, I will be able to focus and dedicate my time mostly to City matters. It is worthy of such energy.

    At present, we do need to focus on more important issues than finding ways to rehash questionable past behavior that transpired and we must move forward and address what residents are really concerned about and what is impacting their lives.

    And, Larry Block…please know that I, a married gay woman, with 3 grown step children and an almost 5 year old grand daughter, as well as, 2 aging parents, one in advanced Alzheimer’s, both of whom I have been active in charting the challenges of their elder care, learning much about it and the future of aging elders, which I have much insight on, I am in total disagreement that 3 gay men are the only people capable of representing the LGBT community. We should be representing ALL of our residents, as pointed out by PT.

    You do not have to be a gay male, past or present, councilman in order to care or advocate for protecting the liberties and equalities of the LGBT community and programs that have been effective and successful. They will not disappear, should I have the honor of representing our city. In fact, there are a few more that could be enacted, like an aging home for LGBT people, as well as, others seniors in need.

    Know, I will represent ALL of our residents, from the young to the old, straight, gay, transgender, all ethnic and racial backgrounds. We are West Hollywood, after all; a rainbow collation that exceeds the wonderful male gay demographic.

    The council needs to be as diverse as it’s community, focused on all challenges that impact the residents and small businesses.

    It’s time to replace the two Johns on the council, with new candidates, so diversity may be represented for the good of all and equitable progress can be shared by the many and not reserved for the few.

  6. Hell no, we should never go back to that system, it was fraught with problems, and they were extremely over-paid.

  7. I applaud Steve Martin for his concerns about access and transparency. As usual, Steve encourages public discourse and neither endorses nor opposes the Deputy System, but asks if there might be a better solution to the “quick fix” that eliminated Council Deputies in order to a avoid continued public embarrassment over allegations of unethical conduct, sexual harassment and illegal campaigning. With the Deputy System, constituents had 5 more public servants dealing with their issues, needs and concerns and this provided immediate and direct access. But in order to sweep corruption and illicit behavior by a few Council members under the rug, the underlings were discharged at a cost with settlements, on-going salaries and legal fees that likely exceeded $1,000,000.00.

    Politics is not for the faint of heart, especially in our beloved hamlet, so Michael et al get ready; “Now is the winter of our discontent”… Perhaps made glorious summer by Steve Martin?

  8. I agree completely with Woody McBreairty: “anyone who seeks & gets elected to public office then complains about being overworked – don’t run for public office”. I don’t think anyone in City Hall is overloaded. City employees payed for helping people.
    I don’t see anybody in this race to support. “if West Hollywood is going to continue to be a beacon of hope for the LGBT then we need to re-elect both Heilman and Duran or Martin”.
    Larry, what about 60 % of non-LGBT and what about diversity ? On March 7th we will have another 14% voters.

  9. I am not acquainted with the deputy system that was removed so I may not be qualified to have much of an opinion; but I cannot see how a part time council member (and they are not full time city employees) can juggle day jobs and City Council. But I have heard -“staff” and often wonder who IS running the city. Perhaps if the deputies were hired NOT from recreational websites or FBFs it might even work. And they might even be qualified for the position. Frequently I have felt the WeHo City Council is operating like an Our Gang comedy – the only thing missing is Petey. My experience with the city has been limited and I realized my opinionated screeds were not really a sign of political leadership. After Plummer Park I knew enough to quit. But I cannot actually see how the council persons operate without deputies. Qualified, motivated people as deputies should be a consideration with salaries that don’t equate to campaign promises personally offered. I also think it would be more mature as a municipality to employ a dedicated city attorney and a city manager who live within our borders. But that is only me. The idea to restore deputies has obvious merits. It should be discussed and reconsidered.

  10. Discussion never hurt any situation! Not just talk amongst yourselves. I believe the Council and City Manager let that Deputy situation fester until it was a staph (staff pun intended) It could be done so much better if there was a “discussion” that determined that Council Members are more effective with an Personal Assistant of some sort.

  11. Larry,

    I am going to have to vigorously disagree with you. I assure you that I can speak on the national stage, or any stage for that matter, on LGBT issues as well as many others. The residents of this City deserve Council Members who can speak on national stages about MANY issues as well as represent this City with the respect and dignity our neighbors
    deserve. The thought that we can have only one or the other is completely misguided. We deserve better and we WILL have it on March 7th.

    It is also very unfortunate that you, who have run for Council as an outsider, are jumping to conclusions about candidates whom you have not taken the time to get to know. Give me a chance to get to know me before you discredit me and other candidates without any basis in fact.

    Michael Cautillo

  12. This op-ed is very well written and speaks to the heart of what many old timers in the community feel about the loss of the deputy system. Deputies were friends, allies, and loyal to the people in the community. All of us had a way to get in touch with the deputies who were usually responsive.

    Lets be honest, the deputy system became political. Deputies became surrogates for their council members instead of representatives of the people who elected their council member. As we are only 18 months into this change it would be better to hear from the council itself how the job of legislation has changed. There is a learning curve, and break in period and now we can have a fair evaluation. But, the loss of the deputy system, sorry to say, has more to do with Michelle Rex than anything Ian Owens did. The deputies became part of the problem, instead of providing a solutions and building bridges.

    @anonymous- I appreciate your comments and take them to heart. The council is changing, – Horvath is new elected, Meister is newly elected. D’Amico is in his second term. We have had change. And in my eyes the most thoughtful, deliberate dedicated person is John Heilman. I’m glad to support him despite the criticism because he has solutions to issues with a great understanding. Both John’s running for re-election have mighty big shoes to fill. And if West Hollywood is going to continue to be a beacon of hope for the LGBT then we need to re-elect both Heilman and Duran or Martin. None of the other candidates can speak on the national stage for LGBT issues. You may not like Duran but he is a fighter for us, and a fighter for you, and a fighter for WeHo. And you might think Heilman has been up there too long but his loyalty is to West Hollywood and quite frankly, I don’t see anybody else in this race to support. There was other members of the community that I thought would be an excellent choice and I tried to encourage Donald Deluccio to run, but he declined. No change is better than Chump Change.

  13. Steve Martin’s suggestions sound quite reasonable. For now having no deputies is better than what we had before, but only because it gives us another shot at installing a more functional system from scratch that is productive and not political that allows residents and businesses better access to their elected council members. It would be nice to see this kind of thoughtful op-ed also from current council members on occasion.

    I find it amusing that neither the city manager nor anyone else ever took responsibility nor was held accountable for the train wreck that the deputy system had become. As it turned out the council members who were hiring their campaign managers and Grindr sex partners also took no responsibility. It was all the fault of those bad bad deputies who shockingly continued to act like campaign managers and Grindr sex partners and even had the audacity to accept their high salaries with benefits (no pun) and insist on their extremely generous contract terms when ‘discontinued’. Who would have guessed?

    Maybe we could have a person to manage city hall, to install and supervise a reasonable, simple and functional deputy system. We could call that person the “city manager”.

  14. P.S. Steve: That “deputies” would know so much more about what is going on “both inside & outside city hall” than the City Council members is a curious assertion. I should think it would be the other way around.

  15. Steve – there is so much wrong going on in city hall that I hardly think that a deputy here and a deputy there or not is going to solve or hurt anything….if ever a swamp needed emptying, where a non-partisan HR Consulting company was hired with public funds, but chosen by an independent person from outside the community and charged with firing and re-filling the various positions that are judged to be essential, It is now in West Hollywood. Everyone would be allowed to re-apply to their old positions if they desired, although previous experience with the city would not be an item allowed on the application. Then, maybe, we might get a chance of having a fair and citizen-serving city staff. Do I sound cynical, well, I wish it was only cynicism – but my opinion and feelings are founded in many many years of experience.

    If we really wanted to be what we profess we want to be, so much would have to change, that I simply don’t think it would be possible short of their being a total revolution. Every time I have had business to conduct with one department or the next, I come out disappointed. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. I am not going to go dept by dept, because this isn’t about character assassination.

    When I see people in our city like Larry Block, who was all about reform and getting rid of certain people on the council when he was running, and has now taken a completely opposite campaign on, to the applause of his supporters, I just don’t get it. I supported block as a reformer, but now I see he really stands for nothing and think it is sad that so many praise him for being so caring and sensitive no matter what he says – it’s like no one listenes. I look at those kinds of contradictions. I don’t support inconsistency. Now, I believe that no one really has any convictions, and as I suspected – once again someone was running for the city council for their own personal gain. One thing I have to say for you Steve, is that you are a man of your convictions – whether they are popular or not and whether I agree with you or not -I always know where I stand – when you are running for council or not. I can’t say that about many people. I never cease to be amazed at how easily swayed one way or the other most people are. To me, the ends never justify the means.

  16. I disagree completely. The deputy system automatically lends itself to conflict as opposing Council members use their deputies as their surrogate bullies…. the Council members whose deputies were causing the conflicts did nothing to try to control or stop the in-fighting for that very reason. Things may not have started out that way but that’s inevitably what it evolves into. Duran’s deputy was barely in the front door before he had his ear glued to the wall trying to eavesdrop on private conversations for dubious reasons The deputies really have/had no supervision & they were consistently late for work, often didn’t show up at all, wasted time when they were there, used paid city time to conduct personal business & in some cases were irresponsible with city credit cards. “Deputies are able to provide Council members with an independent assessment of what’s going on both inside & outside City Hall.” Huh? They have a very complete staff, not to mention the city manager & city attorney. What better advisors? “Without deputies, the Council members are less accessible”? Only if they choose to be. That may be so with a couple of the council members consumed with self importance, but the other 3 have told me personally that their lines of communication were open by email, by phone or by personal meeting. Many people can & do get their questions answered & problems solved by communicating directly to City Hall & there is no need to go to a Council member with every little question and/or grievance. There is no such deputy system in any other city including Beverly Hills & Santa Monica & most cities are much larger than WeHo. I usually agree with you Steve, but I think you totally missed the mark on this one. The deputy system is not necessary in this small city & many are grateful to the newly elected Lindsey Horvath for taking the lead in getting it eliminated. Reinstating it would be like rushing back into a burning building after being rescued from the fire. It’s a no brainer. That’s why we have a staff at City Hall to serve both the Council & the people, and as long as they are doing their jobs well, as they seem to be doing, there is in no way a need to add to the bureaucracy & make the political process more convoluted than it already is. But I do have a suggestion for anyone who seeks & gets elected to public office then complains about being overworked – don’t run for public office

  17. Steve, I agree with you and Mayor Meister who, at the time, was the lone dissenting vote against dismantling the deputy system. As a result of the alleged bad behavior of several Council Members and/or their Deputies, not only is the entire Council being punished, but this City and its residents are, most importantly, being punished as well. The level of service, the attention to detail and the level of knowledge of the issues have diminished. The deputy system served this City very well for 30 years and, while we have a talented and experienced team of City Officials working to support the Council now, they are unable to recreate the detailed level of support Deputies offered to Council Members in the past.

    This is a prime example of throwing out the babies with the bath water.

    The voters have the opportunity on March 7th to hold individuals accountable for their behavior. Let’s elect Council Members we can trust to employee, and work with, responsible Deputies for the good of all of our Resident and the good of our entire City.

    -Michael Cautillo
    Candidate for West Hollywood City Council

  18. Interesting question. Some have suggested having full-time council members instead, with everything going on in WeHo these days.

    Why not have full-time assistants/deputies who are hired as city employees that need to apply and qualify like any other position? This might be less problematic than just having council members appoint their own deputies, who were accused of being little more than overpaid political campaign workers in recent years.

    And it is certainly reasonable to suggest that the council members need the assistance with the overwhelming amount of issues at hand, and the public needs access that a deputy could provide. The old system didn’t work, but perhaps a new one would-one that would allow council members to work more efficiently without the issues that arose previously with personal appointees .

    How about hiring some paid interns who are recent grads of related fields of study? I know personal relationships in politics are important, but since the city, and the taxpayers, would be paying for these positions, why not keep the hiring process the same as for most other paid city positions? And certainly at more reasonable salaries than the last ones were paid.

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