Opinion: City Hall’s Refusal to Release Information on Earthquake Danger Gets Stranger and Stranger

A so-called “soft story” apartment building – the type that may be especially vulnerable to an earthquake

Surprise! Your rent just went up, and the increase is in addition to the annual increase allowed by the City of West Hollywood for rent-stabilized buildings. Will that increase be permanent? Or will it expire after a few years?

Or maybe you own a rent-stabilized apartment building in West Hollywood, and you’ve just gotten a registered letter saying you may have to pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to make sure it won’t collapse in the inevitable next big earthquake. How are you going to pay for that? Can you share that cost with your tenants? How can you do that? Would you be better off just selling the building to a developer who can evict everyone and tear the building down and replace it with condos?

Those are questions that thousands of tenants and hundreds of building owners will be facing as the City of West Hollywood figures out who pays, and how much, to make local buildings earthquake safe. The problem is that most of those tenants and building owners don’t know about those questions.

The city says it’s trying to engage the public in discussions about who pays and how, touting its two poorly attended “community meetings” on the subject and a presentation at the Rent Stabilization Commission that drew four community members. But City Hall refuses to release a list of 820 buildings that a consultant has determined may be at risk of damage from an earthquake as powerful as the Northridge quake in 1994. There’s a 50% chance that we will experience such an earthquake in the next 25 years, much greater than your one in 302.6 million chance of winning a Mega Millions lottery.

Why should the city make that list public? The obvious reason is to alert local residents and building owners that their physical and/or financial health may be at risk. Those who had learned of that possible risk are more likely to have turned out for the meagerly attended meetings held thus far to discuss who will pay for what and how.

The logic behind City Hall’s refusal to make the addresses of those buildings public, which was noted in a previous WEHOville editorial, gets stranger and stranger.

The original reason offered to WEHOville is that City Hall doesn’t want to unnecessarily alarm building owners and tenants, some of whose buildings may not actually be at risk.

But now WEHOville has learned that City Hall will determine which of the 820 buildings actually are at risk by sending letters to their owners and telling them they must hire a consultant to determine if their building is at risk.

So City Hall doesn’t want to alarm building owners and tenants now, but is okay with alarming them several months from now? The only apparent logic to that is that the city wants already to have decided who pays for what and how before it sends out the warning letters. That way it won’t have to engage tenants and building owners in debating a very complex and likely controversial policy and won’t have to field calls from building owners and tenants seeking advice.

Also strange is the refusal of City Attorney Mike Jenkins and Peter Noonan, the city’s acting director of Human Services & Rent Stabilization, to release the list of possibly at-risk buildings to WEHOville. They  argue that it is a “draft document.”

A collapsed apartment building after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Given that the city contracted with Degenkolb Engineers to determine what buildings may be at risk, and that Degenkolb did the study and gave it the city, and that the city paid for it, it isn’t a “draft” by any ordinary definition of that word. It is a final copy of a report in which Degenkolb acknowledges its findings still must be confirmed. Strange semantics used by City Hall to try to justify a very strange decision to not release information to the public.

Also strange is Jenkins’ notification to City Council members that they cannot answer an email sent to each of them individually by WEHOville asking if they support releasing the list of possibly at-risk buildings. Three council members did respond to the email question, apparently before Jenkin’s crackdown.

Councilmembers John D’Amico and Lauren Meister  said they thought the list should be released. Mayor John Heilman said it shouldn’t. Councilmember John Duran hasn’t responded. Councilmember Lindsey Horvath said she couldn’t respond because Jenkins had warned council members that doing so would be a violation of the state Brown Act.

The logic behind that? According to several council members, Jenkins said they would be violating the state Brown Act by effectively taking a vote on an issue outside an official public City Council meeting if they disclosed their position to WEHOville.

That’s an argument that drew laughter from several lawyers who are experts on the Brown Act and were consulted by WEHOville. It’s an argument that essentially means City Council members can’t state a position on an issue to a reporter, an argument against freedom of the press and community engagement.

In fairness, Jenkins told WEHOville that that is our interpretation of what he said, and it isn’t accurate. However, it is the interpretation of several council members. Jenkins refused to disclose to WEHOville what was not correct about that interpretation.

As one studies this convoluted mess, just think how easy it was for condominium owners to get their way with the city. Many of them showed up at a City Council meeting not long ago to demand that they not be required to conduct studies to determine if their buildings are at risk and not be required to pay to “retrofit” a condo building at risk. The City Council voted unanimously to exempt condo owners from any requirement that they take steps to protect their buildings, and their lives.

A city founded on renters’ rights apparently is reluctant to give the 78% of the residents that rent the information they need to help shape a decision that could affect their financial lives. But it’s quick to yield to a portion of the 22% who are homeowners and don’t want to bear the financial burden of keeping their buildings from falling on themselves or their neighbors.

This is more evidence that West Hollywood needs a renters association, a group that can speak up for the 78% as the Coalition for Economic Survival did when it organized the campaign to incorporate West Hollywood in 1984. Where is Larry Gross when we need him?

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Hoffman
Hoffman
2 years ago

Thanks for this article, Henry.

P.S. My understanding is that the CES is still around… I actually directed someone to the CES regular tenant question/help sessions at Plummer Park. (Probably a year or so ago. Did that stop happening?) For a small donation ($10?) a tenant can ask questions to CES tenant law expert and get feedback/direction. (ie a step up from Saturday’s Handel on the Law (KFI) because its one-on-one.)

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
2 years ago

We paid for a report to which we have no access? California Public Records Act? Do we know how much we paid for this “cursory review” of engineers walking by buildings and making this visual assessment? When will it no longer be a “draft”? Was none of this addressed in the regional crackdown on seismic integrity after the 1994 Northridge quake? Who’s steering this ship we call the City of West Hollywood? VOTE PEOPLE!!!!

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Strasburg

I agree only 20% voted last time. That means there are 25,000 Registered voters who didn’t vote. The 20%, 5000 are always the same people. if you keep recycling the same people of the same “Type” of people this is what you get

Chris Sanger
Chris Sanger
2 years ago

People don’t vote because for the most part they are happy with the way the city is run. Turnout is usually high in local elections when people are unhappy. That’s the way politics works in upscale, high education electorate areas.

Randy
Randy
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Sanger

People also don’t vote because many of them are younger apartment-dwellers who don’t remain in the city for an extended period of time. Many of those people aren’t invested in city politics, or even know who their Council Members are, how city politics work, etc.. I’d like to know how many people who live in West Hollywood have lived here 5 years or longer (what percentage). And of those, what their median age is.

Joshua88
Joshua88
2 years ago

Mr Scott,

I am struggling to understand this sentence:
“The only apparent logic to that is that the city wants already to have decided who pays for what and how before it sends out the warning letters.”

Thank you.

Observer
Observer
2 years ago

Could this be a way to “clear the city of undesirable buildings & rent stabilized tenants at a profit”?

shawn
shawn
2 years ago

The reason that the list should not be made public is because it is so likely to be wrong and full of errors, which can have great financial implications on a building win incomplete or inaccurate information. The consulting firm basically drove/walked down the street and made a cursory review of the building from the outside. That would be like a doctor walking into a crowded room and prescribing drugs to people he thought might look sick without taking a pulse, temperature or blood tests or even talking with the people. All the consulting firm based their decision on is… Read more »

Larry Block
Larry Block
2 years ago

Not sure what your stats no on Horvath position- first you say she called and wanted it released and then later say she couldn’t respond. Might you be leaving out Lauren Meister’s thoughts?

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago

There should also be a City Advisory Board for Renters in addition to a Renters Association. The Renters Association could have a great deal of influence if we became organized. We could have Marches, Protests and Demand the same respect that Property Owners, Developers and Campaign Donors get. Our power is at the ballot box. My Partner is a Hospital Representative and Chief Negotiator for The California Nurses Association. He got his Hospital Unionized. It took two years and lots of fighting with Management, but as a result, the Patient Care is much better and the Nurses work in a… Read more »

Michael Dolan
Michael Dolan
2 years ago

Maybe you should try to apply to an Advisory Board or Commission to learn and prepare if your goal is to be on the Council.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dolan

Thank you Michael, but they are two entirely different Roles. Not only that, But I am not going to follow in the footsteps of other Council Members who collect “baggage” along the way up through Boards and Commissions which have gotten the City to the point where it is now. Which is, in my opinion at about half of what it could be. I Admire and Respect those on Commissions and Boards, and I know they work hard, their work is very important and the City couldn’t operate without them. But being a Council Member is very different. I am… Read more »

Alison
Alison
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dolan

Very good suggestion!

Observer
Observer
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dolan

Excellent idea. Some non-critical thinkers appear impervious to the idea. Annoying people to death seems their preferred, ubiquitous approach.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago
Reply to  Observer

all the people who make comments here should meet for coffee so everyone can say to the faces of the people that say here.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago

I agree we should have a “Renters Association” and I will help to form one, tell me what I can do to make it happen. I am a Renter. I also think that the vulnerable buildings should be made public immediately. According to the article: “But City Hall refuses to release a list of 820 buildings that a consultant has determined may be at risk of damage from an earthquake as powerful as the Northridge quake in 1994. There’s a 50% chance that we will experience such an earthquake in the next 25 years, much greater than your one in… Read more »

Michael Grace
2 years ago

This is not a city, it is a dictatorship. It is not part of a democracy. As for the elected officials, this is the biggest collection of do nothing dullards ever assembled. Who is running the city? That “manager” who earns more than the President of the United States?

Several years ago the University of Illinois put out a report stated Los Angeles is the second most corrupt part of the United States. The City of West Hollywood is a testimony to that report.

Not happy
Not happy
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Grace

It certainly seems this city govt is all about covering their A’s so they don’t get sued? Keeps the attorneys employed I guess but sad/bad to find out they don’t really care about humans.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Eric Jon Schmidt
2 years ago
Reply to  Not happy

Why do they keep getting elected?

Not happy
Not happy
2 years ago

Not the City Council, the guys at the top of City Hall (and run things/make big decisions) aren’t elected, are they?

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
2 years ago

They keep getting elected because we have a pathetic level of voter engagement. It typically takes about 10% of registered voters to “win” a city council seat in West Hollywood. Hardly a mandate, right? Approximately 2,500 votes in a city of 25,000 registered voters are deciding who makes these decisions and who remains in the bureaucracies. I will likely support no candidates outright, but I plan to make noise to get people to vote.

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