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Thursday November 27, 2014

WeHo Remains a Coalition, 30 Years After Cityhood
Founders reflect on past while eyeing the future

By Jonathan Van Dyke
West Hollywood Councilwoman Abbe Land, pictured at a celebration of the city’s 20th anniversary, said the city has stayed true to its roots. (photo by Paul Hamel)

It came down to the wire.

During the final few weeks, proponents of cityhood for West Hollywood were not sure if they were going to have enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Larry Gross, who helped lead the effort as executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), said he got into a habit of obsessively checking the petitioning count each day. Toward the end of the process in 1984, he set up a card table at what is now the Whole Foods Market at Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

"I stood there for like two weeks straight at that card table to make sure we had enough signatures," he said. "We got the signatures in record time, and got it on the ballot."

This Saturday, Nov. 29, West Hollywood will celebrate 30 years as an incorporated municipality. In 1984, it was a coalition of the LGBT community, Russian immigrants, seniors and many concerned that rent control was slipping away, who helped put the city literally on the map.

City Councilwoman Abbe Land said she was just a concerned citizen back then. The coalition cold-called her on the phone to seek support.

"The campaign was the same as they are today - phoning and walking and rallying and all of that," she said.

CES had fought for rent-control rules for Los Angeles County, and won them in 1979, but the group worried that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1984 were poised to roll back those hard fought victories. In 1983, Proposition M would have created even stronger rent-control laws, but it only garnered approximately 40 percent of the vote. In the West Hollywood area, however, Gross said the vote was about five-to-one in favor - so the focus and fight narrowed.

"You sort of had all of this coalescing and the general sense the city would be better off with local control and more local attention," Mayor Pro Tempore John Heilman said. "There were really good organizational efforts. There were people very concerned by rent control and lots of seniors very concerned about the elimination of rent control. There were also people who were feeling neglected by the county - that it was taking resources but not putting enough back us."

The cityhood effort was concurrently on the ballot with approximately 40 potential city council candidates. Gross' coalition, which included Land as a volunteer and Heilman as a candidate, ended up getting four of the five seats. The first city council was comprised of Alan Viterbi, Steve Schulte, Valerie Terrigno, Heilman and Helen Albert.

Councilman John Heilman, pictured second from right in a photograph of the first West Hollywood City Council, is the only remaining original member still on the council. Also pictured are Councilmen Alan Viterbi (left), and Steve Schulte, Mayor Valerie Terrigno, and councilwoman Helen Albert. (photo by Ryan Gierach)

West Hollywood was the first city with a council that was made up of a majority of LGBT community members.

"This was a period when gay and lesbian groups thought about not just supporting allies, but also having openly gay elected officials," Heilman said. "The gay community viewed this as a real responsibility to elect openly gay people and to have a much greater say about the destiny of the community.

"It was kind of a wild election. You had a debate with people getting about one minute to talk - it was crazy having that many candidates for five seats. We did end up with a pretty diverse group, however."

Proponents had passed their biggest hurdle.

"It was euphoria," Land said. "Everyone was really excited. The city council - there was a majority of gay and lesbian people and everyone was pretty young. It was a progressive group of people."

"None of us had ever started a city, let alone run it," Heilman added.

Still, in that first year the city council enacted many landmark laws including its rent stabilization ordinance; an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS; its domestic partnership ordinance; and an ordinance against the discrimination of employment based on sexual orientation.

Gross credited the early rent stabilization ordinance as a reason many seniors are still able to live in West Hollywood.

"The main issue everyone was united around was rent control," he said. "That was why people went to the ballot - to keep the roof over their head."

City Councilman John Duran said he lived in Laguna Beach in 1984, but intrigue about the new city immediately spread through Southern California, as well as some healthy pessimism.

"When the city was founded and formed, everybody predicted it would fail and fail big," he said, noting he happily moved to the city in 1990.

But to the contrary, officials said, West Hollywood today is a city that has a nearly $100 million budget reserve, and has national notoriety for many of its progressive policies.

"There is no place like this," Duran said. "It is quirky, outrageous, eccentric and weird. It is exciting and it is constantly looking for ways not to conform ... I couldn't have asked to be a part of something greater than that."

In 1984, there were a number of problems to overcome. The LGBT community was struck with the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and the city itself was run down in many parts, with businesses far from flourishing, prostitution occurring here and there and gaudy wooden telephone poles everywhere.

"Meetings would go very long because we had so much to do," Heilman said.

Land would join the city council a year later, in 1985.

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