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‘Fighter,’ ‘Pistol,’ ‘Gadfly’: WeHo’s Jeanne Dobrin Isn’t Reluctant to Speak Up about the City She Loves

Jeanne Dobrin, center, flanked on the left by former West Hollywood City Councilmember Jeffrey Prang and then-Mayor Abbe Land and on the right by Councilmembers John Heilman and John D'Amico

Jeanne Dobrin, a longtime West Hollywood resident and community advocate, in her Cynthia Street condo.
Jeanne Dobrin, a longtime West Hollywood resident and community advocate, in her Cynthia Street condo.

[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]’m a very strong-minded person.”

No one who’s seen 93-year-old Jeanne Dobrin in action at a West Hollywood City Council meeting is likely to argue that point. A longtime West Hollywood, Dobrin is a passionate community advocate (a term she prefers over activist). And she’s not hesitant to say what she thinks.

A fixture at Council and other civic meetings, the fiercely outspoken Dobrin almost inevitably has something to say when the floor is opened for public comments. She rarely misses a meeting unless, as is sometimes the case these days, she’s physically ailing.

“My body is ka-put, but my mind works,” Dobrin said.

Though she’d often just as soon stay home and rest with Amanda, her beloved gray cat, Dobrin makes the effort to go to City Council, Planning Commission and neighborhood meetings. She’s opinionated on many subjects, but land use is a particular passion. Why land use specifically?

“I don’t know,” Dobrin said. “Once I get something into my mind, I stick to it.”

A Fighter, A Pistol, A Gadfly

When many people talk about Dobrin, a smile creeps into their voices. You could call their tone bemused, but that’s not quite right. They’re not being patronizing or dismissive. How dismissive can they be of a woman who, in the ninth decade of her life, is so thoroughly dedicated to her city? A woman who, over the past year, has surely attended more government meetings than most people do in a lifetime? Who has both sued the city (successfully) and, on multiple occasions, been honored by it?

Though people find a bit of humor in Dobrin’s dogged persistence and ubiquity, underlying that is a genuine reverence for her determination and dedication. As they use euphemistic descriptors like “feisty” or “a pistol” or “a fighter,” they seem to be reflecting on an unspoken question: Isn’t she something?

“Jeanne likes to say that she’s a community advocate. True,” said Allegra Allison, who’s known for her role in WeHo’s “Save Tara” campaign.

“I think of her as a gadfly. She’ll hate that I’m saying that, but I mean it only in the best sense of the word. She forces power to listen and consider while persuading and reproaching.

“Jeanne has dedicated her life to the city of West Hollywood … Jeanne can be (and is often) lovely and sweet, but she’s not always easy. If she was an ordinary 93 year old, she’d be watching TV in bed at night, instead of at a City Council, Planning Commission or Community Development meeting, speaking her mind … I may not always agree with her but, I always admire her.”

Fixture, Icon, Friend

Likewise, some WeHo City Council members speak of Dobrin with reverence despite the fact that they’ve been at odds with her in the past.

“She has been a compassionate advocate, a fierce opponent—and sometimes a point of frustration, too,” said Councilmember Jeffrey Prang. “But she has been relentless in her care and concern for the community.”

Even when people disagree with her or how she presents her opinions, Prang said, no one questions that the “one-of-a-kind” Dobrin—“an iconic figure in West Hollywood for decades”—is motivated by being deeply passionate about West Hollywood.

“Jeanne is definitely a fixture in the community and a fixture at our Council meetings,” West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land said. “She is knowledgeable on many issues, and she has a memory that will put all of us to shame. She is really fearless in her willingness to stand up for what she believes in. At the end of the day, she has an incredible love for this city …and I’m glad to call her a friend.”

We should all hope to so active and informed at Dobrin’s age, Land said. In fact, she said, “We should all try and do that now.”

A WeHo Believer

A straight woman in her 90s might seem like an unlikely icon for a city with a population skewing toward gay and male. But West Hollywood has long been Dobrin’s home. She’s lived in the Norma Triangle neighborhood for 38 years, longer than West Hollywood —which hits the big three-oh later this year—has been a city. She ran for City Council in the city’s first election; she says she placed 13th out of 36 candidates.

A native of New York, Dobrin moved to California with her mother when she was a teenager. It was after graduating high school in Oakland that Dobrin came to southern California. She was married for a decade (1948-1958), and she worked at a few different jobs, including as a manicurist at a beauty shop owned by her then-husband and sister-in-law. Finally, she went into real estate and had a successful 55-year career that included working with celebrity clients such as Elizabeth Montgomery.

Dobrin will answer questions about her earlier life, but it doesn’t seem to interest her nearly as much as the current news and residents of WeHo. She is often critical of government decisions that she doesn’t like—but the things she has to say about her fellow residents are largely positive. She’ll criticize someone, then immediately shift to talking about what she likes about them, how long she’s known them and her fond memories of them. She sometimes despises actions, she says, but not the people who take those actions.

She has a lot of love for the city itself, too. She’s proud of its leadership on LGBT rights, its commitment to social services and what she calls an “everybody is welcome” attitude.

“I believe in West Hollywood,” Dobrin said. “I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful city.”

It’s Complicated

Dobrin’s relationship with the city she loves—and specifically with its government—has been both long and complicated.

A short-lived stint on the transportation commission in the ’80s ended after Dobrin clashed with some local businesses. She decided to resign from the commission, she said, in favor of doing her own thing.

More recently, she and Allegra Allison filed a lawsuit against a project at 9001 Santa Monica Blvd. at La Peer. Known as the Palm Project, the retail and residential complex was first proposed to be 62 feet high, which is taller than the city’s zoning would allow.

Allison and Dobrin filed suit, arguing that the city’s zoning code capped five-story buildings such as the Palm Project at a height of 55 feet. They accused the city of “spot zoning” by changing the general plan so that the project could be approved. The suit was settled in 2008, when the changes to the general plan were discarded and the city limited the height of the project to 55 feet. (Following the City Council’s approval of an extension in 2013, the developer has until July 2016 to begin construction on the project. Meanwhile, Palm restaurant will leave the site and relocate to Beverly Hills sometime this year.) Although it was a Council action that spurred the lawsuit, its settlement netted the city an additional $400,000 in development fees.

Despite the conflicts between Dobrin and the city, it’s clear that the love she feels for WeHo flows both ways. West Hollywood has celebrated its beloved watchdog by proclaiming a “Jeanne Dobrin Day” in 2010 and by planting a tree in her honor in 2013.

Dobrin, who lobbied for the city to provide devices for the hearing impaired at its meetings, was also honored by the city’s Disabilities Advisory Board in 2009. With her own hearing quite limited, Dobrin often raises her voice. She asks conversation partners to sit close to her and to lean into her good ear. When she asks a question, she often must insist that the answer be a simple “yes” or “no” so that she’ll be able to make it out. Or she’ll ask that you write down things for her—she keeps a notepad handy for that purpose.

People might be caught a little off guard at first, but if they answer her questions it’s likely they’ll soon find that she seems fond of them and starts to consider them friends. She’ll tell them about her travels to Italy or the pastel-colored paintings that she used to create. She’ll open her photo album and share photos of government officials standing with her at the tree planting honoring her.

But make no mistake—if you oppose her, she’ll be ready to go toe-to-toe with you, ready to fully speak her mind.

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