The deadline for filing for the March 3 race for the West Hollywood City Council is Dec. 10. So if you haven’t made up your mind whether to join the ever-growing crowd (12 at last count) running for the three seats up for election, you have a couple of weeks to consider the pros and cons.
The cons? To have even a slight chance of winning, you’ll have to raise at least $100,000 and spend most of your free time for the next 14 weeks campaigning. And if you win? You’ll have to show up for meetings on the first and third Mondays of most months (the Council has been known to skip a meeting in January and a meeting in July).
The meetings start at 6 p.m. in a private session with the City Attorney. At 6:30 p.m. you walk into the Council Chamber next to the West Hollywood Public Library to seat yourself at a fancy dais. From there you can look down on a crowd of anxious lobbyists and aggrieved local residents.
While you look at your watch and fidget in your seat, your Council colleagues will take a lot of time to acknowledge the achievements of local residents and take bold stands against issues around the world — issues on which their stands have no impact other than to buttress their perception of themselves as influential progressives. Then you’ll have to sit back while local residents take advantage of the allotted two minutes per person during the public comment period to excoriate you for not siding with them on one issue or another.
The rest of the evening will be consumed by hearings on various issues during which city staff members engage in prolonged presentations derived from lengthy documents (some 100 to 200 pages) that they’ve already furnished to you at least 72 hours in advance. You’ll listen to some of your Council colleagues ask questions that suggest they never bothered to read the documents (which, by the way, are generally well-researched and written.) And you’ll listen to lobbyists and members of the general public urge you to take one stand or another. It’s no wonder that at least one of your peers finds himself cruising on Grindr, the gay smartphone hookup app, as the hours wear on. If you’re lucky, you’ll be on your way home by 11 p.m.
Then outside the Council Chamber there are many public ceremonies you’ll have to attend — Veterans’s Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, Victory in Europe Day, Halloween Carnaval, Gay Pride, the Chamber of Commerce Creative City Awards, to name just a few. You get the picture. Show up, smile and shake hands.
You’ll also have to carve out time from your regular job to meet with the developers who fund your election campaign and need your vote to alter zoning ordinances so that they can proceed with their multi-million dollar projects. You may feel the same obligation to take meetings with ordinary residents, but more than likely you’ll be able to kick their calls to your full time deputy, who, based on complaints heard at Council public comment sessions, may or may not deign to answer. The deputies, full time employees whose positions are unique to the West Hollywood Council, earn a lot more than you will. Their compensation salaries and benefits range from a high of $115,562 for Michelle Rex, who works for Mayor John D’Amico, to $95,151 for Ian Owens, who works for Councilmember John Duran. And they have their own little five-member union.
The Pros? You do get to actually sit on that fancy and well-lighted dais at the City Council Chamber. And outside the chamber, you’ll find yourself courted by business interests — city vendors, developers, etc. — who will want to take you to lunch or dinner at Cecconi’s to pitch their projects.
They also will be more than happy to donate to the non-profit groups on whose boards you sit or which are involved with causes you care about. Need a sponsor to buy an ad in the program for an event your non-profit group is putting on? Athens Services, the city’s trash contractor, is happy to help. Passionate about the West Hollywood Library and need someone to serve on the board of its foundation? Lobbyists and/or lawyers living outside West Hollywood representing developers and others that do business with the city have happily agreed to fill four of those seven board seats. (Only two of them are filled by WeHo residents).
Then there’s the money (not the campaign contributions, but the money that comes in the form of personal compensation). The annual salary for a Council member — $9,900 a year — probably isn’t enough to pay your rent in WeHo, a city that, since its incorporation 30 years ago, has gone from being a rent-control refuge to a pretty pricey place to live.
But the other benefits are attractive. Consider what the city pays for health, dental and vision benefits for Council members. The amount depends on which benefits a Council member chooses from a menu of options, and that’s often determined in part by whether he or she is covered by his or her full time employer. The health, dental and vision benefits are $22,613 for John Duran, who is self-employed as a lawyer; $15,280 for John D’Amico, principal project manager for the UCLA Orthopedic Replacement Hospital; $7,649 for Jeffrey Prang, who is currently a special assistant at the L.A. County Assessor’s Office (and soon to take the top job there); $5,959 for John Heilman, who teaches law at both Southwestern Law School and the USC Gould School of Law, and $809 for Abbe Land, who is president and CEO of the Trevor Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is reducing suicide among LGBT young people.
There’s also an additional annual payment ($4,874 a year for Heilman, $4,748 a year for D’Amico, $4,526 a year for Land, $4,523 a year for Prang and $3,000 a year for Duran) that consists of a “technology allowance” and untapped money in the city’s “cafeteria” plan, which covers health expenses. Finally, the city kicks in $855 a year to cover the employee contribution required for participation in the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) pension program.
That means the total annual compensation for current Council members is $36,368 for John Duran, the most highly compensated of the lot; $30,783 for John D’Amico, $22,927 for Jeffrey Prang, $21,588 for John Heilman and $16,090 for Abbe Land.
At retirement, Council members, get a CalPERS pension that is determined according to a complicated formula. But consider that John Heilman, who with 30 years in office is the city’s longest-serving Council member, now is eligible, at the age of 55, for an annual payment of 60 percent of his $9,900 Council salary. Oh, and you don’t have to pay for parking so long as you’re on city business.
So to run or not to run? That is the question. As Hamlet might say if he were a campaign consultant today: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (i.e. put up with traffic congestion, rising rents and overdevelopment) or to take arms against that sea of perceived troubles and by opposing end them. All for no more than $3,000 a month.” You have 16 days to decide.