The challengers say the City Council needs new blood and fresh ideas to get the city out of the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, while the incumbents say their experience is needed more than ever to steer the city to economic recovery. Those were the messages coming out of a West Hollywood City Council candidates’ forum held Tuesday night on the Zoom teleconferencing website.
The West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters sponsored the candidate forum which KNBC-4 newsman Robert Kovacik moderated. The two-hour forum saw the nine candidates vying for the two City Council seats up for election on Nov. 3 trying to distinguish themselves in 45-second sound bites, the amount of time allotted each candidate to answer most questions.
Readers can view the debate on the Chambers Facebook page.
Sheriff’s Station and Public Safety
On the matter of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, overall the candidates felt the WeHo Sheriff’s station deputies are doing a good job. None of the candidates favored defunding the sheriff’s department.
Challenger Marco Colantonio gave the WeHo station an overall grade of 80, saying some improvements were needed, noting that increased sensitivity training for deputies would help alleviate some problems while increased funding for more deputies was needed. Challenger Mark Yusupov agreed that increased sensitivity training was needed.
Challenger Jerome Cleary felt that Captain Ed Ramirez and Lt. Bill Moulder are doing great work running the station, but suggested expanding the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) team would help.
Challenger Larry Block urged increased funding for the Block by Block (no relation to the candidate) private security bicycle patrols. Challenger Sepi Shyne concurred that more Block by Block funding was needed. She also suggested more funding for the city’s Code Compliance Department would allow that department to handle issues that deputies now often have to handle.
Incumbent John Heilman acknowledged there are issues within the entire Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which need addressing and hoped the city could push Sheriff Alex Villaneuva to make countywide changes.
As for public safety, Colantonio said reduced speed limits and/or speed bumps on residential streets are needed. Yusupov and Cleary both favored more crosswalks, which Cleary also urging synchronizing the traffic lights.
Challengers John Erickson and Noemi Torres both advocated for more bike lanes in the city, preferably protected bike lanes (i.e., lanes not immediately adjacent to moving vehicles).
Development and Housing
Candidates said that new developments should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis rather than rewriting existing zoning laws. Yet all also acknowledged that more housing is needed, especially low-income housing and work-force (middle-income) housing.
Block and Colantonio both favored allowing increased density along commercial corridors, but not in the residential areas. Block said the city should follow the General Plan for all development decisions.
Heilman said he favors allowing new buildings in some neighborhoods to have a few “micro-units” (units of less than 300 square feet), but does not want to see micro-units throughout the city.
Cleary favored getting more residential input into new projects earlier in the planning process while also expanding the Design Review subcommittee of the Planning Commission to critique new projects.
Subway into West Hollywood
On the matter of devoting millions to help bring the Crenshaw subway line’s northern extension to West Hollywood, incumbent John Duran said he fully supports it, provided it is all underground. He does not want to see any of the metro rail above ground.
Heilman said he is also fully in favor of it, saying once completed, the subway line would stimulate economic growth in the city as well as help with environmental issues such as traffic and pollution.
Shyne also said the benefits of having the subway coming through West Hollywood outweigh any upfront costs the city might incur in getting it here.
Cleary noted that small businesses may suffer during the digging of the subway (much like what happened while Santa Monica Boulevard was being rebuilt in 2000-2001) and said the city should find a way to help those businesses during the dig.
Meanwhile, Block wants to see the subway come to West Hollywood, but not through West Hollywood, saying he favored stops on the edge of the city, perhaps on La Brea Avenue or Beverly Boulevard. He said he believed that homeless people often hang out in or near subway stops and the city doesn’t need any more homeless people.
Block also suggested the city should enact an anti-loitering ordinance to prevent people from sleeping on the streets. He further urged the city to create a place where the homeless can shower, suggesting the city-owned building on the northwest corner of Poinsettia Place and Romaine Street would be a good location. He said the city needed to find a new homeless services provider, contending the city’s current contract with Ascencia of Glendale was not adequate since it does not provide for nighttime or weekend outreach.
Torres said more mental health services for homeless people is needed. Meanwhile Erickson said compassion was needed and that homelessness should not be criminalized.
OutZones and Transportation
Soon after the pandemic began, the city installed barriers to block off street parking and allow restaurants to set up outdoor dining tables in those parking spaces. The candidates all liked the OutZone and would like to see the program continue in some form after the pandemic ends.
Cleary said the outdoor dining conveys a vibrancy about the area and should continue. Erickson said the café culture that the OutZones create is good and commended the city on moving quickly to create those OutZones.
Duran noted the OutZones have worked well on the city’s Westside, but not as well in the Center City because of the shortage of parking in that part of town. Similarly, Block noted that when bars are allowed to reopen, they may suffer from the lost parking spots.
Vacancy Taxes and Helping Businesses
The idea of taxing commercial landlords who allow their buildings to remain vacant for too long (say longer than six months) has been mentioned in recent months. However, Duran said he is opposed to a vacancy tax as it would push landlords to rush to get a new tenant rather than thoughtfully finding the right tenant for the area.
Shyne dislikes vacancy taxes saying they can be harmful, but believes the city should find alternatives for smaller stores. Heilman is also opposed to vacancy taxes, saying he would prefer to create incentives to get new businesses to locate in the city, while also reducing the regulatory hurdles new businesses face when trying to open in the city. He also favors trying to get more pop-up stores (short- term businesses of just a few weeks or months) in the city.
Colantonio said the city should extend the commercial rent moratorium as a way to incentivize landlords to work out deals with existing tenants. He also favored creating a small business task force right away. Erickson, Yusupov and Torres all agreed some kind of business task force is needed, saying it is important to find out what the businesses need.
Preserving the City’s Gay Identity
West Hollywood is a city where 33% of the city’s residents identify asgay, 4% as lesbians, and 3% as bisexual. Candidates were asked about ways to preserve the city’s LGBTQ identity. Unanimously, the candidates agreed it was important to maintain the city’s diversity and the gay entertainment district since those are things that make the city so unique.
Erickson noted he moved to WeHo from Wisconsin because he wanted to be a part of the city’s LGBTQ communities and wants to make sure others have that same option in the future.
Colantonio noted the city has been a destination for gay tourists and hopes it will continue to be once the pandemic ends, noting the tourist dollars help the city’s economy. Cleary suggested the city create an LGBTQ museum and a WeHo Walk of Fame as tourist draws.
Block noted he has long advocated keeping the city’s LGBTQ area gay, pointing out his Block Party store helps keep the LGBTQ identity alive, especially in this time when the gay bars aren’t open due to the pandemic.
Duran noted he’s done much to protect the LGBTQ heritage, including pushing for building an AIDS monument, which should be completed in 2022. He also noted that four gay bars have closed in recent months and said he is working to make sure the new businesses that go into those spaces are also gay bars.
Duran also noted that he has a “notorious” reputation which has become part of the “brand” for which he is known. He said he wants to keep West Hollywood “edgy and flamboyant,” noting that he has no desire to see West Hollywood become another bland and sterile city like Irvine.