Lauren Meister, West Hollywood’s next mayor, talks about her childhood, WeHo history and voting her own way.
West Hollywood will have a new mayor next month, and we want you to get to know her. WEHOville proudly presents an insightful interview with Lauren Meister, a community leader whose neighborhood advocacy led her down the road to becoming WeHo’s top elected official.
Mayor Meister has a ring to it! Congratulations again. Let’s give those who don’t know you a bit of history first. Where were you born and when did you arrive in West Hollywood?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My family moved to the Los Angeles area in 1976 and I went off to UC Santa Barbara, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. My life in West Hollywood started in 1985. I rented an apartment in the TriWest neighborhood, then on Clark Street, north of Sunset. After renting in Weho for eight years, I moved outside the city for a few years, as I needed a bigger place for a home office. But Weho was in my blood. I always loved the little neighborhood south of Melrose and was able to purchase a home in 1998. I’m still in the same house today.
And please, introduce your two fur children- what breed are they?
My two fur children are Suki and Sammy. I adopted them through an organization that rescues dogs from the dogmeat trade in South Korea. World Dog Day has become very personal because of these two!
Sammy, my boy, is a handsome red-head, possibly Irish terrier mix. Suki, with her very curly silver hair, may be some kind of doodle, although the DNA test indicated she’s 25% chow. Whatever they are, they definitely have me wrapped around their little paws. Spike would be proud!
What was the first time you went to a city council meeting and what was it for?
I think it was 1998 or ‘99. I had just gotten settled in the house and started attending West Hollywood West Residents Association meetings. I decided to get more involved in the neighborhood, took CERT classes, became a block captain, and began attending commission and council meetings. I believe the first issue I got involved with was related to the Cedar’s lot on Sherbourne.
So Mom and Dad live in the granny flat and your sister close by. I’m sure they are super proud of you. When was the first time you ran for city council and did you ever think you would be the Mayor of one of the greatest cities in America?
Yes, the whole mishpucha [family] is here in Weho. My mom and dad moved in with me about 10 years ago. My sister lives around the corner and has been a Weho resident, off and on, for a number of years. My family has always been very supportive of my community involvement. I ran for council in 2003 and 2009, and while I did not win those races, I certainly did well, especially considering the modest amount of money I raised compared to the longtime incumbents. In 2015, I think people were ready for a change, and my reputation as an effective community leader and term limits advocate made me a viable candidate.
That said, I think the family is a bit amazed that a shy kid from Brooklyn could become mayor of one of the coolest cities in America!
Let’s tackle some local issues. What is the most pressing problem you hear about from concerned residents?
I’d say the most pressing issues for residents are those related to homelessness, housing affordability and public safety. The homeless issue is a regional issue and will continue to be a challenge until 1), the county expands its services, particularly mental health services, and 2), the City of LA gets serious about building affordable housing. The City of West Hollywood has been doing its part, and we continue to invest a lot of money into social services, public safety, and affordable housing. The other issue is that we continue to lose rental housing stock that is affordable, such as rent stabilized housing. We have plenty of luxury housing, so the challenge is building the types of housing we need and, also, keeping tenants in place in housing that is still affordable. Public safety is going to be an interesting conversation as we move forward. I’m interested to see the results of the study being conducted by the Center for Policing Equity, an item that Councilmember D’Amico and I initiated.
And what about concerns from businesses?
Many of the business concerns I have heard, well, you’ve been writing about them in Wehoville. In general, businesses, especially small businesses, are concerned about economic recovery and the reality that the pandemic is not yet behind us. Of course, the hospitality industry is concerned about the new hotel ordinance that will change its business model; the service industry is concerned about the minimum wage discussion. My hope is that Council can have a meaningful and open-minded discussion about the latter, rather than a “take no prisoners” approach.
When do you expect West Hollywood Park to open?
Realistically, I would say October or November. I must say that I am very glad we took advantage of a terrible situation [COVID] and decided to close the majority of the park to help speed up construction.
It sounds like you will be cutting the ribbon!
Let’s hope! Along with my fellow residents, I look forward to enjoying our new facilities.
Taking a look back on serving with Heilman and Duran who had a lot of history, versus the new council. Has your role changed? It feels like you now bring that historical perspective — how important is that to making current decisions?
I have found that having a historical perspective is extremely important – what council has decided in the past, and the impacts or results of those decisions, should guide or, at the very least, have an influence on future decision-making. I watched Planning Commission and Council meetings for years before I got on Council – nearly two decades’ worth of issues, policies, and decisions. So, I think I brought that historical perspective when I got elected and will continue to do so.
For example, we tested scooters and the past program and weho pedals both did not work, and now we do it all over again. There are a number of those type of issues that the ‘new council’ re-tries, such as Out on Robertson, and it did not appear to have different results the second time around. How important is that experience?
The mobility [bike/scooter] program is a bit different this time in that, one, the equipment is less cumbersome, and two, it’s not the city’s investment. However, we are hearing a lot of the same complaints regarding public safety and sidewalk clutter. I believe that the only way this program will be successful is to have the infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes from one end of the city to the other. And, of course, we also need the rules to be enforced – and that will be a challenge.
You were not afraid to be the lone “No” vote for the Hotel Ordinance. You asked for the study session. History shows the Chamber of Commerce and Developers never supported your campaign. But yet that vote took tremendous courage against the powerful interest group. What was your reasoning in casting that vote despite the political pressure?
My decisions are based on available information, public input, and potential impacts on the city – not on who did or didn’t support my campaign. I supported the safety measures, training, recall, and retention components of the ordinance. However, I thought the wage compensation model should have had more study and a real discussion among the stakeholders. We are not the City of Santa Monica. To slap their ordinance into our books made no sense to me. Our hotel industry is an important contributor, not only to the city’s revenue, but also to its culture. Hotel workers are a part of that — many have worked at the same hotel for years. I felt that we could have found a compromise that would have been fair to competing sides of this issue.
Look, our businesses are an important part of our community. That’s why I have brought forward programs to support our small businesses, legacy businesses, and non-profits. I also got my [previous] colleagues to agree to an economic development study so we can determine what gaps need to be filled and to encourage a more diverse economy.
There are so many items you have brought forward in these past 6 years of service. Reflect on a few:
It really is hard to narrow down – there are a number of items, from animal welfare to zoning codes!
Because quality of life issues are important to me, I initiated an item to prohibit construction on days observed as holidays, a construction fence art program, a pilot program to expand sidewalk cleaning in commercial areas, an eastside parkway beautification program, a proactive residential code compliance program, and a local ordinance to regulate drones. And to educate people about the city’s homeless initiative, I introduced the parking meter donation program. That’s helped raise awareness as well as thousands of dollars that go towards buying personal hygiene products, bottled water, socks, blankets, etcetera, for our homeless population.
In terms of public safety, I initiated a plan to install emergency call boxes in our parks throughout the city and PAD [public access defibrillation] units in all city facilities. And because our pets are our children, I initiated an education and sign campaign on the dangers of leaving kids and pets in cars during the warmer weather and brought forward a stricter grooming ordinance to enhance pet safety.
I also put forward a number of initiatives focused on older adults, like developing a financial literacy program and assistance programs for those facing housing affordability challenges. Another was requiring affordable units to be designed with accessibility features that go above and beyond the requirements laid out in the City’s building codes, so community members can, realistically, age in place. After all, the data is telling us that the senior population is growing. We need to prepare.
You’ve been busy!
Yes, and there have been some complicated items and some easy ones! Sometimes, it’s the simple ones that make a difference. For instance, I was excited to bring forward a program to install sunscreen dispensers in our public parks. When COVID hit, I brought forward an item to install hand sanitizer stations in all our parks as well.
I could go on but, for anyone who’s interested, they can take a look at my quarterly updates on my website, meister4weho.com. That’s where I post to keep people informed about what I’ve been up to!
What are your priorities this year as Mayor of West Hollywood?
I’ll continue to work on issues that are important to our residents and I’ll continue to bring forward ideas to help our neighborhoods and small business community thrive. I will also be looking at ways that Council can work together more effectively, especially since we have a new City Manager. More to come once I’m installed!
Lauren, thank you very much for your time. Your public service to this community over many years has been incredible. As you know your colleague John D’Amico has announced he will not run for re-election. Lindsey Horvath is also running for LA County Supervisor and if she makes it to the runoff will not be eligible to run in the West Hollywood City Council election in November of 2022. That may leave you as the only incumbent on the city council in the next election. Are you able to commit that you will run for re-election in 2022?
Now, you’re taking away my thunder! Yes, that’s the plan.