Publishers Note: WEHOville went downtown to the LA County Assessor Jeffrey Prang’s office for a special 1 on 1 with the former West Hollywood City Council member.
Let’s start with the basics: Where were you born and where you and what brought you to West Hollywood?
I was born in a hospital in Detroit. I was raised in the city of Warren, Michigan, which is in the northeast Detroit suburbs, went to college at Michigan State University and a couple years after moved to California.
One of my first jobs in Michigan had a client in California and they sent me to Gardena. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in the Midwest but I was 22 or 23 years old. living in a 12 by 50 foot mobile home, and my parents were living overseas at the time. In February, before you drive: you spend your first 15 minutes scraping the ice off all of your windows and then you drive probably 30 minutes with a little hole in the windshield which is your total visibility. And it was really really cold.
I got off at LAX and it was one of those exceptionally warm spring February days, it must have been in the 80s and people were wearing shorts and tank tops and I just thought -oh my god- this the place to be. I stayed in Michigan for two more years and was 25 years old when I packed up my car and drove cross-country to West Hollywood.
What was your first run for city council like?
When I came to West Hollywood, I had been very active in Michigan politics. Believe it or not, I ran for city council in my hometown the year between my junior and senior year. I was always interested in politics. As a junior I started working an internship in the Michigan capitol. I was in East Lansing which is right down the road from the capitol. I worked for my hometown representative. And I worked for my hometown legislator.
I joined the local democratic club and decided to run for city council. I didn’t know what I was doing! I put my name on the ballot by collecting signatures and what was really fascinating about that is that political leaders always want to encourage young people and I didn’t really think of it in those terms. But they were very encouraging. So I didn’t know what I was doing but I had a fundraiser and the mayor of the city showed up which really was kind of overwhelming.
I didn’t win. Think I came in 21st out of 30. But it was better than a semester in college. I met the city leaders. They talked to me, they listened to me. I had a chance to understand the the city better, the infrastructure — and when I was all done, even though I’d lost, I was now a weathered veteran and was recruited by the democratic party to run to be chairman of the county young democrats which I did. I was elected.
I remained active in in local politics. But when I moved to California, would joke at the time that I was 25 going on 50. I was so, so serious at that point that when I moved to LA. I decided to try to do what 25 year olds do and moved to West Hollywood which was a totally different environment from where I grew up. It was 1987.
In Michigan there was no such thing as being ‘out.’ My life was compartmentalized between my day job, my political life, my personal life — and one of the things that was attractive about California and West Hollywood was I could combine my life into one. It didn’t feel like I had to keep secrets. So I got involved in West Hollywood. My first two years I was not very active in politics but was eager to get involved again so in 1989 I joined the West Hollywood Democratic Club.
What really inspired me … Abbe Land… she is a very, very good friend of mine and political ally, but I remember I was living in my little apartment with my ex on West Knoll and got a call. It was Abbe saying we want you to vote on this parks measure — there was a plan to build a civic center at West Hollywood Park — and they tried to get people out to vote.
I didn’t know much about it but I wasn’t particularly sold on the concept of replacing a park with a civic center. They were making a case that there would still be a lot of green space. So I don’t know how you take a park and put a big building in it and still have as much green space so I ended up getting involved in the campaign against building the civic center and at that point I was once again fully engaged in local civic life and politics.
Had you served on a commission before you ran for City Council?
In my early years I was good friends with Steve Martin and we actually were roommates for a period of time, and I helped him. I was chairman of his campaign in 1994 for city council and after he got elected he appointed me to the Rent Stabilization Commission.
I ran in 1997 at Steve’s urging. Abbe had announced that she wasn’t going to run for re-election and that was the cycle where there’s two seats up for election. It was Paul Koretz and Abbe. They were in the same cycle so I was going to run for Abbe’s seat. Paul Koretz was very supportive of me in that race. So I had the backing of Steve Martin and Paul Koretz. John Duran ran that time and he had the backing of John Heilman and Abbe Land.
I talked about issues that I believed people cared about: parking, traffic, development. By the time I ran I had been working for the city for about three and a half years. I knew and really understood municipal government. Prior to that. I had worked for the assessor Kenny Hahn.
My office is in the Kenneth Hahn building but it’s not named for that Kenny Hahn. There were two Kenny Hahns. Kenny Hahn, the father of supervisor Janice Hahn, the father of former mayor of L.A. Jim Hahn, had served on the board of supervisors for 40 years and for 15 years before that he was a city council member. And in 1990 an appraiser in this office by the name of Kenneth P. Hahn — no relationship that they were aware of — decided to run and everybody thought he was either the supervisor or they thought he was Kenny Hahn Jr., and he upset the incumbent and was elected.
Believe it or not he was actually the first out, open LGBTQ person elected to office. He wasn’t an activist so he wasn’t very well known but he was the first actively open LGBTQ elected official. Back in 1990 there were not a whole lot of LGBTQ elected officials, -period. There were probably a couple dozen nationwide at best -but at that time he represented the largest jurisdiction of any LGBTQ elected official probably in the world.
He hired me as an assistant in 1992 and then went to work for the City of L.A. I was press secretary for Ruth Galanter and also helped manage her Venice office for a part of my time. When I ran for city council, I was really adept at talking about municipal issues.
When John Duran ran, everybody thought he was going to win. He raised more money and had a lot of support. It was expected that John Duran would win because he was such a big name. I think he ran on his activism.
But one of the important things I learned in that race is that even LGBTQ people in West Hollywood — they care about LGBTQ issues but when they’re voting for city council they’re voting based on traffic, parking and development. It’s expected if you serve on the city council West Hollywood you’re going to be a strong advocate for LGBTQ issues and in the fight against AIDS. And I ended up prevailing. John I think learned very well from that lesson in 1997 and retooled his campaign and won four years later.
So you served together for how many years?
From 2001 until 2014, so 13 years. And Duran and I had been, even though we competed against one another in that campaign, John and I have been friends since I met him in 1991. So we’ve been friends for a very long time and we remained friends throughout the course of that campaign even though we were competing with different alliances. So I got elected in 1997 and re-elected four more times after that.
What did West Hollywood teach you that that applies to this office?
That would be a very long list. So there are practical things and there are interpersonal things. Practically understanding West Hollywood — even though it’s a small city — it’s a very sophisticated city. It has enormous depth in resources and there’s a lot of cities in L.A. County of similar size or even much bigger that don’t have the sort of budget and the sort of depth and expertise of governance that West Hollywood has. It had just enormous talent in the senior management pool from the city manager to the department heads.
We really learned about the machinery of how government works and because West Hollywood was also an activist city —-in Sacramento and in Washington DC, you learn you can’t just limit yourself to the borders of the city. We are connected to the county, city, state and federal government. Plus knowing how all these different pieces fit together and how to make them blend in order to get things done became really important. So coming here, having a really organic understanding of governance and government administration was invaluable.
The other thing that I learned… so I’m now an elected administrator and even though the board of supervisors are our fellow elected officials in the county, I’m not a policy maker. So my job is very different than it was when I was council member in West Hollywood, where the whole goal was to manage the city, develop public policies and persuade at least two other people to agree with you.
So understanding government finance was important to understanding this job. Understanding how property taxes are a significant piece of the city revenues was important. But I think the political administrative skills that I learned in West Hollywood were really invaluable to working here. Knowing how to engage with the policy makers which are the members of the board of supervisors so that I can get the resources that I need in terms of personnel, in terms of the budget. Understanding what another elected official’s sense of priorities are, how they view their constituency I think were valuable tools to help me be successful getting the things I need to make this department successful.
Frankly another job that was remarkably helpful to this one was when I was serving as the assistant city manager in Pico Rivera- which is a government administrative job where you’re in charge of budgets, programs, and have a large oversight of personnel. And those were some really strong skill sets that I learned in that position that been able to translate into this one.
The other thing I learned about West Hollywood is, you know, West Hollywood got things done. It had a bold vision, and put a lot of emphasis on creativity and innovation. I’ve worked in a lot of different government agencies. There’s often the axiom that “we’ve always done it this way” or “how do we just keep things moving along.” West Hollywood never did that. We were always looking for a way to build a better mousetrap. How do we improve public service? How do we ensure that we’re on progressive and have up-to-date public policy? Those skills I’ve brought to this department.
Because one thing about government is government doesn’t go out of business. If you’re really bad at government the government still exists. It’s different in private business. If you’re a businessman, if you don’t make a profit, you can’t meet payroll, you can’t pay your rent and you go out of business. That doesn’t happen in government and it requires a great deal more time and attention and resilience to ensuring that the government is responsive.
And I think West Hollywood better taught me as those values which I’ve applied to what we’ve done here. And we’ve done some really remarkable things. It’s kind of hard to talk about. People don’t really know about it because it’s such an obscure, misunderstood office.
And there was a lot of corruption before you came in here.
My predecessor was arrested by the district attorney. He’s still awaiting trial. By the way he’s still not been to court eight years later, but there were allegations of corruption. There were allegations of pay to play. When I first got here that was the first job we had was to restore public confidence.
Was there corruption in West Hollywood?
I served for almost 18 years on the city council. I am not aware officially or unofficially and I cannot imagine any of the colleagues I worked with who may have personally enriched themselves or did things for personal benefit in exchange for their votes.
One thing I did learn and observe in West Hollywood — it’s such an activist community. The people of West Hollywood are really, really smart. In other cities you hear people in public comment, when they object to things — they’re not based on reason and rationale. They’re just knee-jerk in their objection. But you hear people opposing development in West Hollywood and they’re citing provisions from CEQA and they’re talking about mitigations that you’d expect for an engineer to come up with. They’re a sophisticated group of people.
But the one thing I did observe is that when people feel powerless when decisions are being made that they don’t agree with and if they don’t think they’re being heard. There’s a lot of people who are naturally suspicious. I remember I said at a city council meeting one time, “it is possible for two different people to look at the same set of evidence and come to different conclusions.” And the fact that you may not agree with my decision doesn’t mean somebody gave me a bribe or that I’m up to something nefarious. It means I just disagree with you.
West Hollywood is a very affluent city and there’s a lot of money in that city. I mean the city council members spend an average of a hundred thousand dollars on re-election. Other cities that are much larger in population spend fractions of that amount. And the business community, this particular development community, puts a lot of money into local elections.
Labor is relatively new. I would have to say that when I was there, labor was, in terms of money and campaigns, not a big player.
Why during the pandemic were there no emergency measures to freeze assessed tax values?
Proposition 13, also known as Article 13 of the California Constitution, is what governs property taxes. And the way it works quite simply is when you purchase your home or your property my office determines the market value of that property at the time. Usually it’s what you paid for it, and that is your assessed value forever. That does not change.
There’s one small caveat that the law says that there is a maximum two percent CPI that can be applied annually so even in the wake of the pandemic, the CPI is only one percent. That’s the maximum that property values went up. Your assessment does not change.
We do not ever go back and look at your property assessment unless one of two things happen: 1) there’s a change in ownership such as you sell it or you add or delete somebody’s name from the title. That’s a change in ownership, or 2) you do new construction, such as you add a second story to your house that would trigger a reassessment for that new construction. Those are the only times your assessments go up.
A lot of times people when they get their property tax bills, they’ll see that the tax bill went up a lot. They’ll say my property taxes went up. But almost 100 percent of the time when we talk about that it’s not their property taxes that went up, it’s one of the other assessments that is billed on your property tax bill. The property tax bill is a single bill representing, depending on where you live, as many as 15 separate agencies. So there may be special assessments, from the county, from the school district, from the water district.
Instead of sending you 15 separate bills they contract with the county and say “would you bill for this for us?” and then we’ll get the money from you. So usually if your property tax bill has a significant increase, it’s maybe because there’s a new school tax, or maybe you voted on a new assessment for bridges and roads or something of that nature.
How about Prop 19 for seniors?
We had a tremendous amount of takers and rollovers in that area, so I don’t have the specific numbers but yes then there’s a lot of people who are filing for that. We had a huge wave of applicants, particularly parents who intended to give their property to their children.
There were a lot of people rushing to transfer the property to their children before February 1st, because as of February 1st, that’s when the benefits of transferring property to your children and in some cases grandchildren were reduced. Prop 19 reduced inheritance benefits rather dramatically and so we had a huge rush of people who wanted to make sure their kids could inherit their property without being reassessed. The law went into full effect as of April 1st. People are still applying for that, trying to leave their property to their children when they die. I don’t know what the numbers are but it’s a pretty common transaction.
There’s a lot of uncertainty right now because the law was passed with a lot of deficiencies. I may have submitted something to that effect to WEHOville that you published, that they wrote this law with all these deficiencies and we need legislation to clarify it. There is a bill — Senate bill 539 — but that’s not been adopted yet. In the meantime the law is in full effect so we are very concerned. Just today I was on a call and the woman said “well I gave my property to my daughter. What if she wants to give it back to me?” well under the old law she could do that, and she could do it without being reassessed. Under Prop 19, we don’t know. We suspect that the authors would want that to be continued but they didn’t write that into law.
And I’m not a policy maker so I don’t have the authority to interpret the law. I have to do what the piece of paper says and the way we read it now is, if it doesn’t say that you can give property from a child to a parent then I can’t do it. The legislation will clarify that. But in the meantime people have these questions and we’re eager to get that bill into place as quickly as possible so we can give people direction on what to do with their property.
Have you endorsed any of the local elected officials running for County Supervisor next year?
I have not. I will be on the ballot myself for re-election next year. All the people running for supervisor are all people I’ve known well. Richard Bloom, Ron Galperin, Lindsey Horvath, I consider them all friends.
I’m very proud of Lindsey. You know I voted to appoint her to the city council back in 2009. She lost her first re-election but I think she grew a lot. I think she’s become a really effective and well-respected local legislator.
Ron Galperin was the chair of my transition team when I was first elected. He’s a fellow elected administrator and we have a lot of commonalities to the way that we approach our jobs.
Richard Bloom represented us in West Hollywood as our Assembly Member. He’s an extremely bright and capable legislator and was a local elected official.
So at the moment I’m not making any endorsements but I can say nothing but glowing things about all three of them.
And have any of them endorsed you?
In the past, yes, all three have. I presume if I ask them for endorsement they would give it to me although I have to say I’m usually a little slow in asking them for endorsement because I’d feel a little bit shy about saying “hey would you endorse me but I’m not willing to endorse you at least not yet.”
Is this your dog?
This is my dog, Theo. He was a Christmas present to Ray.
Oh yes, you have a partner, Ray, and you’ve been together for how many years?
We we met at gay pride in 2003 and have been together ever since. We got married in that window in 2008 between when marriage was made legal and then it was made illegal by Prop 8. So we lived in West Hollywood on Sweetzer together until we bought a house in 2016.
Tell us about the night you won your race for County Assessor.
I was at the Bonaventure Hotel downtown and I’ll tell you it was a stressful night because the election was not decided on election night. We started off the evening with some of the absentee votes counted and I was leading by … it was a little bit closer than I thought. I think had like 54 percent. But then all night long as more and more votes came in the numbers ticked downward, down and down, I thought “oh my god, what’s gonna happen?” I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it and then at the end of the night I was ahead by 9,000 votes.
I can’t remember how many votes were cast, but 9,000 was less than one percent and there were hundreds of thousands of uncounted votes and I thought “well that seems like it could go one way or the other.” it actually took three weeks before they declared the winner. Mercifully that Friday they counted the next round of votes and my numbers went up. To be honest election night was very stressful.
When I went to bed they were still counting votes. I was exhausted. I was glad to wake up in the morning at least being ahead in the tally and fortunately over the next couple weeks as they counted more my numbers went up.
What were some of your proudest accomplishments working in West Hollywood?
One was the Santa Monica Boulevard project, an exhaustive two-year project I was part of. Cal-Trans used to run Santa Monica boulevard. I think they did a terrible job. We got Cal-Trans out and we put together a community steering committee. We came up with a vision for what that boulevard should look like, and I was the mayor during the bulk of the construction. That was particularly a trial by fire.
A lot of things I learned how to do during that time as mayor are things that I still use in my job today. One of the biggest things is, people’s lives were disrupted. Business’ lives were disrupted. Businesses were struggling because people had a hard time accessing them or knowing how to access them when the whole road’s torn to pieces. And I learned that people need to feel that they’re being heard. They need to know that the government hears their concerns and their challenges. And I would walk door to door and I would talk to businesses and those that were mad and angry and wanted to throw bombs at us. I would reassure them, tell them what the process is, what the timeline is, what we’re doing to be helpful and let them know that some things were just unavoidable.
People hate lengthy construction projects. They hate the road closures. There was a newsletter that I sent out which I was very proud of. It began by just sending out information every week saying “Here’s where you can park, here’s where you can’t park, here’s where the road construction would be.” Then we began throwing in other additional information and I learned how to put together what I thought was a useful and informative newsletter that was not about me giving proclamations; it was all something that members of the public needed.
And I learned that what the public wanted most of anything, they wanted information, they wanted candor and they wanted honesty. There’s a lot of times people didn’t agree, they didn’t like what was going on but they appreciated the fact that somebody would tell them authentically. I told them what I knew. They may or may not agree with it but at least they felt when they walked away that they got the story.
Another achievement that is still going on today is the parks, the investment we’re putting into West Hollywood and Plummer Park. From a policy perspective the things that we did to continue the work on behalf of the LGBTQ community and the transgender community. I joined John Heilman to help create the Transgender Advisory Board. We fought for expanded domestic partnership. I was in Sacramento constantly on domestic partnership rights and on marriage equality.
And then one of the things that was kind of a surprise area was animal welfare. Back in 1998 I actually went to work for the City of L.A Department of Animal Services as their public information officer. And I got a window into animal welfare policy from a municipality. And back in those days L.A. was killing up to 60,000 dogs and cats a year because of overpopulation. And I learned about all the other impacts of it. And I began to meet people who are active in animal welfare issues and I introduced and authored a number of fairly revolutionary policies that became the template for other jurisdictions across the state. I passed the ordinance banning the sale of animals that were raised in factory farms like a puppy mill.
I introduced some pretty cutting-edge legislation regulating dog groomers. I learned that there’s nothing really regulating them in the whole state. You could just be anybody off the street and come in and say I want to be a dog groomer and there’s nothing to prevent that. We were able to regulate them under our business license ordinance so that we were able to revoke a license from bad actors.
The very first thing I ever did was… there’s an activist, Christina Babst, very active in animal welfare issues, and she came up to me — this must have been 1998 — and she said “the way that we think about animals is important, how we treat them.” and she said “when you think about domestic violence imagine some redneck who calls his wife his old lady. If you can minimize them in the way that you talk about them, you can abuse them in other ways physically.” and she says “it’s the same thing. We talk about people owning animals. You should change it from animal ownership to animal guardianship.”
It was not a legal change but I introduced a resolution saying we need to adjust the municipal code and wherever it says animal owner we should change it to animal guardianship. It doesn’t convey legal rights on animals but at least officially it changes the way that we think about animals who we are charged with caring for and hopefully would do something a little bit more humanely and and appropriately.
So that was the very first thing I did. I actually ended up leaving the city with a rather substantial body of work.
Jeff, we ran out of space! I want to thank you for your service to the City of West Hollywood and the County of Los Angeles. Very proud to know you and call you a friend and honest public servent.