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The new city is progressing at an infant's pace, learning to crawl, but frequently bumping into walls. : West Hollywood, One Year Later

December 01, 1985|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

Until a year ago, Frank Wittenburg was a regular in the sprawling offices that make up Los Angeles County's seat of government.

His mission was always the same: to call attention to the problems that afflicted his neighborhood in the then-unincorporated slice of county territory known as West Hollywood.

Armed with photographs that he had taken, he would complain about infractions of the county code--infractions that included crude storefront signs, mattresses stacked for sale on the sidewalks and cars parked illegally because restaurants failed to provide adequate lots.

But Wittenburg, who met with little success in his forays to county offices, no longer has to trek downtown to register his complaints. Now, he drives less than a mile from his house to the blue pastel shopping gallery that houses West Hollywood's City Hall. There, he can corner officials of the new city. To his delight, they listen.

It has been a year since West Hollywood incorporated, a year since a coalition of homosexual and elderly renters rejected county rule and elected the first City Council in the nation dominated by a gay majority. The victorious coalition was quickly rewarded--gays with a series of pioneering rights laws, senior citizens and tenants with a rent control law considered one of the strictest in the country.

Despite an obsession with proving its uniqueness and a proclivity for controversy, the new city government has spent most of its first year absorbed with the more mundane daily realities that have long concerned activists such as Frank Wittenburg.

West Hollywood is progressing at an infant's pace, learning to crawl, but frequently bumping into walls. After floundering in its early months, the inexperienced council has in recent months finally begun to lay the foundations of a city government and alter the lives of the city's 36,000 residents.

The new city government had immediate advantages: Smaller, leaner, more accessible to its inhabitants and bolstered by projections of a $7.4-million first-year budget surplus, it was equipped to take on tasks that the more remote and cumbersome county government apparatus had long ignored. Even many of the city's most influential developers and businessmen, who opposed cityhood or remained neutral during last year's tumultuous incorporation campaign, now agree on its merits.

The campaign officially ended last Nov. 29, the night the City Council formally declared the city's existence. That same night, the council imposed a temporary rent freeze (later replaced by a permanent law), banned discrimination against homosexuals and declared moratoriums on almost all construction.

It was the last night of unequivocal success. In the ensuing year, the city's new council and its hand-picked staff of aides, professionals and volunteers have seen gains repeatedly offset by new setbacks.

The city's files bulge with correspondence from homosexuals pleased with the council's symbolic stance on gay rights, but a consultant is being paid to find ways to correct West Hollywood's "gay image" problem. Increased manpower at the county Sheriff's Department has brought a swift reduction in crime, but some elderly residents are still too frightened to attend night council meetings. For tenants, incorporation brought rent control; for landlords, it brought a blizzard of questionnaires and stern mimeographed warnings.

The city has provided gay organizations with just under $300,000 for AIDS research and counseling and it has officially recognized domestic relationships between homosexuals, complete with certificates suitable for framing. It has given taxi coupons to senior citizens who needed transportation and taken away anti-gay matchbooks from patrons of Barney's Beanery. And cityhood has brought campaign debts, notoriety, gossip, a private therapy session and a federal indictment to a council that already faces its first reelection campaign for three of its members next April.

"One day we're going to become very boring," said Valerie Terrigno, the councilwoman and first mayor whose life was complicated dramatically last month by a federal indictment on embezzlement charges. "I can't wait."

She may have to. Boredom is not much of a threat in the 1.9-square-mile urban village where landlords painted more than two dozen apartment buildings red in defiance of rent control "communism" and where the mayor and deputy mayor quibbled in public over why the deputy mayor showed up at private parties with his hair dyed blue.

Yet for all the snide remarks and media attention, an area that had once served as little more than a neon-shrouded passageway from the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills to the cluttered flats of Hollywood was groping toward cityhood.

Its first months were the most difficult. And to many outside the government--and a few inside--it appeared that the five novice council members added to the difficulties.

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