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New Force Rises to Challenge West Hollywood Power Structure

February 13, 1986|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

Enduring more than two months of false starts, an organized political opposition has emerged in West Hollywood to challenge the direction of the City Council and the clout of rent-control activists.

Urging tighter council fiscal policies, a business climate more conducive to development and a fair rent-control law, the new West Hollywood for Good Government group plans to back a slate of up to three candidates in the April 8 council election.

"We want to provide an alternative," said Tony Melia, one of the group's co-chairmen and president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "We all recognize that the most powerful organization in West Hollywood does not speak for the interests of the majority of people in this city.'

Tenant Group a Dominant Force

Melia was referring to the Coalition for Economic Survival, the tenant activist organization that lobbied for the city's strong rent-control law and has been the dominant political force since West Hollywood's incorporation in November, 1984.

Melia and other leaders of the new group said they do not want to wage an anti-coalition campaign. Yet the new group's leaders admit that by posing as competitors to the tenant coalition in influencing city policy, they run the risk of open political warfare with renter activists.

"CES (the coalition) is a one-trick pony," Melia said. "That trick doesn't answer the needs of everyone in this city."

So far, the coalition said it does not perceive the new group as a threat. "We think they represent minor interest groups," said Larry Gross, the coalition's director. "We'll see what kind of campaign they run."

The tenant coalition made a strong showing in West Hollywood's first council election in 1984. Two of its members, John Heilman and Helen Albert, won council seats. Two independents supported by the coalition, Valerie Terrigno and Alan Viterbi, also were elected.

This April, Heilman and Albert are up for reelection, along with Stephen Schulte, who ran without the coalition's support in 1984. Schulte is trying to win the coalition's backing in this campaign. The incumbents face seven challengers.

The Good Government group was expected to be formed well in advance of the April race. Community activists and business leaders met informally as early as last November, trying to put together an umbrella group of disenfranchised interests.

But the organization was not able to get off the ground until recent weeks, members said, because there were differences among leaders and financial support was not certain.

Rent Control Downplayed

While the new group stresses issues like solving West Hollywood's parking congestion and encouraging development, it has tried to downplay the prominence of rent control in the April election.

"We're saying we support the need for rent control," said Steve Weltman, an attorney and activist on the new group's executive board. "We don't plan to make it an issue."

But the tenant coalition does. "Rent control has to be an issue," Gross said. "If renters want to protect what they have, they're going to have to elect people they can trust. We're going to tell voters: 'Why take chances? Vote for people who have a proven record on rent control.' "

Leaders of the new group said they are not committed to major changes in the rent control law. Instead, they prefer to see what Weltman calls "minor tinkering," such as exempting luxury apartment buildings from the controls.

Suspicious of even minor changes, Gross and other tenant activists said such tinkering might be a prelude to more significant alterations of the law's major provisions--a limited decontrol on vacated apartments and rigorous maintenance standards.

Last weekend, seven candidates, including the three incumbents, were interviewed by the new group, which is expected to announce its endorsements within the next two weeks. Melia said the interviews were videotaped so the group will be able to compare candidates' promises and actions.

Coalition-backed incumbent Albert was surprised at the new group's low-key approach on rent control.

"I felt a mild pressure about some minor parts of the rent-control law," Albert said. "They didn't get into the main provisions."

Candidate Suspicious

But another rent-control supporter, challenger Ron Stone, felt that the new group's concern with smaller changes in the law concealed an interest in more wholesale alterations.

"The question in my mind through the whole interview was 'Who is behind the cameras?' " Stone said. "I kept wondering whether the business community has thrown its lot in with the landlords."

The leaders of the new group have gathered what they believe is a broad base of community support. Their steering committee includes influential developer and property owner Francis Montgomery, environmentalist Nancy Taylor, local Republican leader Don Genhart, condominium owner Richard Silverman, tenant and senior citizen activist Gerda Spiegler and gay activist George Piazzi.

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