When West Hollywood's fledgling city government opened for business in late November, 1984, a dozen idealistic volunteers set up shop in a converted recreation office in Plummer Park. Hours were long, space was short, eagerness took the place of experience and everyone took turns answering the office telephone.
Eighteen months later, there are few traces of the government's freewheeling early days. City Hall now takes up the entire second floor of a flashy Santa Monica Boulevard shopping gallery. The City Hall switchboard, studded with rows of buttons, is answered by receptionists. The city staff now numbers 55, complete with department heads, assistant department heads and desk nameplates.
But perhaps the most compelling evidence of the maturation of West Hollywood's government has been the staff's movement, in recent weeks, toward forming a union. More than two weeks ago, 75% of the city's work force turned in authorization cards approving an effort to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Workers, city officials and council members all expect it is only a matter of weeks before the unionization process is completed.
"We're still working out details, but we're pretty much on our way," said Abby Baker, a rent control counselor who is one of several city employees on a steering committee managing the unionization effort.
The formation of the union poses problems not only for the city's top officials, but for the workers themselves and even for the City Council, which, in the end, has to make the decisions on how the city will deal with its municipal employees.
To the city's senior officials, the union would be a new intruder in the process of government, a force that could either be helpful or disruptive. To the rest of the city's workers, the union would provide a stronger voice within the bureaucracy, but also could stiffen relations between them and their supervisors. And while most of the city's council members privately support the union move, they also realize that their policies could one day come in conflict with the aims of their staff.
Already, the promise of a union has altered relations between city employees and their supervisors. Both sides have been testing each other, searching for weak spots while keeping their own guards up. Still, discussions between the two groups have been amicable.
'It Was Inevitable'
"I think the effort to organize reflects this city's idealism," said City Manager Paul Brotzman, whose time has been taken up increasingly in recent weeks by the unionization effort. "In a city as progressive as this one, it was inevitable that they (city workers) came together."
Brotzman has been the city's point man in dealing with the unionization effort. Since December, when city staffers first began talking seriously about forming a union, Brotzman and members of the union steering committee have met on a host of concerns, ranging from the unionization effort itself to city personnel policies.
Brotzman has said he will take no public position on the union movement. "My attitude is to treat employees fairly, whether we're in a union or non-union city," he said. "If the employees feel the need for an organization to represent them, the attitude of the city is, it's up to them."
But several council members and city staffers involved in the organizing effort say Brotzman has privately indicated a preference for a looser employees organization, not affiliated with any larger union.
Favored a Federation
"Paul did not want to see them organize," said one council member. "He wanted them to have an employees federation without any affiliation."
Members of the union steering committee say they were given the message early on from senior city officials. "We were asked (by those officials) to keep things basically the way they are now and not bring in a union," said Deborah Potter, the city's Economic Development Director and a member of the union steering committee. (It has been estimated that between a half-dozen and a dozen top officials will be exempt from representation.)
But that management position was undercut in closed sessions earlier this year when a majority of council members insisted that the city remain neutral on the union question. "Our formal position is that we take no stand," said Councilman Alan Viterbi. "It's the right of the employees to take whatever representation they wish. We will not impede the process."
The closed sessions occurred in January, just a month after city workers began discussing the union option. "There were several general reasons why we started talking about organizing," said one high-ranking city employee, who asked not to be identified. "A lot of us felt that the city was being run on benevolent paternalism. We had no role in the decisions that affected us, and a lot of the things we thought were important were being ignored."