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The Trouble With Terrigno : When West Hollywood's First Mayor Was Driven From City Hall, She Took Part of the Dream of a 'Gay Camelot' With Her

June 01, 1986|STEPHEN BRAUN | Stephen Braun is a Times staff writer who covers West Hollywood.

It was the best night of her life. A city was being born, and poised skittishly at center stage on the night of Nov. 29, 1984, was Valerie Susan Terrigno, new mayor of West Hollywood and the first acknowledged lesbian leader of an American community.

A thousand people were on hand to witness the ceremony that would bring the city of West Hollywood into formal existence. The drafty auditorium where they gathered had filled so quickly that fire marshals and sheriff's deputies had to bar the doors. Outside, those who were turned away pressed their faces against plate-glass windows; others huddled around hastily installed television monitors to watch the event in black and white.

Less than a month earlier, voters in the pistol-shaped enclave on Los Angeles' prosperous Westside had declared an end to years of what they had seen as unresponsive county rule and had elected a city council. With three homosexual members, it was the country's first gay-majority government. After more than a decade of increasingly bold political activism, homosexuals at last had the opportunity to prove that they could govern as effectively as anyone else. Some called West Hollywood "the gay Camelot" and talked of a purer democracy in which good intentions would not be smothered by the weight of bureaucracy.

Terrigno had dressed for the occasion with simple flair: white suit, cobalt-blue blouse, a strand of pearls. A deputy led her through the crowd to the stage. In the front rows sat proud members of her clannish Italian family. Elderly Jewish renters, swaddled in winter coats, applauded. Homosexual men and lesbians reached out for a fleeting touch. At 31, the former biofeedback therapist, telephone researcher and job counselor was on her way to becoming the most visible homosexual politician in the nation.

Onstage, Terrigno toyed with a polished gavel, then called West Hollywood's first city council meeting to order. "I've worked to become a leader of our dreams and our future, and I know with power comes great responsibility," she said in a thin voice. "It's a responsibility I eagerly accept. . . . Our dreams are a sound investment. Don't let them waver."

Within a year, her dreams had come to nothing. And the city's had been tarnished.

Valerie Terrigno, success symbol for gay strivers and emissary of a unique city, was also Valerie Terrigno, embezzler. Two weeks after her inauguration, agents from the FBI and the Los Angeles Community Development Department joined in an investigation that would reveal that while Terrigno campaigned for office, she had diverted to her personal bank accounts $7,000 in federal funds from a Hollywood job-referral agency with a large gay clientele. Two years after she had taken over Crossroads Employment and Job Counseling Services, Terrigno had run it aground.

The stolen sum hardly amounted to major-league theft, though federal officials still question Terrigno's handling of another $12,000 of the government's money. And her crime was hardly subtle: Her trial last March whisked by in three days; the jury convicted her after just four hours of deliberation. She was sentenced to 60 days in prison or in a halfway house, five years' probation, restitution and 1,000 hours of community service.

But what most dismayed West Hollywood's political community and national gay leaders was that they had had so few inklings. They had only the highest hopes for Valerie Terrigno: Attractive, intelligent and energetic, she had virtues that seemed to perfectly complement West Hollywood's shiny ideals.

They had not looked beyond the qualities that played well on television and in banquet halls. Terrigno had portrayed herself as an experienced administrator, yet those who had worked with her complained that she was disorganized and disdainful of detail. She ambitiously sought leadership roles but often ignored the rules that came with them and alienated those who had supported her. She was able to articulate a stirring vision for a minority community, but her actions betrayed that vision.

In the chaos that attended the creation of a new city, campaigning amid a crowded field of candidates, Terrigno quickly stood out as the most electable. A politically connected and charismatic activist, she won endorsements easily and avoided the troubling questions about her character and experience that would come later. The path she took to office was hardly unique to West Hollywood: Its political novices and its voters, like those anywhere, relied on trust and favored an earnest, familiar face. In its idealism, West Hollywood thought it would be different.

The letters started coming in not long after the inauguration.

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