The controversial arrest last week of a West Hollywood city employee by a county sheriff's deputy has exposed a serious rift within the city government over how to deal with the community's growing population of homeless transients.
Rosemarie Pegueros-Lev, coordinator of the city's 2-month-old Homeless Project, was arrested last Thursday at her West Hollywood Park office for interfering with the arrest of a transient suspected of public intoxication. On Monday, Pegueros-Lev, 35, was formally charged by the district attorney's office with interfering with a police officer, a misdemeanor.
The West Hollywood City Council met in closed session Monday night to discuss the incident, but emerged without taking any conclusive action. The council did schedule a session in November to discuss overall policy toward the homeless and the worsening relations between sheriff's deputies and the city's Homeless Project workers.
Resolution Won't Be Easy
"We have two city departments at loggerheads," Mayor Stephen Schulte said. "What we're trying to do is move this situation toward resolution. It won't be easy."
Schulte said the Sheriff's Department, which is under contract to provide law enforcement to the city, and workers for the Homeless Project, which was created by the council in September to study and aid transients, have been at odds over each other's treatment of the homeless.
"It's a classic argument over what kind of policy we should adopt," Schulte said. "On the one hand, we have city workers trying to meet the needs of the homeless and on the other, the police are trying to keep the parks and streets free from nuisances sometimes caused by the homeless. We have to resolve this in a way that honors both efforts."
City Manager Paul Brotzman said he hopes that city officials can negotiate a conclusion to the incident that will be satisfactory to both sides. "The officer was trying to perform his duty and Rosie was taking action out of a concern for the people she was trying to help," Brotzman said.
Despite questions about whether the council might try to get the charge against Pegueros-Lev dismissed, Brotzman and other city officials declined to discuss any possible legal implications. "It's inappropriate to comment on personnel issues," city spokesman Helen Goss said.
Pegueros-Lev also would not discuss the circumstances of her arrest, saying that city officials had ordered her to remain silent for now. "I'd like to talk about it, but now is not the time," she said.
Her husband, Yehuda Lev, a columnist for the Jewish Journal, a weekly newspaper established by the Jewish Federation Council, expressed outrage over the arrest and said his wife was being treated for minor injuries resulting from a scuffle with the arresting officer, Deputy Stanley Garrett.
"She told me that she was put in a chokehold and thrown against the wall," Lev said. "This is not the way they should treat a city employee who was trying to perform her job."
A report filed by Garrett indicated that he had to push Pegueros-Lev aside after she had barred him from entering the Homeless Project's office. Garrett said he was trying to arrest a transient for public intoxication when the transient, Charles Edward Williams, 21, fled into the office.
"A female stood in front of the doorway and blocked my path," Garrett reported. "As I tried to walk past her, she stepped in front of me and stated, 'You can't go in there.' "
Drunken Charge Dropped
Garrett said Pegueros-Lev then closed the office door behind her and tried to push him away. Garrett said he pushed her aside, entered the office and arrested Williams for public intoxication. Williams and Pegueros-Lev were taken to the sheriff's West Hollywood station, where Williams was later released without being charged.
According to City Manager Brotzman, Pegueros-Lev was hired by the city in September, after the council began funding the Homeless Project. The project was created, Brotzman said, "to identify what homeless problems exist in West Hollywood and to reach out to the homeless community and link these people up with programs which meet their needs."
The homeless workers' duties include developing case files on the city's transients and aiding them by placing them in state and county general relief, drug and alcohol counseling and mental health programs.
"They go out and talk to these people, identify them, build files and then make recommendations," Brotzman said.
Critics List Complaints
Some critics of the program within West Hollywood's administration have complained that Homeless Project workers have become too close to the transients, providing them, at times, with food and even allowing them to receive mail at the West Hollywood Park office.
Critics have said establishment of the project office at West Hollywood Park may have even swelled the ranks of the homeless there.