Michael L. Dieden, a smooth-spoken public relations executive who inspired some residents and angered others when he said the Venice community plan needed more vision and soul, has resigned as head of the Venice Action Committee.
The surprise move came just two days after Dieden, 37, helped coordinate a ritzy beachside benefit that raised more than $50,000 for the group. Dieden said he quit last week to devote more time to his business.
"I put a year and a half of my life and my firm's life into it," Dieden said. "We now have a broad-based board of directors and we are financially solvent. It was time to pass the torch to new blood and new leadership."
Tom Sewell, a founding member of the group, said he and other members were shocked by the resignation. He called Dieden an extraordinary leader.
"He grew in the position," Sewell said. "And as he became much more articulate and powerful, he was able to inspire people. . . ."
Harlan Lee, a developer, was named as the group's new president. Lee said Dieden did a "phenomenal" job and he predicted that the committee, a 100-member organization of businessmen, residents and artists, would stick to the course that Dieden had charted.
Lee said the organization will continue to seek solutions to chronic community problems such as crime and the parking shortage, while fostering modest development. The committee is also expected to use the $50,000 to draft a new proposal on Venice growth.
That proposal was one of Dieden's last projects as head of the committee, and it also proved to be the most controversial. When he raised the idea earlier this month, Dieden said the current Venice Community Plan lacked vision and soul, and announced that the committee would hire a consultant to draft new development guidelines.
Gift to Community
Dieden termed the proposal, called "Visions of Venice," a gift to the community. But several residents charged that Dieden and the Venice Action Committee were actually trying to impose their will on the community. In a letter to The Times, longtime activist Arnold Springer said Dieden and his allies hope to make Venice more exclusive.
Dieden denied the allegation. But the incident was typical of the type of verbal tug of war that took place between Dieden's committee and the anti-growth activists who are affiliated with the Venice Town Council.
The council, which is not a government body, is dedicated to solving the parking shortage and preserving Venice's bohemian character. It was the only major activist group until late 1985, when the Venice Action Committee was formed by Dieden, who had honed his organizational skills as a political director for the Campaign for Economic Democracy and as campaign manager for Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
The charismatic Dieden cemented the group's reputation as a community force by recruiting some of Venice's most prominent residents, including producer and restaurant owner Tony Bill, architect Frank Gehry, developers Lee and Stephen Blanchard and historian Sewell. And the group gained favorable publicity for early efforts such as tree planting and painting the old Venice City Hall.
But the committee never quite gained the trust of old-time community activists. And by the beginning of this year, as Dieden was detailing plans for drafting the new development guidelines, opponents were leveling serious charges at him.
Praise and Criticism
Several accused Dieden of being a front man for developers, many of whom are his personal clients. Others accused him of being a carpetbagger, noting that Dieden worked in Venice but lived in West Los Angeles.
Dieden's supporters, however, lavished praise on him. One developer who hired Dieden to represent him at a hearing said Dieden was "unflappable."
Dieden acknowledged that he had made some enemies, but said they did not influence his decision to resign. He said committee activities were consuming far too much of his time, and he added that he had achieved his goals of creating a "progressive voice" in Venice.
"I wanted to prove that we were credible and that we could perform," Dieden said. "There is always resistance to change. But there are some things in Venice that need changing. . . . The attack on the Venice Action Committee and myself is an easy and thoughtless way to deal with a group of people who are committed to changing the quality of life in Venice for the better."
Lee, who is building a multimillion-dollar commercial-residential complex at Rose Avenue and Main Street, could face opposition because he's a developer. But he said he will work to quell criticisms against the committee.
"If anybody has any problems with me being a developer they should come around and get involved with us," Lee said. "They (the group's critics) have worked hard and we have worked hard. I don't see any of them as opponents."
Dieden will continue to serve on the committee's board of directors.