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Picus in a Pickle : Councilwoman's Handling of West Hills Dispute Could Be Damaging, Observers Say

October 05, 1987|GABE FUENTES | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus hardly could have expected the West Hills issue to dog her all the way to St. Vibiana's Cathedral during last month's papal visit.

But as Picus sat in the church, Steve Ogg, a West Hills Property Owners Assn. member who also was waiting for Pope John Paul II to appear, tapped her on the shoulder.

"You should be aware that the Pope is going to make a statement about the West Hills boundary dispute," Ogg told her.

Picus and West Hills leaders chuckle at the joke, but the longevity of the months-old dispute and the persistence of aggrieved people on both sides may be no laughing matter for the three-term councilwoman.

Picus, regarded as a moderate to liberal Democrat, does not face reelection until 1989. But the protracted controversy that has followed the adoption of a new community name--West Hills--by residents on the western edge of Canoga Park has alienated some voters and may have created a new front on which she could be vulnerable to opponents.

Reputation Undermined?

With final boundaries expected to be established this month, speculation has surfaced about whether a dispute over four square miles in the West San Fernando Valley could snowball into a lasting problem for Picus, a 56-year-old career politician with a reputation for community responsiveness.

Conservative political consultants outside the dispute and leaders of various factions within it assert that Picus switched positions during the controversy and hoped the ruckus would fade away. When the dispute festered, they said, Picus appeared reluctant to confront the issue.

Picus and her many defenders, though, see the councilwoman's handling of the affair as a demonstration of her strengths as a responsive politician in a predicament where she could not possibly please everyone.

Perhaps the most dramatic change of position was Picus' reopening of the question of who could belong to West Hills, regarded by some homeowners as having a better image than Canoga Park. Picus originally had established the eastern boundary of West Hills in January, but after more and more residents wanted in, she agreed in August to decide the final boundary according to results of a survey of more than 8,500 Canoga Park households.

Reopened Matter

Picus changed her mind because so many people found the original West Hills line "an unacceptable decision," she said in an interview last week.

"I think it should be interpreted as responsiveness," the councilwoman said. "You make a decision; if it doesn't stick, you know it. That's what happened."

The controversy began after residents in the area east of West Hills--later called the "Open Zone"--claimed that the councilwoman had promised to include them in the community. Picus said her remarks had been misunderstood, but those neighborhood leaders cried betrayal and hounded Picus until she reopened the matter, infuriating West Hills residents who asserted that Picus should have stuck with her first decision.

Soon a third faction, composed of residents east of the "Open Zone," was clamoring to be included. To try to put the matter to rest, Picus agreed to the survey, which is to be completed this month, nearly 10 months after the West Hills idea was started.

"Over and above the West Hills thing, it shows a large amount of indecisiveness" on Picus' part, said Paul Clarke, a Republican political adviser in Northridge and husband of former U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler. "It's kind of axiomatic that voters don't care too much for people in public office who are wishy-washy."

'Lack of Leadership'

"Most anyone I've talked to has been critical of what they view as a lack of leadership on her part," said Arnold Steinberg, a Sherman Oaks consultant and pollster who was hired by one of Picus' opponents in 1985.

"The problem she would have would be whether that bad press would extend to the rest of the district. In the past that has been pretty hard to do . . . what we're really talking about is, can this be the beginning of some downward momentum?"

In 1985, Picus handily defeated five challengers to her council seat. She garnered about 56% of the vote, with her closest runner-up, Republican activist Jeanne Nemo, receiving 21%.

When no candidate receives more than half the vote in a City Council election, which is nonpartisan, the top two vote-getters engage in a runoff. There are plenty of ifs, but Clarke suggested that if the West Hills controversy generates a larger number of challengers than Picus faced in 1985, the likelihood of a runoff would be increased.

Traditionally, he added, runoffs have meant trouble for incumbents, the most recent case being former Council President Pat Russell's defeat this year by Ruth Galanter, a relatively unknown community activist from Venice.

The West Hills issue could also cause Picus long-term damage if a challenger uses it to launch a credible campaign at an earlier stage than usual, Steinberg said.

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