West Hollywood City Councilman John Heilman said Thursday that Planning Commissioner Peter Weinberger should be ousted for saying that the City Council showed anti-Iranian prejudice and acted like a lynch mob when it voted Oct. 19 to reject a proposed development on Sunset Boulevard.
"There's just no place in this community for somebody to make those wild accusations and be a representative of the city on the Planning Commission," Heilman said.
But Mayor Alan Viterbi came to Weinberger's defense, saying that he has contributed a unique perspective to the commission's deliberations on controlled growth, affordable housing and historical preservation.
"I think this is a cheap political ploy on the part of John Heilman, and I'm frankly more than a little disgusted," Viterbi said.
At issue was a proposal to build a four-story 75,000-square-foot commercial complex on Sunset between Horn Avenue and Sherbourne Drive.
The project was approved by city planners and endorsed by the Planning Commission by a 6-0 vote. Some residents who originally opposed it spoke in favor of the project at the Oct. 19 meeting, but a larger group was against it and the City Council voted 4 to 1 to reject the proposal. Viterbi's was the only dissenting vote.
"I think referring to 80 people who took the time to come to the council meeting and spent the whole evening there, to refer to them as a lynch mob, is insulting," Heilman said. "And then to accuse the council of acting out of some racial prejudice in turning down the project and responding to the community, that's not acceptable as far as I'm concerned."
Heilman said that the planning commissioner "can no longer effectively function," but Viterbi said he will stand by Weinberger, who was his appointee. Weinberger can only be removed from office with Viterbi's consent.
Despite that, Heilman said he would continue with his effort to have Weinberger taken off the Planning Commission at the City Council's next meeting, which is set for the West Hollywood Park auditorium on Monday.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to get rid of him," Heilman said.
Viterbi said the controversy may have been fueled by the city's coming April elections, in which he and fellow incumbent Abbe Land will take on at least two challengers.
"It's clear that the people who are promoting this are people who are jockeying for election in the spring," Viterbi said.
He was referring to twice-failed candidate Ruth Williams, who called on him at a press conference to remove Weinberger from office.
"If not, we can only assume that the mayor has the same contempt for the members of this community as his appointee," she said, adding that previous calls on Viterbi to muzzle the sometimes-irascible commissioner had been ignored.
Weinberger's latest comments evoked "feelings of outrage and complete disgust," Williams said.
Although Viterbi said Heilman was "playing political games," Heilman said there was nothing to that accusation or to the suggestion that he may be trying to find a way out of endorsing his colleague when the campaign opens in January.
"I may very well endorse Alan despite this," he said.
Accusation of Bias
The controversy was sparked by Weinberger's comments after the Oct. 19 meeting, when he told a local newspaper that "one of the main reasons they turned it down is because of prejudice against the developer because he is an Iranian."
In an interview, Weinberger said that council members have since told him that that was not the case. Developer Ali Ebrahimi also said he did not think that his ethnic background figured in the council's decision.
"If they say it's not true, I'll take their word for it and I'll retract it entirely," Weinberger said.
But he maintained that prejudice was a factor elsewhere in city government. He said that several Iranian-born developers told him they felt their origin counted against them at Planning Commission meetings.
However, Weinberger said he stood by his characterization of the City Council's decision to block the project as "following the direction of a lynch mob."
Praising Ebrahimi for making a series of concessions in an effort to win city approval for the project, Weinberger said that the City Council voted it down without any real deliberation.
"I must admit my comments were in a moment of anger, but frankly, there comes a point where you just see an outrageous action and you've got to speak up," he said.
In the course of 14 months of negotiations, Ebrahimi agreed to pay for a new traffic signal, install a planted median strip on Sunset Boulevard, provide parking for the nearby Spago restaurant and hire an off-duty sheriff's deputy to ease congestion at the site, city Planning Manager Howard Zelevsky said.
"He's been up front and good developer to work with," Zelevsky said. "He's stuck to his word and we've had good relations. I believe the neighbors would say the same thing. They're just opposed to the project."