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Official's Job Appears Safe Despite Outcry : Politics: She had been accused of harassing a gay man. But the embattled commissioner gets key support during a City Council meeting.

May 23, 1991|DUKE HELFAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The verdict appears to be in: Norma Kemper will remain.

Kemper, a West Hollywood public safety commissioner, has come under fire in recent months from leaders of the city's gay community over an incident in which she was said to have harassed a gay resident.

Gay activists have repeatedly called on Kemper to resign or for the City Council to remove her from the commission.

During Monday night's council meeting, however, any hopes of forcing Kemper out appeared to end. City Councilwoman Abbe Land, who appointed Kemper to the commission in February, 1990, refused to remove her.

Instead, Land, the one city official who could force Kemper to quit, threw her support soundly behind the embattled commissioner.

"I think Norma Kemper has come through this whole ordeal with a more sensitive view of our community's varying concerns," Land told the audience. "I think she has learned."

The controversy stems from a March 7 incident in which Kemper pointed a camera at a resident, Justin Akin, from the second-story balcony of her La Jolla Avenue home as Akin rode by on his bicycle.

Akin was returning to work from an afternoon lunch break. Kemper apparently believed that he was cruising the neighborhood in search of a sexual partner.

Akin maintains that, during a brief exchange, Kemper insinuated that she would turn over the pictures to the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station.

The tension between residents of the neighborhood and the gay community is not new.

For years, the area--one block south of Santa Monica Boulevard on Romaine Street between Havenhurst Drive and Harper Avenue--has been notorious for cruising and prostitution.

Residents have long complained about men urinating in bushes and having sex in cars parked along the streets, sometimes in broad daylight. Concerns also have been raised over the used condoms and hypodermic needles that are found regularly in neighborhood hedges.

The city has tried to resolve the problem in recent years by instituting foot patrols and placing no-turn signs on nearby streets, but no solution has been entirely effective.

Gay activists say Kemper went too far on her own. They view the recent incident as a clear case of harassment, contending that Kemper's behavior was unacceptable for a public official.

"How do you expect any member of the gay and lesbian community to believe that Norma Kemper can now act as an unbiased member of this commission?" asked Stephen Martin, president of the West Hollywood Stonewall Democratic Club and one of Kemper's more vocal critics. "She has acted as a vigilante toward residents who must come before her for redress. She has destroyed her credibility."

The Public Safety Commission was established nearly two years ago in part to address complaints of harassment lodged by members of the gay community against the West Hollywood sheriff's station. The commission also provides a public forum for residents to speak on a broad range of public safety issues.

Soon after the incident, Akin addressed the commission, demanding Kemper's removal and the return of any film that had been used in the incident.

For her part, Kemper has admitted pointing the camera at Akin as well as pointing it at other men on a few occasions. She insists, however, that there was no film in the camera at any time and that she never intended to turn over pictures to the Sheriff's Department.

Kemper said she believed that the camera might work as a deterrent to cruising and prostitution. She added, however, that her decision to use it might not have been wise.

"Sometimes you reach a level of frustration and you resort to doing something that involves poor judgment," Kemper said. "I don't want to infringe upon anyone's rights, but I also don't want to look outside my window and see people having sex.

"Even though I am a public official, I am still capable of making errors," Kemper added. "I'm sorry if Justin (Akin) felt hatred from me. All I felt was frustration."

Kemper and Akin met with an independent mediator to resolve the problem. They issued a joint statement of reconciliation at the commission's May 13 meeting, recognizing both the residents' right to a safe and peaceful neighborhood and visitors' right to cruise--as long as it does not create undue disturbance.

Although other members of the commission have not defended Kemper's actions, they say she has done everything possible to resolve the conflict.

"She has apologized publicly for any insensitivity that could have been perceived," said John Altschul, the commission chairman. "And she has agreed to continue working on this issue, to find ways to accomplish a balance between the competing rights. What more could be asked of her?"

Altschul is one of many political observers in the city who suggest that Kemper's more vocal critics have used the controversy to further their own political ends.

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