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Hotel Fight Gets Taken to Beverly Hills Parking Lots

August 14, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Outside a chichi grocery store, a shopper had just signed a petition endorsing a referendum that would let Beverly Hills voters decide the fate of a luxury hotel project.

Then a lady with a tight bun swooped in. Leaning over the shopper's cart, she spoke urgently: "I'm a teacher, and I always tell my students to read something before they sign it. Have you read this all the way through?"

The two referendum supporters, who had just collected the shopper's signature, sighed and looked frustrated. The shopper just looked perplexed, and the awkward scene pretty much summed up the politics playing out in the streets, or at least the parking lots, of Beverly Hills these days.

For two weeks now, a group of Beverly Hills residents and merchants opposed to a planned $200-million five-star hotel has been collecting signatures to put the issue before voters. The project has already won approval from the city, which is, in fact, a joint developer in the deal.

But many of the signature gatherers -- some volunteer, but many paid and from outside the area -- say they have been stymied by people they call "blockers," who are hired by pro-hotel interests.

One signature collector said a blocker tore off and crumpled a signed referendum petition sheet; another said "an organized gang of disrupters" chased her down a street. One witness said he saw a blocker offer a signature gatherer $100 to defect to the blocker side.

Beverly Hills resident Bonnie Kulick said a blocker grabbed her by the collar after she signed the referendum petition Monday in a Ralphs parking lot.

"I don't like being physically accosted while attempting to exercise my rights," Kulick said.

Some residents have also complained about misleading comments and aggressive behavior by signature gatherers.

Here was the scene in the Bristol Farms parking lot at Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive one recent morning: Signature gatherers Mary Rose Barry and Rob Grocholski greeted a shopper as she rolled her grocery-laden cart out of the store. They asked her to sign the referendum petition.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she was aware of the hotel issue and wanted to sign. She did.

Within seconds, the lady with the bun -- dressed in black pants and a scoop-neck top and wearing a choker of large faux pearls -- zoomed into action.

"Have you read this?" she asked, pointing to the 200-plus-page referendum booklet. "You realize that by signing the bottom of that petition you're certifying all the other signatures that they might get on that page?"

Indeed, the signer had also penned her name at the bottom of the sheet -- petition rules require the names to be verified by a resident -- basically witnessing her own signature.

"No problem," Barry, one of the signature collectors, said. "I'm drawing a line through all the other signature spaces."

The lady with the bun, who declined to give her name but described herself as a volunteer, continued: "But what about the other pages inside?" Barry drew a line through those signature spaces as well.

What's a beleaguered shopper to do? The woman scratched out her name and rolled her groceries to her Mercedes-Benz.

Similar episodes have played out all over town, from the library to the weekly farmers market to residential byways, as the Campaign to Save Beverly Hills, which opposes the proposed 214-room Montage Hotel, goes up against a pro-hotel coalition called Sensible Merchants and Residents Together, or SMART.

Local pundits say the conflict marks a new low in city politics -- a sort of sinking down and acting out in Beverly Hills.

"We've had conflicts before, but it has never come to this kind of push and shove," said Dorothy Kaufman, president of the League of Women Voters of Beverly Hills, part of the anti-hotel alliance.

Beverly Hills Weekly's Gerald Lunn asked in his column this week: "If the Montage is such a great project, why does the Montage have to hire thugs to harass the alliance's signature gatherers?"

The Campaign to Save Beverly Hills is supported by the Beverly Hills Residential-Business Alliance for a Livable Community, which includes homeowners groups and business and civic organizations.

SMART is backed by the Athens Group, the Phoenix-based project developer. Jay Newman, Athens' chief operating officer, noted that competing luxury hotels, including the Peninsula Hotel, are helping to finance the referendum effort.

Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney for the anti-Montage faction, acknowledged that hotels are members, but he declined to reveal funding sources, saying the group would eventually disclose its backers as required by campaign finance laws.

The group has until Aug. 27 to gather the needed signatures -- 10% of registered voters. That would be about 1,500 registered voters, Silverstein said, but the group plans to amass more than 2,000 just to be safe.

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