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Westside race for 5th District City Council seat is wide open

The district has a record of choosing mavericks and newcomers. Development and traffic are key issues.

March 01, 2009|David Zahniser

If any section of Los Angeles knows how to confound the political establishment, it's the City Council's 5th District, a string of affluent Westside neighborhoods that has been electing newcomers and outsiders for decades.

In 1953, voters picked 22-year-old Roz Wyman, now known for helping to woo the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. Twelve years later, they threw out Wyman in favor of Ed Edelman, a 34-year-old political newcomer. And a decade after that, the district chose a passionate advocate for Soviet Jews, 26-year-old Zev Yaroslavsky, as their councilman.

With six evenly matched candidates running in the race to replace Councilman Jack Weiss, voters may deliver yet another surprise Tuesday.

"Any two of the six could end up in that runoff" election on May 19, said Yaroslavsky, now a veteran county supervisor. "As a resident of the district, and from what I hear and the lawn signs I see, I think it's anybody's race right now."

Longtime political observers are struggling to predict how the candidates will play in the 5th, which covers neighborhoods such as Bel Air, Cheviot Hills, Century City, Encino and Westwood. In a district skeptical of insiders, only one candidate has held public office. The district traditionally embraces younger candidates, yet only one of the six is under 40.

Although neighborhood councils and labor unions have expanded their reach into other parts of Los Angeles, homeowner associations remain a potent political force in the 5th, at times hiring their own traffic engineers as they fight the district's many multistory development projects.

Many of those neighborhood groups joined forces in 2007 to mount a recall campaign against Weiss, who is now running for city attorney. Although that effort fizzled, several of the same activists have coalesced this year around neighborhood council member David T. Vahedi, who lost to Weiss in 2005.

Vahedi, 42, made a splash by promising not to accept any contributions from real estate developers who do business with the city, a dramatic break from the current councilman. He also courted neighborhood activists by promoting a constituent bill of rights, one that includes "the right to have local homeowner association leaders and residents present at all meetings where development projects are discussed."

Vahedi said the clause is needed because residents have been left in the dark about too many development projects. "I'd rather hear the information from both sides, instead of just being persuaded by a land-use attorney downtown," he said.

The candidate with the greatest name recognition is Paul Koretz, a former state assemblyman and 12-year member of the West Hollywood City Council when he lived in that city.

Although Koretz has picked up the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, he also has mounted a pro-homeowner platform that rivals Vahedi's.

Asked to name a project that should not have been approved in the district, Koretz cited The Grove retail and restaurant development, saying it has had a devastating impact on traffic. Of the six candidates, Koretz also gave Weiss the lowest marks, saying the incumbent "wasn't accessible and wasn't engaged" -- and had been too favorable to development.

"I don't think he liked working on constituent problems in a hands-on way," Koretz said. "He didn't want to fix the potholes or get the trees trimmed. I think he liked the big issues, but not the heart of the job. It wasn't the right job suited for his personality."

Koretz has offered up his own neighborhood bill of rights, promising not to announce a major project in a neighborhood without "consulting with that community first."

Still, Koretz has come under fire from another candidate who has emphasized his own community: Ron Galperin, a member of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council.

In mailers and in person, Galperin has warned that Koretz would bring Sacramento-style budgeting to the City Council. A resident of Coldwater Canyon, Galperin has marketed himself as the big-picture candidate -- someone who will not just propose programs, but also find the money to implement them.

The cornerstone of Galperin's platform is a promise to help the city do a better job of collecting on $1 billion in unpaid bills and fees on everything from false burglar alarms to elevator inspections. "There seems to be a real lack of understanding about the city's budget among the other candidates -- and frankly, among many of the people who are on the council right now -- about where you look to actually save money," he said.

While Galperin painted himself as a fiscal reformer, former Chamber of Commerce executive Robyn Ritter Simon has campaigned as the only mother in the race. Ritter Simon, 47, talked up her work as a co-founder of Beverlywood Moms, a parent group that worked to improve Canfield Elementary School.

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