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Residents wrestle to represent Westwood

Some are pushing for a neighborhood council sanctioned by the city; existing groups say they are sufficient. The battle has gotten nasty, with crude missives and accusations of secret maneuvering.

January 19, 2010|By Martha Groves

The normally straightforward process of starting a neighborhood council has degenerated into an ugly spat over who should be the recognized voice of Westwood.

Since last summer, public meetings and communications about a proposed council have been punctuated by shouting, name-calling and accusations, while the blizzard of e-mails that has accompanied the process has been dotted with rude and crude language. "Morons with wacko ideas do not qualify," read the subject line in one electronic message.

But the meetings and exchanges have also revealed a deep-seated desire on the part of many residents for a change in how decisions about development and other matters are made in Westwood.

Tonight, Los Angeles' Board of Neighborhood Commissioners is expected to approve the first Westwood Neighborhood Council. It would become the 90th neighborhood council in the city and would mark a victory for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which has seen four previous efforts in Westwood fail.

The journey to certification produced a drawn-out battle between the newly galvanized residents and the leaders of key homeowners groups, who say the council formation has been characterized by secrecy and deception.

"These homeowners associations have been effective . . . in local politics for a longtime," Sandy Throop, co-chairman of the council formation group, said in an interview. The existence of a council "would result in some influence sharing, and I think that is of concern to them."

Sandy Brown, the longtime president of the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Assn., countered that "I think Westwood is a very organized community and has looked after itself for 50 years." Brown said she objected to the idea of community governance "being attached to the city."

A vocal opponent of neighborhood councils, Brown has been the lightning rod for much of the anger that helped foment the council movement.

By many accounts, the rumble in Westwood has its roots in a mundane bit of city business -- reducing cut-through traffic in the neighborhood adjoining the Palazzo Westwood, a residential and retail complex.

Brown said she supported the traffic measures on a trial basis. After the right- and left-turn-only restrictions were installed in 2008, however, residents whose streets bore the burden of rerouted traffic protested, and the city reversed the measures.

Mark Herd, a Venice resident who grew up in Westwood and owns property there, said he and his brother Easton started the push for a neighborhood council in late 2008. Last January they met with Deanna Stevenson, a project coordinator for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.

Stevenson "wanted us to keep it quiet with the homeowners associations," Herd said, a suggestion he found "weird" because he and his brother had planned to reach out to those powerful groups.

In July, soon after the process went public, Stevenson and some Westside stakeholders "literally hijacked the whole operation," Herd said.

One newcomer was Margaret "Peg" Jacob, a Westwood resident and UCLA history professor who is co-chairwoman of the council formation group. Jacob said she was primarily motivated by the blight she saw in Westwood, where store fronts sit empty amid trash and where medical marijuana shops have opened.

But Steven Sann, chairman of the Westwood Village Business Assn., who briefly worked with the formation team before being ousted, said Jacob "seems to want vengeance against the homeowners group and its president."

A September e-mail exchange would appear to bolster the longtime activists' contention that Stevenson sought to keep the effort out of the public eye. In a Sept. 15 e-mail, Jacob said she had spent hours getting business owners and residents to sign petitions. Stevenson responded: "Don't give away your secrets . . . where you've been and so forth to the other side. They will follow up and try to destroy."

Stevenson referred a call from The Times to her boss, BongHwan Kim, general manager of the neighborhood department. Kim said his staff's mission is to "make sure we reach out to as many people as possible and to make sure the formation of [a neighborhood council] application involves as many people as possible."

Ken Draper, editor of CityWatch.com, which advocates for community empowerment, said in a recent post that even if the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners put the certification battle to rest, "the new Westwood Council leaders will face the even harder task of bringing the community together."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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