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Term-limit push in West Hollywood goes door to door

Activists find support in West Hollywood, where all but one City Council member has served more than a decade. The measure has made the March 5 ballot.

January 14, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • West Hollywood resident Nicole Paterson, left, receives information on a term-limit proposal from Lauren Meister. “People feel like there’s a machine and that their votes don’t count,” Meister said.
West Hollywood resident Nicole Paterson, left, receives information… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Scott Schmidt walked through neighborhoods Sunday with a stack of newly printed door hangers and a mission: to persuade people to support term limits for West Hollywood's City Council.

On Norwich Drive, he met homeowner Melanie Levitt.

"You got it!" she said, taking the literature and waving at volunteers across the street.

"The neighborhood wants all of the council members out," said Levitt, who believes the city is being overdeveloped. "They've become so big-headed and greedy."

All but one of the five members of the West Hollywood City Council has spent more than a decade in office.

But some community activists, like Schmidt, say they are tired of seeing the same people in office year after year. City Council membership, they say, should not be a lifetime position.

"We have an entrenched incumbency in West Hollywood that protects itself," said Schmidt, a West Hollywood resident who has helped spearhead a campaign that gathered more than 3,000 signatures and put a term-limit measure on the March 5 municipal election ballot.

If it passes, the measure would limit council members to three four-year terms, said Corey Schaffer, West Hollywood's city clerk. The term limit, however, would not be retroactive. Each council member would be allowed three additional four-year terms after the measure's adoption.

Schmidt and a handful of volunteers spent Sunday afternoon knocking on doors and distributing information about the measure during their first neighborhood canvassing effort since the proposal became eligible for the ballot.

Knocking on doors a few streets away from Levitt's house, Lauren Meister was greeted with a smile by Steven Golightly, who had signed the group's petition in the fall and planned to support the measure.

"People feel like there's a machine and that their votes don't count," Meister said.

Council members have been vocal about their opposition to the measure but voted during a November council meeting to put it on the ballot.

"I am not supportive of term limits — I have always been very upfront about that — but the signatures were collected, and it deserves to go to the people," Councilwoman Abbe Land said during that meeting.

Schmidt ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011 and Meister has run unsuccessfully twice. Some council members point to their unsuccessful campaigns as a motive for the measure.

Both, however, insist the effort to establish term limits is not a personal attack against any of the current council members. Rather, they say, it is aimed at keeping long-term council members from becoming too influenced by lobbyists and ensuring that others can run for office and stand a chance.

"Folks are scared to run against the incumbents because of the consequences," Schmidt said.

Incumbents have lost an election only twice in the city's history, city officials said.

Previous attempts at term limits had been rejected. In 1997, voters balked at a measure that would have limited council members to two consecutive terms.

John Heilman, the longest-serving member, was elected in November 1984 to the newly incorporated city's first council and has remained in office for 28 years.

Heilman, who was instrumental in the city's founding, has been reelected seven times and has served seven one-year terms as mayor, a position that rotates annually among members.

He said he keeps running for office out of love for his city and a desire to serve the residents he has come to know well.

Term limits "deprive voters of the right to choose who they want to represent them," Heilman said. If voters are unhappy with a council member, they can vote that person out of office, he said.

Two incumbent councilmen, John Duran and Mayor Jeffrey Prang, are running for reelection this year. Seven others are competing for those seats.

Duran, who was first elected to the council in 2001, said "council leadership" has helped "make West Hollywood one of the most desirable cities in Southern California."

Other members shared that sentiment, saying the city's success is proof the council is doing a good job.

At a time when many cities are facing financial crises, even bankruptcy, West Hollywood is operating with $75 million in reserves and, in recent years, has opened a new library, parking garage and renovated park.

Prang, who was first elected in 1997, said his longevity has helped him in office.

"Every profession values experience," he said. "Term limits is almost like saying we don't."

West Hollywood, he said, "is a small city. We see people at the grocery store. They can call us and email us and text us. The people in West Hollywood are smart enough to know that if there's a council member they don't like, they don't have to vote for them."

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