By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
He had just come from the gym; I ate a much needed lunch. We sat at the corner of Fairfax and Santa Monica, with the beep beep beep and then rat a tat tat of the crosswalk buttons giving cadence to the rush and honks of traffic.
I asked him, “What changes have you seen since you called for the ouster of our longest serving council members?
He said, “The question you’re asking is essentially, ‘Why did I decide to run for office?
“In memory… I genuinely thought that our city was moving in a direction that was unrecognizable to me when I played it out in my head,’ said Mayor Pro Tempore and about-to-become Mayor of West Hollywood Mr. D’Amico.
“We were not listening to residents and we were forcing things to happen that didn’t seem to be in the direction that most of the residents didn’t want to go. They tended to be around public policy issues that were made up ideals that are good goals and should be pursued but not always in a totalizing way, like they were staring to be.
“One of them, of course, was the construction proposed at 1343 North Laurel (AKA Tara, or Laurel Place),” he said.
“That was a good idea, but too big an idea for that site and, sadly, the city lost its sense of proportion. I would say that the city pursued a good goal, affordable housing, at any cost,” said Mr. D’Amico.
In fact, that “affordable housing at any cost” philosophy affected the city in an insidious way because it blocked input from the residents – many of whom felt they were entitled to give meaningful input into the city they wrested from County control 30 years ago.
The fight over Laurel Place saw opponents branded as “senior haters,” despite the advanced age of many. The city, led by Abbe Land’s and John Heilman’s offices, at first tried to shoehorn as many units into the property as physically possible (42), but the number of units fell as the project’s costs rose due to delays and court battles.
Finally, with the primary piece of funding for the project endangered unless action was taken soon, the head of the Rent Stabilization and Housing Department, Allyne Winderman, began lobbying the Planning Commission, on which Mr. D’Amico served at the time.
He took great offense at the arm twisting and felt great regret that he had voted for the project.
That council member, Lindsey Horvath, was apparently championed by Mr. Heilman and Ms. Land because she lacked background knowledge and critical thinking skills and would not question the vote she was told to cast on 1343 Laurel after the Supreme Court decided against the city and Mr. Heilman and Ms. Land needed a third vote to ram the project through.
That incident inflamed Mr. D;Amico’s passions for his city. As he tells it, “A very responsible and objective set of third party persons – the State of California’s Supreme Court – said some is askew. And yet the city, on the very next day, said, “OK, well, we’ll change one thing and then we’re moving forward.
“I thought,” he said, “that’s just wrong.”
He also mentioned the controversy over the proposal to move the recovery center from the park to enlarge the Tiny Tots space as another example of skewed objectives. “There were 6,000 residents and users of the recovery facility basically evicted from the city, to do what? To create another good that is a goal of the city, yet it was the wrong thing.”
However, the 4% million HUD grant that would have partially financed the project had to be spent by the federal government, and since WeHo could not spend it in time it went to the next deserving project on their list. The legal fees escalated. The re-design fees accumulated. Soon the project’s estimated cost rose to $15 million. The city had to pour money into it even though it seemed unlikely to be built.
He decided enough was enough, so demanded John Heilman’s and Abbe Land’s ouster. Not long afterward, he announced his own candidacy for office on a theFUTURE slogan and a desire to shake up the city government by at least knocking off the council member appointed after Sal Guarriello’s death.
Successful in his bid for election, he came in as top vote getter, beating Abbe Land and John Heilman soundly. Lindsey Horvath came in fifth place.
He went over the vote tallies. “I got about 2900 votes, Abbe got about 2750. If you add up those two blocks of votes, that’s still fewer than the total vote. I doubt that don’t share some votes, but I doubt if it’s very many, and so I think that’s what’s different in our community.
“Before the 2011 election, the number of votes that Abbe and John received [as the top two finishers] were more than the number of votes cast. I think that they recognize, too, that possibly they serve a different constituency than I do and that Jeff and John Duran have their own constituencies.”
He also described a demographic change that is having a vast effect on the city, the diminution of the senior population. “Where once we had a senior population at 30 percent, it’s now only 15 percent seniors. All those people have left the city, most have died, and young people have moved in to replace them.”
He suggests that those claiming the de-gayification of West Hollywood is happening are simply seeing a different data set than in the past. “The 15 percent of invisible (and straight seniors that have left are replaced by straight people, some of them with families. Gay people are having children.”
He then quoted statistics that should send chills of terror down the spine of any medical supply outlet carrying a line of senior merchandise.
“Eighty five percent of the population is under 65, and 75 percent of the population is under 50. It’s a city full of young people, and though I can’t speak for all LGBT people, it’s my sense that the Russian seniors are invisible to them.”
The result, he says, is a higher profile for younger straight people, giving anecdotal reason for people to fear de-gayification. “There were one thousand people who voted in 2011 who did not vote in the three person cycle,” he said, “and they did it because I asked them to vote. I know you, we’re friends, or I’ve lived here for 25 years as your neighbor… whatever. I want you to vote.”
Now that he has gained office and faces his mayoral year (each council member takes a turn, and a D’Amico “administration” officially means little other the person who wields the gavel. There is, however, a bully pulpit to use.
“In some way my first term was about ideas and bringing them forward for public discussion,” he said. “Not all the ideas too hold, but people began thinking about things differently.”
He raised as an example of an action he suggested two years ago that Mr. Heilman and Ms. Land would not touch – a move to allow apartment buildings to pay in lieu fees to provide apartment buildings with deferred maintenance financing to renovate or rebuild.
“Two years later, the Governor of California declares that, if you’re not using state funds, you can pay in lieu fees.”
Not to be mistaken, he emphasized that he stood “in awe of the hard work, John, Abbe, Paul, Sal, Steve Martin and Jeff and John did in the past 30 years. I’m pretty sure there’s some really good work to come in our city in the next 30 years. It’s going to be stuff that’s starting right now.”
The Eastside’s development stands out for Mr. D’Amico as a primary opportunity for positive change, with hundreds of new apartments atop retailers and offices and populated by a whole new group of people who are attracted to West Hollywood not only because it’s gay, but because it’s also the trendiest and getting trendier, city in LA County.
“I like to say the Eastside is the new Eastside. The Eastside of the city is really going to be a different place.” In another observation, he noted that social service spending will be unlikely to decrease as seniors depart, because the remaining seniors – “stay-ins” – require more intensive and expensive care.
As for a direction he would like to push the city in the next 12 months, he said that he thought that John Duran and he could, “take a position of leadership on what a community, an organization, can do to lower the HIV viral load in a city. We have access to young gay men who come to our city to have fun, and we can talk to them about all the different ways people can protect themselves and reduce harm around drug use and HIV infection n and eventually make this a virus free city.”
He claims that it’s a result of the newness in the world. “It didn’t exist in the same way it does today five years ago,” Mr. D’Amico said. “It does now; now it exists.”
But the city is not yet rid of all its faults and foibles. One practice that had Mr. D’Amico seeing red was the retirement of a senior staffer, deputy city manager Joan English, to be immediately followed by the city re-hiring her as a consultant.”
“The really insidious thing is when people decide their careers are over and leave but we pay them $100,000 to come back. They don’t really produce anything, they don’t really have a boss, they’re really not responsible for anything, and I think, then “Why did they leave their job? And more importantly, why are we putting a glass ceiling above the middle managers who have been waiting for advancement?’”
The ill will directed at Mr. D’Amico by John Heilman and his deputy Fran Solomon reached epic proportions, with Ms. Solomon losing composure and screeching at Mr. D’Amico and his deputy, Michelle Rex – more than once.
Yet in the three years since his election, Mr. D’Amico and Mr. Heilman have developed a working, if not especially buddy-buddy, relationship. He also says he notices another change since 2010 worth mentioning.
“I have noticed that John and Abbe are both more relaxed and attending more events than I can remember,” he said. “I was talking to a person in upper management at City Hall, who also noticed it. There’s the big change in the community. They’ve come home to our community.”