Beverly Hills pulled out all of the stops to celebrate the installation of the new City Council this past Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater. From a taste of Sweden to incoming Mayor John Mirisch’s recipe for community right here in Beverly Hills, the ceremony hit all the high notes after a season of Council discord and a partisan election characterized by negative attacks. Yet this new Council’s installation suggested that change may actually be in the air. Of course the potential for change comes every two years, but in our parochial burgh, it’s usually only the Council nameplates that rotate even as our entrenched resistance to open government endures. Will the coming two years be different?
Let’s get right to the important stuff: If you haven’t attended a Beverly Hills City Council installation ceremony, you’ve not only missed an opportunity to hear directly from your elected leaders a preview of their priorities, you’ve also missed a top-tier buffet. No rubber chicken and Costco cookies here. This year, catering came from Picolo Paradiso restaurant in Beverly Hills, and the salmon, crab cakes, tiramisu and cheesecake reset the bar for event food. The best part: you need not be a resident (or even receive an invitation) to enjoy it. This is as democratic and egalitarian as it gets in Beverly Hills, so hungry cyclists take note: put March 2015 on your calendar already!
Hopefully by then you’ll have more to celebrate than a good buffet. With two and possibly three progressive members on City Council, each of whom believes in transparency, accountability, and (to borrow a slogan) “putting residents first,” it’s possible that the next two-year Council term will produce something tangible in the way of road safety and bike-friendly improvements. It’s been three years since the city created a committee to update our 1970-era bicycle plan, and we haven’t yet seen a single change. Nor have we seen a single shared-road sign or bicycle lane. Not even a single rack.
But are the stars aligning to make bike facilities and safer streets a possibility? Incoming Mayor John Mirisch went out of his way in his address to call for “convenient, safe and practical” cycling. New Vice Mayor Lili Bosse has spoken often in Council chambers about making the city bike-friendly too. And incoming councilmember Nancy Krasne has made vehicular congestion one of her campaign’s “six points.” In the past she’s been sympathetic to the dangers on the street that we face. All suggest change may be in the air for cyclists.
Let’s take a closer look at the event by way of a recap and then move on to some of the statements made by our incoming Council.
Note to the Academy: Cue the Jaws Music!
The Council installation at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was long in duration but short on highlights. To be fair, these kinds of events generally do tend toward banal pomp characteristic of municipal rituals: mutual backslapping, empty platitudes, and above all, lots of good cheer for the home team. And so it was here. But some attention to the clock would have been welcome; the evening clocked at nearly three hours.
To keep the mind engaged, perhaps, the evening represented a distinct departure from the usual protocol in two ways: it presented a broader cultural perspective that we’re accustomed to seeing at an installation; and it renewed the focus on ‘service’ in the public service that is local government.
First the culture: our incoming Mayor is not only smitten with Swedish culture, he’s a bonafide Stockholm resident with Swedish citizenship too. The tipoff might have been the catered Swedish meatballs after the reception, but really that was the least of it. Angelic singers from a nearby Sweden-affiliated school warmed up the crowd (if you can call it that) with a couple of Swedish language vocal numbers. Listen to the event audio (or visit the archive for video) to hear for yourself perhaps the most unusual installation to date. And if the taste of Eurovision is not enough, fast-forward to hear our new Mayor himself deliver extensive remarks in Swedish. That’s walking the walk Mr. Mayor!
A focus on restoring service to the local government mission emerged time and again this evening. Where outgoing councilmember Brucker and former Mayor Brien hewed to the traditional themes of ‘best city’ etc., the incoming Mayor reprised his campaign’s slogan, ‘Still putting the people first,’ and charged City Hall officials with the duty to do more to deliver.
After two years of talk about high city salaries, generous benefits, but incommensurate performance and innovation, it was a refreshing break with the usual platitudes and suggested that this incoming Council majority might begin to repair the frayed ties and battered trust that characterizes the relationship between the residents and those who govern on our behalf.
Indeed, transparency and accountability were the twin themes this evening, and were echoed by incoming councilmember Nancy Krasne. In her campaign she had criticized City Hall’s insularity. And at installation she observed of the election, “The people have made it clear that they will no longer be excluded from the decision-making process.” Calling out City Hall is in itself is a departure from the pro forma Council installation.
Barry Brucker Tribute
But it wasn’t all hardball. Testimony and video paid heartfelt tribute to outgoing councilmember (and former Mayor) Barry Brucker for his sixteen years of public service (which incredibly began with a write-in campaign for school board). All to the good: Brucker’s leadership on eliminating smoking in public places wins high praise.
But to be fair, his commitments to reducing our city’s carbon footprint and increasing civility have found less traction this past Council term. Sustainability? We’re still the regional avatar for over-consumption. Our ‘green city’ initiative has devolved from policy proposal to a few piecemeal gestures across the departments. And City Hall continues to resist planning for multimodal mobility. Our 2009 sustainable city plan was a Brucker product too but we haven’t even posted it on the city’s website. And it’s city policy.
While Brucker’s pro-civility ‘Take a Moment’ initiative was a symbolic step toward comity, it encountered a City Council with deep divisions. Of course, we can hardly harangue Brucker for not bringing wholesale reform to City Hall. That’s a heavy lift for an institution so invested in the status quo.
Mayor John Mirisch
Might it take an entire village to bring change to City Hall? That seemed to be the thrust behind the new Mayor’s remarks. He placed community and connection at the center of his call for change. Indeed as if to overcome the partisan sniping that characterized the latter days of the election, he sported a badge of “communitarian” proudly. The Mayor called local government “the best form of democracy” because it is closest to the people and the closest thing that we have to home. “It’s where we’re safe – a refuge from the cruelty of the world,” he said. “But if local government doesn’t listen, it can also be the most frustrating form of government.”
Connections bind us together as residents, he said, but the ties that have traditionally bound residents to City Hall have frayed. He placed the onus on city officials to rebuild the trust necessary to govern with legitimacy. Reiterating here his campaign slogan, “Still putting residents first, he added, “Sometimes City Hall forgets that the purpose of local government is to serve the residents, not the other way around.”
Mirisch staked his campaign and now term as Mayor on re-balancing the power between City Hall and the residents whom it serves, and to reintroduce good government as a central mission of City Hall. That’s been his approach on Council for the past four years, and it has informed his sometimes controversial stance on Metro’s preferred route for the subway extension: under the Beverly Hills high school. It’s a position that has earned him some pointed barbs on the Patch blog and exposed the city to accusations of privileged insularity.
Mayor Mirisch is unapologetic, however. In this installation address he doubled-down on the fight against Metro and promised to reprise a a Council resolution to withdraw support for the extension should Metro not heed the city’s concerns.
[Metro] likely thought that when push came to shove we would continue to support the Westside extension even if our concerns were dismissed, and sometimes in ways which give new meaning to the concept of arrogance. I intend to introduce a resolution that would hopefully dispel that notion and make it clear in no uncertain terms that as much as we support the principles of mass transit, this Council’s support is predicated on the alignments not going under our high school…We’re not willing to sacrifice our high school for the sake of well-connected special interests.
Last fall he tried but failed to secure from the Council majority a resolution of non-support. Now it is much more likely that the new Council majority will vote for that resolution. And it was lost on no close observer that he was sworn into council office (and again into the Mayor’s chair) by LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a conservative and ideological counterweight to Metro backer Zev Yaroslavsky.
Mirisch ostensibly addressed Antonovich directly to score a Mirisch delivered a few pointed barbs Metro’s way:
From the very beginning, you saw that the process, the process of deciding the route that would take the subway under the high school was rigged, fueled by old-school crony capitalism…You said it was like a professional wrestling match where one knows the outcome before the wrestlers even step into the ring.
If “the fix was in,” as Mirisch told Antonovich, “please help us to fix the fix. Get your [Metro board] colleagues to take our concerns seriously.”
To date our school board has spent about $2 million in legal fees and lobbying to oppose the high school route, and now as Mayor Mirisch is making clear his determination to thwart Metro by backing the board with even more financial muscle and lobbying power. (No idle threat to Metro: Antonovich is its incoming board Chair.)
The Mayor has always said that his concern was the process by which Metro arrived at its preferred route for the subway extension. He has steadfastly claimed a bait-and-switch: that Metro first proposed a Santa Monica Boulevard route only to change it later and then refuse to entertain our city’s concerns. His crusade (if you will) has hinged on transparency, and he concluded his remarks on Metro by saying, “I hope we can make Metro more transparent, more responsive, and more effective…the kind of agency that does not stand in the way of principles like ‘good government.’”
The Mayor also outlined this agenda for his term as Mayor:
- “Do more with less, not less with more.” He wants to repeal the recent water hike and work toward what he called “true and meaningful fiscal responsibility” that includes fair and sustainable city salaries and benefits rather than “sticking it to the residents.”
- “Provide our children the opportunities that first-rate public schools can afford.” He called schools “the glue that holds our community together” and proposed to increase city direct support for the schools. Helping them deal with state mismanagement would, he said, “make our district once again into a lighthouse district.”
- “Add five simple words to our city’s vision statement: open government, active resident participation, safety, innovation, sustainability, and service.’” With the formation of a Mayor’s transparency committee (aka the ‘Sunshine Task Force’), Beverly Hills could be a gold standard for local government transparency that offers residents more reasons to participate, he said.
- “Invest in infrastructure by adding greenspace wherever possible and making our city more bike-friendly.” He emphasized the need for investing in multimodal mobility: “Walking and biking are wonderful ways to connect the different parts of the city, and we need to work on making this convenient, safe and practical.” Good news for us.
- “Revitalize our Southeast part of town.” He called the area “one of the greatest opportunities for our city to create new, vibrant resident-friendly neighborhoods.” Now that it is an A-list council priority, he said, “It’s really time to do more than pay lip service to this goal.”
- “Let’s make historical preservation and honoring and respecting our history a major part of our hundredth celebration.” He hailed the formation Cultural Heritage Commission (that he was instrumental in creating) and said that historic preservation needed to be a priority (and a key element of the centennial).
The new Mayor bookended his address with another call to celebrate people and the connections between them. “People are what community is all about. This evening is all about connections, and our connections extend beyond our community to the larger community in California and beyond.”
We also witnessed the re-seating of current councilmember Willie Brien; welcomed former councilmember Nancy Krasne back to the dais after four years away; and celebrated the continued tenure of Lili Bosse and Julian Gold (two of three council seats were not open this election).
Former Mayor Willie Brien presided over the beginning of this event as an emcee. He sung the praises of Beverly Hills and honored outgoing councilmember Barry Brucker. He also thanked his campaign supporters and the voters, too, but couldn’t resist a nod to the acrimony in the campaign. He said, “I caught my share [of hell] this past year and let me tell you, it was worth it,” he said. He continued:
I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I will continue to stand up for what I believe is right for this community, and I will never bow to outside forces nor take the easy or expedient way. That is not who I am or what I stand for….
It recalled the Courier’s very pointed front-page admonition, “Don’t vote for Willie Brien” and the West Hollywood Democratic Club’s battle on his behalf wherein it charged the Courier with “yellow journalism.”
Returning to a more wholesome theme, Brien in his next four years pledged to “expand the brand” that is Beverly Hills and he trumpeted support for revitalizing Roxbury and Beverly Gardens parks (the former having generated no small share of acrimony too). Outgoing Mayor Brien even heralded a new “transit-oriented approach” to making our city “the business-friendly community,” which might suggest his support for the subway or perhaps even greater support for multimodal mobility. Who knows?
Nancy Krasne returned to the Council after a four-year absence with a big smile and a positive outlook. “Today we stand together for positive change,” she said. Was she obliquely referring to City Hall over the previous two years, a time characterized by fiscal challenges and disagreement in Council over City Hall management practices? Or was she referring to community divisions over hot-button issues like Metro’s tunnel? Maybe she was simply referring to the acrimonious campaign of which Krasne had steered clear on the stump.
Krasne’s key campaign theme was the gap that seems to have emerged between the interests of residents and the actions of representatives and managers who work on our behalf, and she seemed to tip her hand when she said, “This past election was not about division…The results show just the opposite: that the people of Beverly Hills are united in their determination to reassert control in their city.” Lackluster public interest and low levels of engagement (Team Beverly Hills not withstanding) do suggest a disconnect between the people and City Hall.
Krasne enumerated in her campaign a “six-point message” which she reprised here, including the scourge of vehicular congestion. “I don’t know when our city residential streets turned into a permanent rush hour,” she said, reprising her campaign mailer of the same theme, and to that end she again called for a “traffic summit” comprised of transportation officials, planners, and residents to address it.
But her real passion seemed to be better government.“At the heart of my election is a mandate to restore the transparency in city government,” she said as she revisited her campaign slogan, “I am not working for anyone but you.” Council decisions will be taken on the merits “judged on the facts alone and by your testimony,” she added.
Of our five-member City Council, Lili Bosse (along with Julian Gold) will return for another two years on the dais but takes the seat of Vice Mayor. Bosse started off strong: “Hotels are full, business is good, property values are up and retail spaces are renting,” she said – “life is good in Beverly Hills!” But she also acknowledged the charged air post-election. “Politics, politics, politics,” she said.
As we have just seen, elections can be difficult days in the life of a community. But our election is over. The voters of Beverly Hills have spoken. And now is the perfect time for this community to have a big breath of fresh air…. Let’s move on… We need to go forward together with open arms and open minds. I believe the possibilities are endless. We can accomplish great things: transparency, good leadership, community involvement can help make this happen.
Bosse focused on the change that the new Council represents and put her backing behind the new Mayor. “I know what matters to John: our residents, government transparency, pension reform, MTA, a vibrant business community, the revitalization of our Southeast community – also matters to the residents of our city.” Then she focused on good government (her remarks digested here):
I ran on open government and transparency – that was the ‘O’ in the ‘BOSSE’ plan – and I believe this can be the year that we take giant steps forward. Transparency creates greater accountability and encourages community involvement. And it’s just a better way to govern. These values get to the core of who we are as a city, and we need to ensure the highest levels of transparency and good government. The people of BH want transparency in their city government and it is our job to provide it.
Incredibly there are those who say that some issues are just a little complicated to be understood by the community and would best be handled behind closed doors. Really? You all look pretty smart to me. When you do things out in the open instead of behind closed doors you build credibility and you build trust.