Beverly Hills Municipal Election 2013: Digging into the Data

BH election map of turnout Brien vs. Mirisch 2013We’ve wrapped up another municipal election here in Beverly Hills with candidates returned to their Council seats and a third open seat filled by an experienced governing hand. While that may suggest steady as she goes, as we explored in an earlier post there are signs that this ship may be tacking closer to the wind, and perhaps even on a new heading toward greater accessibility and transparency in local government. Here we look more closely at the returns to see what they suggest about the concerns of voters.

Beverly Hills elections have long been won on feel-good sentiment. Mailed flyers embrace some variation of the ‘integrity, accountability, and honesty’ theme, while quality-of-life messaging typically revolves around our uniformed civil servants. Mailers are replete with images of candidates in front of the firehouse, for example. And candidates often lay claim to sound fiscal management by touting the commercial success of our business triangle. They add, “The doors to business are wide-open at City Hall.”

In this election, two candidates refocused the candidate messaging around a different tag line, which reads some variation on “I’m with the people, not the special interests.”

Now, we appreciate the candor. In our humble opinion, City Hall has never been particularly communicative with the public, nor very much open with public data. (The City Clerk provides even bare-bones information on our elections.) And though our uniformed ranks may be our city’s greatest lure, the pension expense will long be a sinker on our city’s bottom line. While we’re poking holes in the usual campaign messages, we can’t help but add that the spit-shine afforded the business triangle hardly graces our city’s other business districts. South Robertson and the western gateway badly need some loving too, let’s remember.

The ‘state-of-our-union-is-strong’ message evidently cuts differently across the city’s precincts. It seems to resonate across the large, leafy lots north of Santa Monica Boulevard, where northside interests have been well-represented in City Hall since the days of Honorary Mayor Will Rogers, back in ’26. But maybe not so much in other electoral precincts.

For one thing, the spoils are distributed inequitably. Compare the elaborate park landscaping on the north side of town (and the triangle’s new Beverly Canon Gardens) with the prosaic spaces and undistinguished foliage that characterize parks on the south side. Many of these smaller parks are woefully under-used. They hardly beckon.

Traffic enforcement too is not equitably distributed, in our opinion. Speeding is a problem on residential streets near the South Beverly business district, for example, but radar guns here are nonexistent. North of Santa Monica Boulevard, however, enforcement seems more dogged. Overall, enforcement seems to decline markedly as the calendar year progresses.

Candidates don’t generally talk about how much influence north-side homeowners, hotel interests and Chamber boosters have over our policy-making process. But those Council chamber decisions greatly affect how our resources and services are apportioned. On to the results!

Election Results by Precinct

If there exists a contrast in how neighborhoods view the performance of the city, that divide seems reflected by election returns. Overall it was a sweep by southside candidate John Mirisch, who out-polled the mayor in 8 out of 10 precincts (see the map at top) by garnering 2837 votes to Brien’s 2621.

brien-flyer-phoneMayor Willie Brien is by all accounts a dedicated public servant and a respected member of the community. Once he rotated into the Mayor’s chair last year, he became the de facto spokesperson for the Council majority. And it is a north-side majority. Moreover, he ran for reelection on a straight-ahead platform of “integrity, leadership, and innovation” and he touted his many endorsements from the establishment. (Not for nothing but he also amassed the largest campaign chest.) But Dr. Brien carried only two of ten electoral precincts and both were in his own north-side backyard.

In contrast, the winning candidate in this three-seat race campaigned on a message of “putting residents first” and holding City Hall to account on fiscal and transparency concerns. Was that the  message that persuaded voters across the majority of districts to pull the lever for John Mirisch? Was it a referendum on the management of City Hall? In a city with a part-time Council, the City Manager runs the show. But there is no public referendum on that position. City Council elections suffice.

By precinct, however, differences in perspective on the priorities of City Hall relative to the priorities of the people perhaps become apparent. (Download tallies by precinct.)

Beverly Hills  municipal elections turnout map for 2013
Precinct-by-precinct turnout for the top four Beverly Hills Council candidates, 2013.

The message from John Mirisch that City Hall needs to stand with the people and become more forthcoming about the business of the people was a message that seemed to play well in most precincts. Indeed, the farther north the precinct, the worse Mirisch fared with the voters. He found himself five points down in Coldwater Canyon and the Trousdale Estates precinct, for example, and four points down in the precinct north of Sunset (between Beverly and Doheney). In every other precinct he triumphed, especially in his own southeast area.

Now the caveat: this was a very low-turnout race. (We don’t know how many ballots were actually cast because the Clerk’s office hasn’t posted that information, and beyond numerical tallies we’ve seen no number-crunching at all from the Clerk.) We know that low turnout races can make a mockery out of an armchair elections analyst’s suppositions. But let’s tempt fate and look at the other credible challengers.

Chart of BH elections post-count returns for 2013The tallies show that the two other credible candidates found themselves in a very close race for the third seat. Nancy Krasne was judged to be the 3rd-place finisher by only seven votes. As a past one-term councilmember (and Mayor) she failed to win reelection in 2009, but her long history of service to the community (including the Planning Commission) evidently kept her in the minds of many votes. And in this contest she adopted a challenger’s posture by in part running against City Hall.

Krasne, for one, can lay claim to having taken the fewest dollars from special interests (according to candidate financial statements); she largely self-financed her race. And she ran strongest (e.g., a 2nd place finish) in all precincts along Wilshire and around the high school.

BH Elections consolidated precincts map 2013More on the insider track was candidate Brian Rosenstein. From a well-known real-estate family behind the Robinson May stores, he amassed the second-largest campaign chest. Yet he came in a close fourth in the overall vote count. He found his strongest turnout in the city’s northern and southern reaches – districts 3, 30 and 33 (see tallies by precinct). Now, does that reflect his establishment ties and his relatively youthful appearance? Inquiring minds….

Key Issues

The key issues in this race were:

  • the campaign against Metro tunneling under the high school;
  • the economic sustainability of future pension obligations;
  • City Hall responsiveness and transparency; and,
  • the Roxbury Park renovation.

To some extent the perennial campaign theme intangibles (integrity, accountability, and honesty) threaded through each of those issues. But they were of course framed differently by the candidates. Is the state of the union strong, or do we need a course correction? As we said in an earlier post, a bruising finish might well have come down to alignment with the establishment: the two candidates (Mirisch and Krasne) who ran on a platform of putting residents first and opposing special interests fared unexpectedly well.

For his part, Mirisch pulled a surprise upset by taking 8 of 10 precincts; and for her part Krasne pulled out a come-from-behind third-seat win after losing at the polls in 2009. Both turned out voters in electoral precincts around the schools.

Was their success because they were able to successfully frame City Hall as out-of-touch withe the people on key issues like Metro high school tunneling and above-average staff salaries & pensions? Or was the outcome a product of low turnout and the disproportionate motivation of those who are particularly passionate about our warm-button issues?

Most notably, an inglorious campaign waged by both the Courier newspaper and the West Hollywood Democratic Club (proxies in the contest between Mirisch and Brien) over the Metro issue must have had some effect. But we can’t really know what voters were thinking when they cast their ballots because we don’t have exit polls. From the very low turnout, however, maybe we can that conclude that the vast majority voters weren’t thinking much about anything at all in this election season. They either didn’t care enough about the issues or perhaps were too turned off to vote at all.

All of this imprecision makes handicapping the results a pretty rough guessing game. Yet the vote tallies do say something more broadly about how this election’s establishment messaging resonated with the electorate. That is to say, in many precincts it seems not to have resonated well at all. We welcome your comments!

(Post has been updated 3/10 with copy edits to improve readability.)