A dispute simmering between West Hollywood and Los Angeles County officials over the city's attempts to add an anti-discrimination clause to its contract with the Sheriff's Department was temporarily eased last week when city officials agreed to sign the contract without the controversial passage.
But the rift over the county's official attitude toward West Hollywood's large homosexual population may have clouded future relations between the city and the Sheriff's Department. And at least one exasperated City Council member said that if a compromise is not reached, he would be interested in the prospect of building a city-administered police department.
"We have to say to the county that if they are not willing to change their stand one iota, we are left with little choice but to indicate to them that they are forcing us into a corner," said council member Alan Viterbi, "and that at one point or another--not too far off--we will have to look at contracting with another government agency or providing the service ourselves."
OKd Without Clause
Viterbi's angry comments came last week as the City Council approved a contract with the Sheriff's Department without a clause that would have forced the law enforcement agency to abide by a city ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals.
The council had inserted the clause into the county contract a month ago as part of its attempts to legislate against all forms of discrimination. Although the county has nondiscrimination ordinances, they do not include specific protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation in their standard contract language.
The clause proposed by the City Council would have banned any discrimination in hiring based on "sexual orientation" and required the county "to comply with city and government regulations and affirmative action responsibilities."
But county officials rejected the clause, claiming they could not cater to West Hollywood's demands without reworking their contracts with 35 other cities that also pay for police services from the Sheriff's Department.
In a letter sent two weeks ago to West Hollywood officials, Sheriff Sherman Block and county Chief Administrative Officer James Hankla said they would not recommend Board of Supervisors approval of the "modified law enforcement contracts."
Last Wednesday, the West Hollywood City Council voted 3 to 1 with one abstention to accept the county's contract, but add a letter that, according to Viterbi, "says we do not find this a good long-term solution." Voting in favor were Viterbi, Steve Schulte and Mayor Valerie Terrigno. Councilwoman Helen Albert was opposed and John Heilman abstained.
Later that day, Schulte and Terrigno, along with City Manager Paul Brotzman, met with Block and his aides. The council members left the session cautiously optimistic that the dispute had been settled. The two council members said Block had agreed to provide city officials with a new letter reaffirming the department's commitments to honor West Hollywood anti-discrimination laws.
Undersheriff Ted Von Minden, who attended the meeting, said the "meeting was an amicable, exploration-type meeting of each other's objectives." He said Block had agreed to send a letter to the council "reaffirming the nondiscrimination policies of the department."
Minden said he thought any tension between the city and county had been abated. "I don't think there was any real conflict between the entities," he said, adding: "The county can't tailor its contracts to the wishes of every government it does business with. We'd end up with 35 different types of contracts concerning the same subject.'
Terrigno said she came away convinced "it was a significant meeting. I think we're moving in the right direction."
Schulte, who said he wanted assurances that were less vague than Block's earlier letter, was more cautious. He said he preferred to "wait and see what kind of language the sheriff uses in his letter."
Despite the easing of tensions over the current contract, the long-term relations between the city and the Sheriff's Department no longer appear as solid as they were when the city incorporated last November.
Had Close Ties
The Sheriff's Department has traditionally had close ties with West Hollywood's gay community dating back to the mid-1950s, when homosexuals began moving residences and businesses there to escape harassment by the Los Angeles Police Department.
During last year's cityhood drive and council race, relations between sheriff's deputies and West Hollywood's homosexual community were hardly a public issue, overshadowed by concerns about rent control, gay pride and the financial costs of incorporation.
According to Schulte and other candidates, the issue of gay recruitment by the department and relations between homosexuals and sheriff's deputies was talked about behind the scenes. "The Sheriff's Department and their policies has always been a concern in the gay community," Schulte said.
When the council unanimously passed an anti-discrimination ordinance soon after the city incorporated, however, the issue began gaining momentum. Schulte, Terrigno and others in the gay community began mulling over options, and earlier this year, Block met with Schulte and Heilman to discuss the future of gay-police relations.
"I found him very open and willing to discuss matters," said Heilman, who abstained last Thursday when the council voted to demand a strong anti-discrimination commitment from the county.
But many other activists in the gay community have wanted some tangible sign from the Sheriff's Department that it not only does not discriminate against homosexuals, but would be willing to make greater efforts to accommodate homosexual deputies already in the department.
'An Archaic Attitude'
"I think the sheriff's office has an archaic attitude," said George Garren, a gay activist who lectures at the Los Angeles Police Department training academy. "If they compromise a little, it doesn't mean the entire force will be running around in lavender in a year."
Another gay activist said he would not be surprised if the city waited for a period and then began exploring the option of starting its own police department. "West Hollywood has the money to start its own department," the activist said. "And there are plenty of police chiefs of small-town departments who would love to come in and head it up."
During debate last year over the financial feasibility of incorporation, cityhood critics and even County Supervisor Ed Edelman suggested that law enforcement costs for the new city would be staggering, especially if the city decided to start its own police force.
Would Cost Millions
Housing a police force would cost millions of dollars, and county officials estimate that if West Hollywood wanted to buy the West Hollywood sheriff's station, which now houses 100 officers, the cost could exceed $17 million.
Worried about the potential financial burden and convinced that the Sheriff's Department would provide the best service, a number of West Hollywood community activists have banded together in the past week to lobby on behalf of the deputies.
Ruth Williams, an unsuccessful candidate in last year's council election, said four other former candidates would join her group in pressuring the council to retain the sheriff.
"The events of the last few days have made us realize how vulnerable we are to the City Council," Williams said. "It scares the hell out of me to even think about it.'
Moves Could Backfire
Williams said that if any moves are made to explore starting a new police department or contract with another law enforcement agency, as Viterbi also suggested last week, they could backfire. "I think it's likely this may be a big political issue in the next campaign," she said.
Viterbi and the other council members who voted with him last week said they were still far from taking the desperate step of looking for another police force.
But Viterbi said he wanted "some kind of sign from the county" that its contracts would eventually be amended to include a non-discrimination clause. Failing that, he said, he hoped to see the county Board of Supervisors pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"A letter from the sheriff is only the first step," he said. "This city has made clear its anti-discrimination commitment. If we don't get some kind of satisfactory resolution from the county down the road, I would want to see us pursue other alternatives."