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ELECTIONS / WEST HOLLYWOOD / PROPOSITION AA : Police Issue Shakes Up City Politics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’re an unlikely band of insurrectionists -- silk-tied, sober-voiced and, before this year, politically invisible.

But their desire to create West Hollywood’s first police force has put them in the forefront of the most divisive issue since cityhood and rattled the city’s political Establishment in the process.

The West Hollywood Citizens for Better Police Protection, a group of political novices lured to politics by massive gay rights demonstrations last year, put new life into a dormant police proposal by gathering more than 4,500 signatures to put Proposition AA on Tuesday’s ballot.

Months into a heated campaign, its leaders remain in relative obscurity, unusual in a city where political activists are often household names. The result is lingering suspicion about what the group is really up to.

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“That’s what frightens them the most. They don’t know where we came from and they just don’t get it,” said spokesman John Underwood, a 34-year-old consultant who joined the campaign last year after marching to protest Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of the landmark gay rights bill known as AB 101.

The group is marketing the police department proposal, which would end the $8.4-million contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, as a way to get tighter local control over law enforcement--which they consider the final step in the city’s coming of age.

The campaign, bankrolled largely by local gay rights activist Christopher Fairchild, has upended the political map--at least for the time being.

An array of feuding factions have joined in a marriage of convenience to fight the initiative, which they charge is a narrow, gay issue that would be painfully costly. The coalition, called Save Our Sheriff, is headed by Ruth Williams, a member of the Rent Stabilization Board and three-time candidate for City Council.

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The alliance links City Council members Abbe Land and John Heilman, who helped set up SOS, with some of their most ornery detractors. And landlords represented by West Hollywood Concerned Citizens are holding hands with the powerful tenant-rights group, Coalition for Economic Survival, whose endorsements have been decisive in city campaigns. Paul Koretz is the only member of the City Council who is not opposing the police initiative; he is taking no position.

SOS also has backing from the West Hollywood Democratic Club, the city’s Public Safety Commission, business groups, and prominent senior citizens and neighborhood watch activists.

The coalition is glued together mainly by fear that the costs of such a switch could spell higher taxes and endanger social services, which are dearly guarded in West Hollywood.

The Coalition for Economic Survival endorsement is crucial in a city where most people rent and a third are senior citizens.

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“It’s now a rent-control issue,” said Jeff Prang, an activist who opposes the measure. “Once it becomes a rent-control issue in West Hollywood, it’s over.”

Even if the measure passes, the fight may not end there. With the City Council and influential groups opposed and a city attorney’s opinion that the initiative is legally flawed, the measure would probably face a court challenge, Williams said. The initiative calls on the council to set up a police department in one year.

Heilman said the council has not discussed its options but agreed that a court battle is a possibility. “You know how city business is,” he said. “Anything can happen.”

For the first time since cityhood, an election may hinge on whether the city’s many gays vote as a group. Gays appear divided on the matter, with most of the city’s best-known gay politicians opposed. Gays and lesbians make up a third of the city’s 36,000 residents, but they have never voted as a bloc or exerted power equal to their numbers.

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But leaders of the initiative group, who are gay, hope to weld such a bloc by playing on longstanding gay resentment toward the Sheriff’s Department as well as on anger left over from Wilson’s veto of A.B. 101. The prominence of homosexual rights issues in the presidential campaign is expected to boost gay turnout to its highest levels ever. The initiative has the backing of the gay Stonewall Democratic Club and Access Now for Gays and Lesbian Equality, whose endorsements are sent to gay voters countywide.

“This issue runs deep in the gay community,” said civil rights attorney John Duran, a supporter of the initiative who ran for the Assembly with gay backing. “It’s an emotional gut response.”

Duran finds himself opposed to most of the city’s gay political leaders, who argue that pressure from the West Hollywood community has improved the department’s handling of homosexuals countywide and should be maintained. The two sides wave different pages of the recent Kolts Commission report on the Sheriff’s Department: Some parts cite widespread anti-gay bias in the department and others praise the West Hollywood station as the exception.

Initiative leaders also invoke the case of Bruce Boland, a deputy once posted in West Hollywood who charged that he was fired from the department last year because he is gay. He was rehired this year but was not reassigned to West Hollywood. There are no openly gay deputies working in West Hollywood.

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While promising better homosexual representation in law enforcement if their cause wins, the Proposition AA forces are at the same time trying to fight accusations that theirs is solely a gay issue.

To broaden its appeal, the group has translated some of its brochures into Russian and handed them out on the east end of town, where an estimated 4,000 Soviet emigres live.

“Community-based policing--local control--is the issue,” Underwood said. “The gay thing only comes in because this is West Hollywood and a third of West Hollywood is gay.”

Opponents charge that the issue threatens to drive a wedge between gays and heterosexuals in a city where gay rights causes typically win support across those lines.

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“They already have rights in the city and now they want to change the law enforcement that makes West Hollywood a decent place to live,” said Bronwen McGarva, a gay public safety commissioner. “If I were straight, it would show to me that they aren’t as concerned with law enforcement and citizen safety as they are their own special interest.”

The initiative’s supporters are fighting the odds to capture the senior citizen vote, which is generally thought to follow the Coalition for Economic Survival endorsement. They plan to appeal to women through targeted mail citing Kolts Commission figures showing that women are underrepresented in command positions throughout the Sheriff’s Department.

The group is outspending the pro-sheriff coalition by a wide margin, thanks to large loans from Fairchild, a West Hollywood lawyer and outspoken activist who has long promoted the idea of a city police force but is working behind the scenes now. (On Wednesday, Fairchild also announced that he was filing a lawsuit against the city and Los Angeles County contending that neither government had taken action to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians by the Sheriff’s Department.)

By Oct. 22, the initiative group had raised $41,564, of which about $25,000 came in loans from Fairchild, according to official spending reports filed with the city. This week, Fairchild loaned an additional $25,000 to the campaign. The money has helped pay for the “WHPD” signs that are plastered all over town.

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Save Our Sheriff has raised $13,290, according to finance reports.

SOS was slow getting off the ground--a reflection, members say, of the difficulty in stitching political rivals into a working whole. Last year, a similar coalition sprouted to vote down a gambling initiative, but it fell apart afterward.

“When you get the West Hollywood Concerned Citizens and (Coalition for Economic Survival) together at the same table, it’s rather like the Middle East peace talks,” said Wuzzy Spaulding, a leader of the SOS group.

The variety of groups opposing the proposition is a measure of the fear the proposal has inspired throughout the city, SOS leaders say.

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Even some SOS members who are normally found jabbing City Hall are finding novel ways to be temporary allies and critics at the same time. One favorite argument has been that the city shouldn’t have its own police force because city leaders are incompetent to run one or contend with a new police union.

“If the city can’t keep its pool clean or fill in its potholes or pick up a refrigerator that’s been left out, how can it run a police department?” asked Stephen Martin, an SOS leader who has clashed with the City Council majority.

Both sides are claiming the lead--there have been no independent polls--but campaigners from both camps have predicted a close count.

If the initiative succeeds, it would represent a serious blow to the city’s usual leaders and could change the look of politics in the city by unleashing a new voting force.

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If it fails, observers say, it could settle once and for all an issue that has cropped up sporadically since cityhood in 1984. A close losing effort might unnerve the Sheriff’s Department and strengthen the city’s hand in future negotiations over services and policies, and thereby reduce the allure of an alternative such as a city police force.

Win or lose, members of West Hollywood Citizens for Better Police Protection are already talking about making wider municipal reforms their next goal, perhaps under a new name: West Hollywood Citizens for Better Government.

“There’s a new political camp,” said Underwood. “We’ve got big plans.”


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