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Ethics Watchdog Drops Chase in W. Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Could that be the sound of champagne corks popping at West Hollywood City Hall?

If so, don’t bother reporting it to the city’s ethics watchdog as a waste of tax money or misuse of municipal property.

West Hollywood’s self-appointed “ethics commission” is leaving town, much to the relief of those who work -- and some say play -- in city offices.

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That means the weekly newsletter with the lowdown on which bureaucrat ran up that $137 luncheon-for-two tab at a fancy restaurant won’t be sent to 1,300 subscribers. And the half-hour city channel TV show that featured ambush-style confrontations with officials will go silent.

For eight years, council-watcher James Fuhrman has billed himself as the city’s one-man “ethics commission.” But now he is boxing up his public records requests and moving to France.

“I kind of think I’ve made my point. I exposed them for what they are,” Fuhrman said of the city’s leaders. “I’ve tamed them.”

“So long” is what those in City Hall who have been Fuhrman’s targets are gleefully saying.

It’s not au revoir, said Joan English, the city’s transportation director and a frequent Fuhrman target. “I think it’s goodbye.”

Some at City Hall dismissed Fuhrman -- himself an unsuccessful City Council candidate -- as merely a gadfly with gadgets to spout his views.

“No, we won’t be presenting a plaque” of appreciation when he leaves, said Mayor John Duran. “He poisons the political system.”

Fuhrman’s supporters say they hate for his scrutiny to end.

“I’m afraid that once James leaves, it will revert back to the way it was,” said 18-year resident Jerome Cleary.

Fuhrman has relentlessly needled the City Council and its paid administrative staff for what he calls wasteful expenditures, ranging from Duran’s $949 mayoral inauguration cake to a department head’s purchase of $145 worth of food for a four-person City Hall study session.

Pawing through city-paid hotel and air travel bills, Fuhrman said he has caught council members and staffers pocketing frequent-flier credits and hotel rewards -- something that he claims would save taxpayers thousands if they were turned over to the city.

Fuhrman, 46, is a legal researcher who has lived for 15 years in a hillside condominium above the Sunset Strip’s Whisky a Go Go nightclub. He said action by the city in 1995 to authorize construction of a 112-foot-high building down the hill on a lot with a 45-foot height limit prompted him to become an activist.

Fuhrman said he used his research skills to fight back.

Creation of his public access cable TV program, “The Complainers Variety Show,” came first. Sometimes he sat in front of the television camera for half an hour, simply reading aloud officials’ city-paid restaurant and trip receipts. Other times he took his own video camera to council meetings to confront officials directly.

One show depicted Fuhrman pursuing then-Mayor John Heilman across a city parking lot and demanding to know why the mayor -- an avowed supporter of feminist rights -- accepted a $500 campaign donation from a business called the Body Shop.

“It’s a bottomless strip club” that exploits women, Fuhrman asserted.

“Well, it’s better than you: completely headless,” Heilman retorted. “Get out of my face, you loser.”

Fuhrman also reported that Councilman Jeffrey Prang spent $150.72 on a 1999 dinner for two, which restaurant records revealed included $42 worth of wine.

A 2002 voucher indicated that transportation chief English spent $126 on a meal with a councilman at an inexpensive local Thai restaurant.

Writing in his e-mailed newsletter, Fuhrman noted that the restaurant had a full bar. But he concluded that “they each had one entree for about $8.25, one soft drink for about $2, AND FORTY BOWLS OF RICE FOR EACH OF THEM.”

Fuhrman discovered that council members spent an average of $118 per meeting for dinner for themselves -- and then sometimes ate it on stage in front of constituents. “I began filming close-ups of them chewing,” he said. “Needless to say, they no longer eat on stage during meetings.”

City Manager Paul Arevalo, dinged by Fuhrman a few years ago for billing the city for $28.56 worth of Bass Ale for colleagues at a conference, said the sniping is often trivial and distracts from the serious work being done in the city.

As for lunches and dinners billed to the city, Arevalo said that is a cost “of doing business. I’d rather have the city pay for council meals than developers.”

Arevalo added, “City Hall employees buying liquor does look bad. But is it unreasonable to think someone’s going to have a drink with dinner? Is $42 for a bottle of wine unreasonable?”

Heilman and Prang did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.

Duran defended his inauguration cake as something needed for the large crowd attending the event.

When he leaves West Hollywood next month, Fuhrman and his partner plan to open a retail business or bed-and-breakfast in the south of France. But his watchdog days may not be over.

“Maybe I’ll find some town in France that needs some looking into,” he said.


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