The Montage Beverly Hills' Parq Bar — in the city's Golden Triangle business district — offers a luxe refuge. Friends meet for $50 tea service, and deals get done over bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
But two prominent civic figures recall a far-from-soothing encounter at the Parq a few years ago, when they met with Clif Smith, publisher of the town's oldest newspaper, the Beverly Hills Courier. Smith had scarcely settled in before he demanded that the head of the Chamber of Commerce be fired and then suggested that the city manager should go as well.
If he didn't get his way, he said, he would use his small but influential newspaper to make sure that then-Councilwoman Linda Briskman lost her reelection bid, according to Briskman and former Councilman Mark Egerman, who were there.
Briskman and Egerman said they told Smith they had neither the power nor the inclination to meet his demands. Within weeks, a full-page Courier story tagged the duo as part of the city's "ultimate insiders' club," which favored city bureaucrats and big developers over "the people." Briskman lost her council seat, falling 119 votes shy of a third term.
"Influencing public policy by threats is not the role of a local newspaper publisher," said Briskman, who blames the Courier's campaign for creating "enough questions in the minds of those who were less informed that there might be reason to doubt my integrity."
In a recent interview, Smith acknowledged calling for the ouster of chamber chief Dan Walsh and added that he could not recall but "might have said [City Manager Roderick Wood] probably should go."
"If we spot a problem, we try to bring it to the responsible people quietly and give them a chance to address it," Smith said. "We are not here to throw rocks at our community. We are here to support our own community."
Beverly Hills might be best known for pampered TV housewives and refined shopping on Rodeo Drive. But it's also the home of bare-knuckle politics and a publisher who tries to influence events, both from behind the scenes and in the news pages of his newspaper.
Smith delivers his opinions on civic matters in the heavily Democratic city through tart editorials that lean libertarian.
He rails against plans to tunnel beneath the Beverly Hills High School campus for the Westside subway. He bristles at "out of town" publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, that sponsor community events he sees as the province of his paper.
Smith, 61, is not a Beverly Hills resident. He lives in Pasadena. But he practices law in Beverly Hills and said that, because he has a deep affection for the city, he has strong opinions.
When then-Mayor Willie Brien had his photo on the cover of the rival Beverly Hills Weekly last summer, an item in the Courier suggested it was a favor because the council had directed an extra $20,000 in city advertising to that paper. Josh Gross, the Weekly's publisher, said that his paper got far less than the Courier contended and that Brien was on the front page because he attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Orlando, Fla. "We always put them on the cover when they go," he said.
One appearance Brien made on the cover of the Courier last year was less than flattering. He and then-Councilman Barry Brucker had their photos run alongside that of a former school superintendent who had been convicted of misappropriating funds. The two officials said the layout attempted to taint them by association, when their only connection to the superintendent was voting to hire him roughly a decade earlier.
Critics assert that Smith and the Courier have stifled debate and discouraged promising community activists from seeking office.
"It pains me to see what has been going on in that city, where people who have been friends for years are now on opposite sides," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "The city is divided."
In the run-up to the March election, the Courier aggressively took on Brien, a popular councilman who is a top executive at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a onetime youth sports coach, a former school board member and grandson of former U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren.
One front-page Courier story alleged that Brien "worked against the interests of the city and its school district" by not strongly opposing the proposed subway tunneling under high school property. After Brien appeared at a subway groundbreaking ceremony with then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Courier headlined: "Mayor Brien Turns on Beverly Hills, Praises Metro Tunnel Project."
At a Beverly Hills Rotary Club meeting, Yaroslavsky, a proponent of both the subway and Brien, accused the newspaper of "yellow journalism." As Smith watched, Yaroslavsky, who has represented Beverly Hills for nearly two decades, drew a rousing ovation.
Smith and his paper became a central issue during the March campaign. The Democratic Club of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills produced mailers and door hangers depicting the publisher as a carpetbagger concerned only with advancing his business. "This Man Hates You and Everything You Believe In," said one mailer. Despite the Courier's vigorous opposition, Brien won a second term.
"I think [Smith] has the thrill of power in a very sad, perverse way," said Dena Schechter, who contributed to the mailers. "He is playing a game that is not about being a community advocate; it's about being an advocate for whatever he is for at that moment. This is a little man who seems to have a William Randolph Hearst complex."
Alan Kaye, a longtime Beverly Hills insurance agent, stopped advertising regularly on the Courier's back page in 2011. When the Courier recently approached him about resuming, he declined. One factor he considered, Kaye said, was "that the Courier and Clif Smith are now viewed so negatively that advertising there could taint me by association."
Supporters say Smith, who bought the paper in 2004 from founder March Schwartz, has taken a beating for daring to question an insular Beverly Hills establishment. After the mailers hit, a full-page spread appeared in the Courier's news pages quoting residents and officials defending the paper and Smith. Councilwoman Lili Bosse said Smith "has saved our community."
The Courier depicts Bosse and Mayor John Mirisch as reformers. "When I walked the city during my campaign, people very much loved and respected having the Courier as our local newspaper," Bosse told the Courier. Mirisch did not respond to several requests for an interview. Bosse declined to comment, saying she was dealing with family issues.
Even some of the Courier's critics acknowledge the weekly paper has landed some fair blows. One Rotary Club member who thinks Smith is a "bully" praised the Courier's use of public information laws to report on city employee salaries. "A meter maid makes close to $50,000 a year?" said the sometime detractor. "Holy cow!"
Smith was named for his father, Clifton Stanwood Smith, who published a chain of small newspapers in southeastern Los Angeles County. The younger Smith agreed with an online biography that said his father used his papers to reward his friends and punish his enemies.
The USC law graduate felt the pull of the news. "I view newspapers as a magical device," he said, "to protect people from the intrusion of the government and the loss of liberty and to be a steward for the community as much as possible."
He also admires the newspaper publishers of old, who wielded political power behind the scenes and who served as civic boosters. In an interview at the Courier's offices in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, Smith lauded former Los Angeles Times publishers Harry and Norman Chandler. He said the paper began to go downhill under Otis Chandler, who became publisher in 1960 and moved the paper away from boosterism and toward the broader, independent coverage model of the New York Times.
In 1995, Smith and a partner bought the San Marino Tribune, a weekly. Smith then expanded to Beverly Hills with the Courier. The tabloid, delivered to residences free each Friday, says it has a circulation of 40,000.
Wood, who served as city manager for six years before leaving in 2009, said Smith threatened and browbeat city employees who didn't put the Courier first.
"On more than one occasion I was told that I needed to work harder to get more advertising in the paper to help it as the local paper, or else it would not go so good for me," Wood said. "He would say that he was the [publisher] and he could write any sort of editorial on the city or on me that he wanted."
Smith also feuded with the city's nonprofit education foundation when The Times sponsored a food festival fundraiser that the Courier had previously helped present. Former Chairman Jonathan Prince and others with the foundation said the Courier subsequently stopped a complimentary advertising arrangement and, for a time, did not mention the group by name — a response they saw as petty. Smith, however, said he was justified because the group chose a rival over his paper.
Asked why he wanted the Chamber of Commerce chief fired, Smith said he had two complaints: that the man's salary was too high and that he bought too many ads in publications that competed with the Courier.
"We try to be very, very sensitive and careful, because we are the Beverly Hills Courier," Smith said. "We are not the Beverly Hills Inquisition."