CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATE INTERVIEWS
Why are you running? Willie Brien believes we need a “different style of leadership” in Beverly Hills. His style is to work with people, listen, then build an argument to build consensus based on facts and understanding. He will “look at ideas, then explore them.”
He opposes what he calls, “pre-made decisions,” the kind of decisions that are essentially agreed to in private, then presented short-hand at “study sessions” and adopted immediately thereafter at council meetings. He cited as “a good example,” Measure P the proposed massive new taxes on businesses and residents. “The city did not explain or even talk about it before it was on the ballot. If they had fully engaged the people, they might have modified the proposals. Now, the measure is a problem. It may even reduce overall City revenue.”
A prime theme of Brien is accountability, whether with public agencies or private organizations that receive taxpayer funds. “Anytime City government is giving tax month to private organizations, they must be accountable. When money is spent, we must know what is the return on our investment.” He told us that in his practice and at Cedars-Sinai, where he is chief of staff, “I know exactly what works and what doesn’t. We must have a goal to achieve and it must be measurable and measured.”
We asked about the active corps of volunteers in the City whose recommendations and advice are most often ignored or brushed aside by City staff. “I don’t like asking people to speak but never listening to them.”
Regarding finances, he told us, “Business is our primary economic driver. It generates 75-80 percent of our revenues. We should be leveraging people to come into Beverly Hills with lower taxes, not higher taxes.”
Experience. Brien reminded us that when he was president of Beverly Hills school board, he faced a tremendous budget shortfall. The then-superintendent proposed major cuts to classroom funding including firing teachers and larger classes. Brien stopped that. Instead, the board adopted major economies in administration, eliminated outside labor and met the budget shortfall by more efficient use of district resources. He promised the same approach to the City’s finances. “You cannot tax your way out of a crisis. We must stabilize our revenue stream first.”
We asked each candidate to identify three items they would accomplish if they could. Brien’s are (1) end the political divide in the City and restore harmony among the residents, (2) enhance City revenues by supporting businesses while trimming City costs, and (3) cure the traffic problems.
His message to voters: “We face a lot of challenges, but I’m optimistic for our future. Our strength is in our residents, our lifestyle and our businesses.”
Why are you running? This is a learning situation for me. “Unless you throw yourself into the arena, you can’t learn what’s going on. To get on the ballot, it only cost $25. It was the best money I ever spent.” Ross is an immigration attorney. He is a long-time resident and graduate of Beverly Hills High School. As a business owner in Beverly Hills, he pays a great deal in City taxes. He believes that there are significant problems with business tax collections in the City.
“The City does not recognize that office space in Beverly Hills is more expensive. Parking is more expensive. The [office] buildings are old and substandard.” He admits there is “some benefit” to a Beverly Hills address.
The General Plan was “good for its time” but must be updated. “It’s time was when I was born.” He favors a reasoned approach to planning.
“If you have such stringent regulations [as now], developers won’t come and we will continue to decay. I don’t want Beverly Hills to look like downtown Manhattan; but we must improve. Spot zoning is bad, but there are different areas of the City with different needs.”
When asked about governing principles, he said, “Raise taxes on businesses and they will leave. If you raise taxes on residents or implement taxes they’ve never had, they won’t like it and will demand greater accountability from City government. We simply need more development—good development—to generate more revenue.”
Allocation of Time: “I’ve been told this is a full-time job. I set my own hours. It’s a question of energy, youth and interest.”
His three top priorities: (1) We need a world-class art museum in Beverly Hills, (2) Adopt a General Plan that reflects the needs of the City and preserves our unique character, and (3) We do not need sweeping reforms, just little things like expanded recreation and parks.
Why are you running? “I have 30 years of experience serving the City. I’m giving back. I want to be on the council for the General Plan to make sure the values of the City are preserved. My family has been in business here for over 50 years. I was born in Bracketville, Texas. My father was wounded in World War II in the Solomon Islands. He lost an eye, hearing in one ear, caught yellow fever and malaria. He had recurring attacks every summer. The doctors told him he needed milder summers, so we moved to Beverly Hills.”
What have you done to prepare for office? “I have personally attended about 90 percent of all the Planning Commission and City Council meetings for the last year and a half. I was there when they put Measure P on the ballot.”
During her walks through Beverly Hills speaking to voters, Maas reports that the number-one concern of residents is, “The City Council does not listen,” followed by traffic and “how you voted on Measure H.”
She stressed the importance of the Planning Commission as “The first place the neighborhood comes to speak.” She believes the Planning Commission does a “good job listening to the people.” She is concerned about the General Plan, telling us “I am not in any way anti-development.” She wants to engage the community and wants study sessions to discuss the General Plan. She recognizes a need to update the General Plan on a regular basis.
As for finances, she also understands the pending deficit, “I understand crossover, definitely. I want to reexamine every line of the budget. I do not want to be dependent on the City Manager for explanations.”
For leadership, she cited her years of service with the Young Leadership Council of the United Jewish Appeal. She wants to work with City staff as “partners.” “It’s a given that our staff are wonderful people. We are fortunate to have them.” Nonetheless, she wants citizen involvement in the budgeting process. As for new expenditures and new taxes, “Let’s just all hold on for a couple of years” and avoid both. She strongly opposes the new spending proposed by City staff.
Her three top goals if elected: (1) pass the draft General Plan coming out with recommendations, (2) make sure that traffic consequences are thoroughly considered in the General Plan, and (3) immediately look at the budget critically and see what can be done now to attract new businesses and strengthen existing ones.
Why are you running? “I can still do the job. I am independent, not beholden to any interests or groups, I don’t take things personally, I am stickler for transparency, and I want to serve the residents.”
Brucker is probably the champion endurance walker of Beverly Hills politics. For the fourth time in his political career, including terms on the Beverly Hills Board of Education, he is trying to greet every resident at their homes. We asked him what residents’ major concerns are. He told us that the people are upset that there is no free parking at the Montage. People are confused about the respective roles of the City Council and the school board. Most do not know that the City has no legal authority over the school board, but that the school district is an independent political subdivision of the state of California. People on the north side of Beverly Hills are concerned about “cut through” traffic. Other issues residents have raised with Brucker on his walks include traffic, school permits (over which the council has no authority), and why has construction not started on the Beverly Hilton Revitalization Project?
Brucker is concerned that the General Plan as now proposed does not consider any traffic impact on the residential neighborhoods of the City. He has asked for the specifications for the General Plan study, which is still in front of the Planning Commission.
On City finances, he has thoroughly studied the budget. He handed us his annotated copy of the budget with his notes and Post-Its throughout. To address the problem, Brucker said we must examine pension plan costs. The City pays into the California Public Employee Retirement System, CalPERS. Its portfolio has lost 40 percent of its value and California cities are being assessed to restore the portfolio value. He insists that the City implement “right staffing,” meaning having the right staff present for the duties required to eliminate excessive overtime. Today, the City maintains “constant staffing,” which means the same number of staff at all times. Whenever there is an absence, other staff are granted overtime. “We need the right staff at the right time, not the same staff all the time.”
Brucker has been a leader in diversifying the City’s marketing effort for tourism, dining and shopping. Over the objections of entrenched bureaucratic interests he has supported the highly-successful China initiative, taking the lead in relying on well-connected resident volunteers who have brought senior Chinese executives to Beverly Hills. He also wants our marketing efforts, which are funded by hotel occupancy taxes, to attract visitors and shoppers from within a 10-mile radius of Beverly Hills.
Brucker would also implement zero-based budgeting to make sure we “live within our means.” He wants a true performance audit for City staff and services, not a rubber-stamped approval by government-friendly consultants. He would also streamline the City permitting process so that Beverly Hills gains a competitive advantage over other cities.
He wants voters to know that he is “known to be responsive and follows through on every call. I treat everyone with respect.”
Why are you running? “I have served for four years as a commissioner on the Architectural Commission. I want to help the community address our problems in a constructive way and have an impact on the General Plan.”
Cohen sees the City as still divided in the aftermath of the Measure H election. She believes that the lack of a new General Plan contributed to the hostility. Regarding the General Plan, she finds there is little or no communication between the City government and the residents. She notes that “we need to fix the infrastructure in City Hall,” meaning the way the city functions politically. The lack of communication and explanation recurred throughout our interview.
She cited Measure P as an example, “No one knew it was coming and no one understand what it was.” She proposes an “Economic Commission” to deal with issues such as financing. About P, she complained, “Where were the studies about impact on business? Was the research, if any, biased? Who performed these studies (if there were any)?”
To correct the problem, Cohen would publish the council agenda before each meeting to make sure people know what is going to happen. While walking throughout Beverly Hills, she reports that residents are concerned about neighborhood theft, parking, care of children and congestion.
She has read the City budget and is concerned about chasing away businesses. She hopes for federal stimulus funds but wants to stop all new projects while we examine our budget. “My concern is that the budget represents tax money. The City council should allocate the funds, not the City Manager. I believe the council must be a hands on City Council.”
Cohen admitted she was not an expert on the question of public employee retirement costs. She is aware of pending assessments by CalPERS to make up for investment losses. She is concerned that the City spends it money wisely. She said that many people were upset about the pro-Proposition P mailers sent out by the city.
“We need the city to have responsible development, but when developers come we must process their projects quickly and efficiently. When we delay, we cost them tremendous amounts of money and then we get nothing. We need to move projects faster.”
Cohen supports open government and transparency. She believes that newspapers should be viewed as “partners” in the process of governing.
She wants voters to know that she has a solid background in architecture, urban planning, management and finance. Sge wants to maintain the Beverly Hills quality of life.
Why are you running? “We need a line-item budget veto to get the City’s budget under control, we need to increase business hours, add reasonable night life activities, and we need to retain height levels in certain parts of the City. We need to eliminate the total disconnect between the city government and businesses. We must become business friendly.”
Nathan questions, “Why were all the new taxes in Measure P bundled?” She takes credit for being the first candidate to raise this question in city-wide debates. She does not understand why so many separate issues were combined, thoroughly confusing the voters.
“We need to be more business friendly to recruit and retain businesses. They pay our bills,” she told us. “I’m an outsider. I don’t have the inside information. I would move to fire the City Manager. We need to find solutions to our problems today, not fight old battles [referring to Measure H].”
She states that she is prepared to devote the time necessary to the position because she prepared for the recession. She is a mortgage counselor. She applied for the “Green Team” in Beverly Hills to begin serving the community. She has watched some Planning Commission and city council meetings.
She is concerned about promoting tourism and preserving and promoting “our brand.” She believes that residents and city government have a “false sense of security” when it comes to the Beverly Hills cachet. “We cannot maintain our brand if do not work to maintain it.”
Nathan, born in Israel, terms herself a “fiscal conservative” who is the “New Media” candidate. She is committed to securing our reputation as a city and the safety of our community.