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City Council Candidate Interviews Vol. II

Publisher’s note: The Courier wishes to congratulate the 11 candidates for Beverly Hills City Council for offering their time and energies to our City. Volunteering for public service is always a sacrifice. Our system cannot function without people willing to serve. The Courier editorial board spent over 18 hours interviewing the candidates. The interviews were a combination “question and answer” session and a conversation. Our purpose, as we told the candidates, is to help convey to the citizens of Beverly Hills the candidates’ positions and reveal what they know, and don’t know, about Beverly Hills. We did not conduct “gotcha” sessions. Even though we have presented our editorial endorsements elsewhere in today’s Courier, we hope the candidates will believe they have been treated fairly and reported accurately. The candidates are presented in the order in which they attended our interviews. The length of their stories reflects what they told us.

BRENT LILLEY

Why are you running? Lilley is a renter off of Canon and Wilshire and is running to represent their interests. He believes renters are treated like second-class citizens, with a perception that they are “transient.” He asserts that people “north of Wilshire” pass most of the laws that impact renters and he wants renters to have a voice.

He believes in strong local financing and accountability. He voted for Measure H, the Beverly Hilton Revitalization Project, “We obviously need more development” to avoid becoming “stagnant.” In observing City Council proceedings, he asks, “I don’t know if there is accountability. They go through a lot of money without a lot of explanation. Who is watching the watchmen?”

The City Council must oversee spending, set priorities and track results to ensure accountability and performance. For renters, the “quality of life issues” are most important. His three goals to achieve should he be elected are: (1) immediately reassess spending priorities, for example, “beautification projects are nice, but we need to fix the infrastructure first”; (2) traffic is a major “quality of life” issue, “We should try speed bumps and sides streets and see how they work”; and (3) finish the new General Plan.

He also supports a more vigorous night life in Beverly Hills, “The City is peaceful and quiet at night” mainly because of “arbitrary limits on height and density.” He wishes to tell voters, “We have a silent majority in this town who need a voice to have a “say in how they are governed.”

JOHN MIRISCH

Why are you running? “I disagree with the policies of the City Council and the way they conduct City business. I feel the City has lost its way.” He was asked for specifics. He cited a focus on short-term revenues which would damage the City over the long term. “The City is plagued by short-term thinking. We are looking at short-term revenue, not the long term.” He quoted City manager Roderick Wood, “It used to be, ‘You [businesses and residents] have money, we want it.’ Now it’s ‘money?’ try to keep it [from us].” [Note: The Courier could not verify attribution of this quote.]

Mirisch stated he is a graduate of Beverly Hills High School and Yale University whose family has a long history in Beverly Hills. He is a Beverly Hills homeowner.

Mirisch was clear on the role of local government, “The purpose of government is not to perpetuate itself, but to provide necessary services for the residents and businesses.” He objects to the constant attempts of City government to raise spending. He has read the City budget, but wants a weekly executive summary prepared for the residents.

“Measure P? What were they thinking? Raising taxes in a recession? Of course not.” He does not approve of the way businesses are treated in Beverly Hills. “On the one hand, [City government] says, ‘business pays 75 percent of all City bills,’ then on the other hand they say, ‘Measure P – we won’t tax you but we’ll tax them.’” That’s not right and it’s not fair, he says. He strongly opposes Measure P.

To maintain City services, he cites raising the revenue base as his top priority, saying reducing services and increasing taxes  us not the way to go. The problem, in his view, is that people spending the money are the ones watching the money, “You can’t have the same people audit themselves.”

Regarding school funding by the City, he stated: “You must measure performance. Are they [BHUSD] spending the money wisely? Are they trying to meet the goals of the district? Are they doing their best?” He rejects spending more money just to spend money. He opposed Measure E, the school bond measure passed in November. “There is no accountability, no transparency. Proposition E was a cynical measure to get more money.”

He objects to the district hiring the same architects as before without open bidding and open competition for the contracts.

He believes City contracting and funding is “cynical and manipulative.” When asked how to change the City’s current “hide the ball” policy about managing the City, replied, “If the deals are good enough to do in secret, then they are good enough to do in public.”

His three top priorities if elected: (1) provide “out of the box” traffic solutions, such as a major underground thoroughfare to move traffic through Beverly Hills; (2) have the City purchase available land for future development which he calls “land banking;” and (3) helping schools reach their goals.

He has walked extensively throughout Beverly Hills speaking with voters. He was asked what were the main concerns shared with him. He said traffic, retaining the “neighborhood feel” of Beverly Hills, and the belief that the current City Council does not listen to the people, but rather to lobbyists. “We expect that to happen in Sacramento or Washington, but not here.” He describes Beverly Hills as a unique place with small town charm and “cosmopolitan but cozy.” When asked how best to return the City to a “village” atmosphere, he replied, “We supply free parking.” He strongly support free parking.

RICHARD STONE

Why are you running? He believes he has a better knowledge of where we are and how we got here than anyone else. He claims responsibility during his previous service on the City Council for the three-story city height limit, 2X density, passage of the current general plan for the City, adoption of license fees for all city businesses to replace funds lost due to Proposition 13 (passed during his previous service), and passage of a gross receipts tax on income property owners.

He believes the City during the last 10 years has “trended the wrong way. They’ve let the developers take over, but I am not anti-development.” He insists on the need for a new General Plan. “Now, the developer decides what do build and goes to the City. It’s the City’s job to decide height and density.”

When asked whether the council or a City manager should set policy, he adamantly replied, “The council.” He believes that the current city manager, Roderick Wood, “Pretty much reflects the majority on the council. I believe our present City manager is a very talented guy.”

What is the role of The Courier? He believes that The Courier, to the extent it is able, should examine government, expose what is wrong. “Our job is to know what is going on and keep the people informed,” he stated.

He commended the City on supplying council candidates with information. “Whenever one candidate asks for information, the reply is sent to all candidates.”

He has strong objections to city compensation levels. He pointed out that the number of employees remains nearly the same today as twenty years ago, about 710 “full time equivalent” employees, or “FTEs.” He recited general fund expenditures, “from 1988 to 1998, expenditures increased about 50 percent; from 1998 to 2009, they doubled. The explanations they gave are nonsense – inflation, cost of living, extra pension costs, materials.”

When asked about the pending City budget deficit, he said it was vital to “set aside” the economics of today. The mantra is always, “We have to increase police, fire and schools.” He said that was the argument in support of The Montage project five years ago. Today, the same argument is always made oñ police, fire, schools. The “General Rule” is that “once you give a public employee anything, you can’t take it away.” He cited the terms of the Montage development agreement, in particular the City’s waiver of any right to participate in sales of condominiums, which he blames on then councilmembers Mark Egerman and Linda Briskman. He believes the terms should have been made public sooner, but that it is “impossible to negotiate a deal in public.”

On his attitude toward City business, he said, “Business has always carried the City.” Businesses account for 75 percent to 80 percent of City revenues, but also receive services. He strongly opposes Measure P, the huge tax hike proposed by City staff which the council has now recommended voting against.

His top goals are: (1) enact a new General Plan. He opposes a city-wide three-story limit and a 2X density maximum [note: “2X density” means a building on a site can have twice the area of the land on which it is built; for example, a 10,000 square foot parcel of land could accommodate a 20,000 square foot building]. He noted that, at the time the three-story limit was adopted, the height limit in the City was 14 stories. He attributes the lack of a current General Plan to “councilmembers who were looking beyond their public service to capitalize on the lack of one.” (2) conduct a department-by-department external management audit to report directly to the City Council and not the city manager. “I have a feeling that much of our financial problems would be solved.”

He believes that Wilshire Boulevard East need improvement very much and the City must offer incentives for businesses to locate here, not higher taxes. “We must offer incentives if we want to revitalize our businesses.”

He proudly notes he has lived at his current address on North Linden Drive for 47 years. He served as mayor of Beverly Hills from 1973-74 and 1977-78.

His message to voters: “In the last decade the City has moved in a direction that most of the residents and I find offensive. it’s really a departure from what happened in the last 30 years. I don’t think the residents of the City like that direction. I think I fairly reflect the view of the large majority of residents. None of these developments affect me. I’m doing this because I have a genuine fondness for the City.”

LINDA BRISKMAN

Why are you running? She did not intend to run for a third term but was encouraged by friends to run because of the downturn in the economy, her “institutional history” and knowledge of Beverly Hills affairs. Her main goal is to make sure that “City revenues are stable to that residents don’t feel the impact [of the downturn].”

Of special concern is public employeesí retirement costs. She has visited Sacramento and Washington. She looks at the combined costs of an employee including both pay and benefits. She said that the City has paid down half of its obligation to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). She would not authorize additional benefits to City employees “unless they pay for it.”

A largest use of City tax dollars goes to police and fire. Overtime for officers and firefighters has become a significant issue. She would like to see additional hiring so that staffing levels can be maintained without requiring overtime. She also noted that special events in Beverly Hills often require police overtime and that the producers of the events should pay for the overtime. As for renegotiating labor contracts with police and fire, she demurred, stating that she is “not on the negotiating committee.” She said, however, “Public safety is sacrosanct in this City.” She did not know how much the special assessment by CalPERS would be for the current coming years. She knew that CalPERS had lost over 25 percent of its investment portfolio and that cities would be required to make up the losses.

Regarding City revenues, she acknowledged that the City’s deficit would likely be around $20 million or more for the coming 18 months. When asked how she would close the deficit, she said that she would support postponing capital improvements. She said that without Measure P, the massive new taxes proposed by City staff (which she now opposes), she was not sure what additional measures would need to be taken. She has not yet considered any cuts to City staff or City salaries. She said that sales tax income was expected to decline at least 8 percent and hotel (“transient occupancy tax” or “TOT”) by 25 percent. Closing City offices on Fridays for furloughs was a possibility. Other possibilities she would look at to reduce would include: reviewing social service grants such as those to The Maple Counseling Center, Rodeo Drive Committee, Conference and Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Sister City Committee, the Beverly Hills Education Foundation and the Joint Powers Authority agreement with the Beverly Hills Unified School District (the “JPA”). She stated, however, that the JPA commitment was four years. She admitted that a subsequent council could reduce any or all of these commitments.

If the BHUSD obtains “Basic Aid” status (meaning it received sufficient funding from local taxes to eliminate state funding), she might “revisit the JPA” dollars.

Regarding City staffing, she claimed that compensation for the new assistant City manager was offset by retirements of two other City staff members. She admitted, however, that their retirements meant that the City had to pay two more pensions. She was not sure of the net cost to the City. She stated that the City council did not receive notification from the City manager of the job description of the new assistant City manager.

Regarding free parking in the business district, Briskman was adamant that free parking “was never part of the Montage agreement.” She opposed the return of free parking to the City last year and admitted in open session of the council that her “yes” vote to restore it came only after it was clear that it would pass. She said, “Free parking costs the City $5 million a year.” She stated that, in the future, every new parking lot in the City must pay for itself whether through validations, higher payments after the free periods, or reductions in free periods.

She admitted that Beverly Hills does not do a good job promoting itself. She said that this “messaging” is a problem.

Her top three priorities: (1) She would like the City to have a “clearer message” about what is going on and what is needed; (2) she would like councilmembers to “get along with each other better” and be more civil to each other; and (3) regarding development, “it’s not the height of our buildings that makes Beverly Hills so special, it’s the people.”

When asked what message she would like to convey to voters, she said: “Leadership, integrity, honesty and experience.”

MICHAEL HAKIM

Why are you running? He said that the people do not have voice in City government and he wished to contribute. He noted that he was the only council candidate at the Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee meeting that was asked to endorse the massive new tax hike, “Measure P.” (Instead, the committee voted it down 14-3.) He asked: “Where are the other candidates?”

Residents’ concerns he shared based on his walking throughout the community included discomfort of residents with current City Council, a desire for change in the composition of the council, and solutions traffic and quality of life issues.

He was particularly upset about being constantly rejected by the current council as a volunteer. He said he had applied to serve on the Public Works, Traffic & Parking, Architectural and Planning Commissions. He was rejected for all of them. He believes that the people do not have a say in the activities of those commissions which, he believes, are reserved for people who are “in the group” that “runs Beverly Hills.” An example he gave of rejecting the people’s input was a recent meeting of the Public Works Commission. People were upset about higher charges and conversions of the meters. The Commission did not listen.”

He has studied the budget and quoted the approximately amounts: Total City revenues of $408 million, comprised of $347.7 million for operations and $61 million for capital improvements. He knew the approximate breakdown between property, business, TOT and sales taxes.

He said the traffic is a huge issue, but that he had proposals to address the problem. His idea is for each local city to put 10 percent of its revenues into a common fund to build the subway.

He supports splitting the Chamber of Commerce from the Conference and Visitors Bureau in order to have accountability by each one.

Regarding the City’s proposed budget deficit, he would “go line by line” to find where savings or reductions can be made. Public employee pensions are a major problem, “In five years, we will have a lot of the officers and firefighters retiring. The costs will go through the roof.” He noted a $49 million funding shortfall for public employee pensions.

For an approach, he said, “We must keep a business-minded attitude towards City businesses, we need to get this generation engaged. We have been throwing money at the schools and requiring nothing in return. That must stop. We need the subway so that parents can get home.” He promised to devote “a good percentage” of his time to council affairs if elected.

He strongly favor free 2 hour parking in City-owned parking lots. Like all candidates except Linda Briskman, he believed that the Montage Parking Lot would have 2 hour free parking. “We need to be pedestrian friendly.

If elected, his top three goals are: upgrade the infrastructure and underground remaining above-ground utilities lines; (2) add public transportation to improve traffic and install energy-efficient lighting, and (3) generate more income from visitors coming to Beverly Hills. He also wants to upgrade the gateways to the City.

He wishes voters to know that he is running “to preserve and improve the special nature of our City. I will really focus on the budget and keep it lean to get through this storm and keep it in good shape. I grew up in Beverly Hills. We need to engage our young people and get them involved in the city council.”

That concludes our interviews.  Please remember to VOTE ON MARCH 3!!!

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