LAUREN MEISTER: Community Development Director search leaves out ‘community’

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In 2022, I wrote an op-ed, Why Ethics Matter in Local Land Use Decisions, about how land use decisions can contribute to contention between community members and public administrators because there is a clear perception by many that developers and their lobbyists have greater access to City Hall than the general public.

Whether it’s their private meetings with city planners and the city manager or their direct access to the company hired to conduct the environmental impact report for their projects, the residents typically have no such access. And while planning commissioners and city councilmembers, as decision makers, are required to disclose if they had conversations with stakeholders, city staff and the city manager are not.


L
and use lobbyists have run election campaigns for councilmembers, and both developers and lobbyists regularly contribute generously to local council campaigns. That has created even more distrust among community members, adding to the perception that developers have their thumbs on the scale. It is for that very reason that California campaign finance laws have changed over the last year or so.

All this brings me to a current situation. On August 1, 2023, City Manager David Wilson sent all staff an email that “we are in the recruitment process for a new Community Development Director.”That is a very important position overseeing development and historic preservation issues that typically draw the most attention and concern from residents and local businesses. So, I sent an email to City Manager Wilson, asking about the process.

Was there a panel, and if so, what were the qualifications of the people on the panel? The City Manager replied,There were two panels that included individuals with varying related expertise: City Manager, City Attorney, Community Development Director,Development Project Facilitator, Resident, and Former WeHo Employee.

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I asked, “Is a ‘Development Project Facilitator’ a lobbyist? His response was “yes.”

Wilson continued, Based on the input and feedback from the panels, Jackie [Jackie Rocco, Deputy City Manager] and I did a second-round interview of the top candidates. To me, that meant the panelists made recommendations regarding the top candidates to be considered for the post.

I asked for the names of the panelists. Rather than answer, City Manager Wilson asked if we could discuss it at our bimonthly meeting. I brought up transparency of the process and suggested that maybe an additional panel of residents, either former planning commissioners still living in the city or neighborhood leaders, or a combination of both should be considered. Of course, I presented names of residents I knew cared about community planning and historic preservation, like Lynn Hoopingarner. The City Manager was not open to this idea and instead proposed meetings with the community after the new Director started at the City. In other words, after the hire was final.

In a subsequent phone call, the City Manager still would not share the names of the panelists. I asked if City Attorney Lauren Langer was aware of who was on the panel, and he (Wilson) said “yes.”

I, again, stressed my concerns about a lack of transparency in this process and, specifically, who on the panel was chosen to represent the residents of this city. I further expressed my concerns about potential conflicts of interest if the lobbyist on the panel had business in West Hollywood and the perception of access.

On August 9, 2023, I submitted a public records request for the names of those serving on the panel because there was no indication that the City Manager would provide the information. On August 16, Council received an email from the City Manager, announcing he was pleased to tell us who was selected to be our next Community Development Director and also to let Council know that one Councilmember asked about the panel and he was providing the names but hoped they would remain confidential. I replied to the City Manager and the City Attorney that unless there was legal justification for the list not being public, I would not be complying with his request. The City Attorney confirmed there was no legal justification to withhold panelists’ names.

So, here’s where it gets more interesting… two of the panelists were employees from other cities – which is fairly common for city panels. However, the other four panelists were: John Keho –outgoing Director of Planning & Development Services; Joan English – City of West Hollywood Resident & Former Assistant City Manager (note that Resident, and Former Weho Employeereferenced earlier were actually one and the same person); Lauren Langer City Attorney; and Jeff Seymour Development Project Facilitator, aka lobbyist. Mr. Seymour currently represents at least three major pending projects in the City of West Hollywood including the Viper Room development. Ask any lawyer (and I did)… the potential for conflicts of interest created by this situation is real.

And where, oh where on this panel, was someone to represent the community … a neighborhood leader, a former planning commissioner (still living in the city), or even a small business owner? It should be noted that Ms. English, although living in West Hollywood, was a long-time employee of City Hall – not an advocate for residents.

So, how was this a balanced panel? Where was the community” in the process of selecting the Community Development Director? Why was it that a lobbyist, who represents developers, was included on this panel to pick a high-level land use and planning decisionmaker and not a resident, who represents the community? And, importantly, how on earth did the City Attorney think this would not reek of an appearance of impropriety?

Let me be very clear. I am not familiar with the person who was selected for the Community Development Director position nor do I know anything about their credentials. That’s not the pointthis isn’t about them. The point is the City’s process.  The point is transparency. The point is equal access. The point is potential conflicts of interest. The point is fairness in the selection process.The point is ethics!

I don’t know how the community will feel about this issue. But I do know that the community deserves to be made aware of how decisions are made at City Hall. And, quite frankly, I needed to share this because Im so angry and so disappointed that both ourCity Manager and our City Attorney thought this was okay.Apparently neither of them stopped to think how does this look, what would the residents think, what would the small business owners think, or even, what would other lobbyists think?

One has to wonder, what was the thought process – that there was no inherent conflict of interest, or, that this information would never come to light?

This City is made up of residents and business owners, whose interests City Hall is meant to serve. I cannot believe that West Hollywood community members were excluded from such an important decision that directly impacts their community.

Where do we go from here? I believe the community must hold the City Manager and City Attorney accountable. And, at the very least, we must insist on ethics and transparency in City decision making; otherwise, we are no better than the institutions and politicians we criticize.

 

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About Lauren Meister
Lauren Meister is a City Councilmember of West Hollywood, as a well as its former Mayor. She is a 30+ year resident, a market research professional, and she recently earned her MPA (Master of Public Administration) with a concentration in Emergency Services Management.

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Johnny H.
Johnny H.
2 months ago

I have immense respect for Lauren as a council member- the rest are waste. Everything she lists smells like rotten fish which really what we have for the highly paid senior city staffers who are corrupt or incompetent or both. It’s one or the other. When will voters wake up and care? Sometimes you need to burn the barn to kill the rats. I am all for a purge and again I wish the State Attorney General would open an investigation into the various alleged improprieties and mismanagement of tax payer dollars and tax paid over paid staff. The City… Read more »

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[…] Details discovered by Councilmember Lauren Meister about Seymour’s participation in the hiring process have cast a shadow over Maricich’s debut in City Hall, and questions about the appearance of impropriety will likely persist. It behooves Seymour and others like him to foster good working relationships with the Community Development Department, and the department director wields many important levers of power in the process of approving and completing development projects in West Hollywood. […]

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[…] by a five-member panel that included a Jeff Seymour, a prominent lobbyist for developers. The revelation drew much scrutiny, compelling WeHo’s City Manager David Wilson to issue an apology over the […]

Question
Question
8 months ago

One could question why Council member Meister didn’t appear to have any interest in how a new Community Development Director would be selected knowing full well John Keho was retiring.

Larry Block
Admin
8 months ago
Reply to  Question

thats complete bull, she is not in charge of employees at city hall.

Carolyn Campbell
Carolyn Campbell
9 months ago

The fact that Lauren Meister is termed out and can’t run again fills me with dread. I moved to WeHo in 1985, and in the last decade, in particular, I have witnessed relentless overdevelopment that is detrimental to the quality of life for the community and our city’s future.

Without Lauren in city government, we citizens seem outnumbered when officials have such glaring conflicts and are not held accountable. I will continue to stay active, sign petitions, attend mtgs, give testimony, and back decent city officials, but where are they, and why are they not speaking out?

HMK
HMK
9 months ago

I feel exactly the same way. There’ll be no more backstop.

Johnny H.
Johnny H.
2 months ago
Reply to  HMK

Agreed. The rest need only get a whiff of “Raid” and disappear. Lauren has been an exemplary elected servant of the public.

Outaged
Outaged
9 months ago

It ought to be a rule that the City Manager, the City Attorney, and ALL City Council members be RESIDENTS of the City of West Hollywood for one year before getting their jobs. Otherwise, they are just carpetbaggers on the take to fleece our City and go home to elsewhere. Where does that leave our citizens?? Rise Up and clean house. It’s time for The People to fight back against all this corruption.

Lucian Tudor
Lucian Tudor
9 months ago

Thank you for keeping our City accountable! You have our respect!!!

DisabilityRights
DisabilityRights
9 months ago

The Building Code Inspector – is also corrupt if not more. The City should be dissolved and be made into an unincorporated area of LA county. I would rather be ruled by the Board of Supervisors than a bunch of City employees disguised as dictators.

Mikie Friedman
Mikie Friedman
9 months ago

if you think this is corrupt and is hurting the citizens of West Hollywood, then come to the CC meeting tonight and speak out! Bitching about it here won’t do a damn thing to help! Speaking in front of the council, the city manager, and the city attorney is far more powerful!

GoodButNotMyFavortie
GoodButNotMyFavortie
9 months ago
Reply to  Mikie Friedman

You did well tonight!

Mikie
Mikie
9 months ago

thank you!

WehoQueen
WehoQueen
9 months ago
Reply to  Mikie Friedman

I was pleasantly surprised how many speakers did show up tonight to speak. Sadly, I doubt the bad ones on the City Council will change. Also, hat tip to you, you represent the disabled community well. Your efforts are appreciated and are making things better.

Mikie
Mikie
9 months ago
Reply to  WehoQueen

thank you so much!

Jerome Cleary
Jerome Cleary
9 months ago

This is so incestuous.

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
9 months ago

This is corruption.

Rudolf
Rudolf
9 months ago

I would not consider voting for any council member (for any office) who does not address this issue in a meaningful way.

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