Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

5th District’s Jews spar over City Councilman Jack Weiss


Councilman Weiss

Councilman Weiss

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss stirs up strong emotions among his constituents.

To his admirers, he is "a man of courage and principle," "available 24/7" and "there for the Jewish community every step of the way."

To his critics, he is "arrogant," "doesn't get engaged," "disdains the public" and "is missing in action."

When he was reelected by the 5th Council District in 2005, Weiss won by a hefty margin with 72 percent of the vote. But at this point, it's the critics who are on the offensive, and they are so mad that they want to recall Weiss.

The leaders of the recall drive are Jewish, but so are the councilman's strongest defenders, as well as Weiss himself, a former federal prosecutor and member of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

This ethnic lineup, pro and con, doesn't make the recall bid a Jewish issue per se, but it says something about the priorities that motivate different segments of the Jewish community.

Weiss' most fervent backers cite his support in their neighborhood zoning battles and safety concerns, as well his pro-Israel stand. They have jumped in quickly to confront the recall proponents.

On the opposite side, the most ardent critics -- also Jews -- acknowledge that Weiss may be a good Jewish boy, but that doesn't help their daily aggravations at traffic congestion, deteriorating infrastructure and overdevelopment in their neighborhoods.

Weiss' territory makes it a jewel among the city's 15 council districts. It extends from the San Fernando Valley hillside communities and West Los Angeles' Westwood, Century City and Cheviot Hills, to the Fairfax area and Carthay Circle.

Residents generally range from comfortable to extremely well off, tend to be vocal and politically active, and are 74 percent non-Hispanic whites.

Recalling an incumbent city councilman is difficult, but not impossible. After filing the necessary paperwork, recall proponents have 120 days to collect the signatures of 15 percent of the district's registered voters to force a recall election. In the 5th District, with some 150,000 registered voters, this will require more than 22,000 signatures.

The chief bugbear of the recallers is that favorite L.A. conversation topic, traffic problems, which they link to overbuilding of condos and shopping malls, partly due, they say, to Weiss' combination of inaction and partiality to developers.

Marcia Selz has been a West L.A. resident for 33 years,and served as president of the Holmby Hills Homeowners Association. She has just returned from two weeks working as a volunteer at an Israeli army base, which seems to have invigorated her fighting spirit.

"We're starting a revolution and taking this city back," she proclaimed. "This town isn't just for developers."

Three years ago, Selz took the first step in launching the "revolution," by organizing the Coalition of Homeowners Associations which, she expects, will provide the door-knockers, e-mailers and foot soldiers for the recall drive.

Selz claims that individuals and representatives from some 50 homeowner groups, making up the majority of such organizations in the 5th District, are part of the coalition.

(The fight could get ugly. During Weiss' 2005 reelection campaign against local businessman David Vahedi, district residents received letters opposing Weiss on stationery that read, "Jewish Political Federation." The mailers drew concern at The Jewish Federation, the city's umbrella Jewish social service agency, that recipients would confuse the two. At the time, The Journal could find no evidence that an organization called "Jewish Political Federation" existed. Selz's name appeared at the top of that mailer's letterhead. She said she had no idea such a letter existed until the Journal brought it to her attention. "I didn't have anything to do with that," she told the Journal. "This is the first I've heard of it.")

While Selz acknowledges that not everything can be laid at Weiss' doorstep -- his predecessors, Mike Feuer and Zev Yaroslavsky, wrestled with the traffic and noise -- she maintains that Weiss has been singularly unresponsive to residents' complaints.

"We've reached out to Weiss, but he hasn't responded," Selz said. "We've tried everything and see no alternative" to a recall.

To Michael Eveloff, a Century City resident and software developer, JMB Realty Corp.'s JMB project symbolizes the problem of huge developments that don't consider the resultant consequences. The project calls for two 47-story towers, with 483 condos, and 1,200 parking spaces, as well as 12-story loft building adjacent to the intersection of Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars.

The new complex will replace a one-story drive-through bank and a nightclub on the 5.5-acre site, but no realistic provisions have been made to accommodate the additional traffic in the already congested area, said Eveloff, who is president of the Tract 7260 Homeowners Association, which includes Century City.

Weiss, a member of the City Council's three-man Planning and Land Use Management Committee, supports the JMB project because, his office said, it fits with his vision of turning Century City into "a live, work, and play district."

Eveloff isn't sold. "Not all development is bad," he said, "but it has to be done intelligently, so it doesn't strain the infrastructure." Eveloff added that he believes Weiss, who has announced that he will run for city attorney in 2009, "is more interested in global issues and terrorism than in the minutiae of the district. But being a councilman is really a pothole job."

Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, illustrated the traffic problem in her area, which she blamed partly on Weiss' chumminess with developers.

"It takes me 30 minutes to go six blocks on Beverly Boulevard, and longer if I want to get to The Jewish Federation on Wilshire," she complained.

An early activist in Democrats for Israel, Plotkin said, "Everyone appreciates what Jack has done for Israel, but it's gotten to the point where we can't move or park in our own neighborhood."

The recall push is mainly powered by Westside residents, with Weiss' Valley constituents largely sitting on the sidelines. But an official of the influential Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, who described himself as "a good friend of Jack" and did not wish to be identified, said that he was worried about development in his area. "We don't want to wind up like the Westside," the official said. Asked if he would personally support a recall, the official said, "I don't think so, I'm not angry enough."

The high emotions among Weiss' detractors are matched -- in reverse, by his supporters, and it becomes difficult to believe that they are talking about the same person.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose Museum of Tolerance lies in Weiss' district, described the councilman as "totally available" and earning "top grades on pothole issues."

Cooper singles out Weiss as the key city official on homeland security issues, responsible for the allocation of funds to upgrade security measures at local synagogues, schools and other Jewish institutions. During a joint mission to endangered northern Israel during the Lebanon War, Cooper found Weiss "modest and courageous" and "one of the few people who fully recognizes the global threat of terrorism."

Asked about complaints regarding Weiss' inactivity on traffic problems, Cooper responded, "Nobody is happy about traffic and there is enough blame to go around for everybody. But this has been building up for decades throughout the city and it's ridiculous to blame one guy.

There is no way to change this magically." Cooper characterized Weiss as "very quick and very bright, with strongly held views," which may offend some people, he suggested.

No one defends Weiss more fervently than Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, who is battling the councilman's foes with a stream of e-mails.

Korobkin, who is associated with the Yavneh Hebrew Academy and the West Coast division of the Orthodox Union, praised Weiss as "a man of deep integrity and loyalty, who has always listened patiently and sensitively to neighborhood concerns."

The admiration of Weiss by Korobkin and other Orthodox leaders stems from Weiss' concern and assistance, which extends beyond his own district boundaries. Weiss has aided Yavneh in its disputes with neighboring Hancock Park residents over zoning, parking and Saturday services, pushed security grants for small synagogues and moved against a "terror cell" in Torrance, Korobkin said.

Equally enthusiastic is Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kolodny, founder of the Los Angeles Council of Jewish Organizations, which, he said, is dedicated to helping needy Jews with food distribution, medical emergencies and safety concerns.

"Weiss' office and his outstanding staff are a 'one-stop shop' in dealing with constituents' concerns, and rather than being in thrall to developers, the developers hate him," Kolodny said.

Weiss himself would not comment for this article, but Lisa Hansen, his deputy chief of staff, responded after The Journal posed a number of questions.

"This is an effort by a small group of people who would spend millions of taxpayer dollars in a special election to disrupt the democratic process," Hansen said.

"Jack has been honored by a huge outpouring of support from the community. No one has done more to mitigate traffic on the Westside than Jack; he's working to bring rail transportation to the Westside, the subway to Century City and millions of dollars are being invested on traffic planning to improve the flow.

"Voters looked at his record on traffic and development and reelected him with 72 percent of the vote in 2005. Jack and his staff regularly attend homeowners' meetings, neighborhood councils and other community events. Jack always brings everyone to the table in public policy matters to determine the best course of action in each case," Hansen concluded.

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