July 24, 2013
West Hollywood’s tzedakah mayor
In any town across the country, a city council meeting can feel a lot like ground zero for American democracy: One by one, residents approach the podium and address the decision-makers with suggestions or grievances. With a few changes, a similar scene could have played out in a medieval English shire or a 19th century Polish shtetl.
At the July 15 session of the West Hollywood (WeHo) City Council, with more than 100 men and women of all ages in the audience, Mayor Abbe Land and the councilmembers sat behind a curved dais and listened to their constituents’ concerns: One speaker requested “more fiscal responsibility”; another, a business owner, complained about rising costs for leased parking spaces; still another, a homeowner, worried about a rehab clinic (“sober living center”) on her street.
There were also comments particular to WeHo, a city of 35,000 people with a large LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population. These included a request for the rainbow flag to be flown next to the state banner and applause for the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.
Land — who is Jewish, 57, slim, with short black hair and glasses — was the only woman at the dais, flanked by several councilmen, all of whom take yearly turns being mayor. An old hand at this — it’s her fifth time as mayor — Land ran the meeting with good-natured efficiency, listening and responding to everyone.
Some WeHo residents heaped praise on their city’s governance. Land mentioned, with evident satisfaction, a recent survey that shows 90 percent of WeHo residents who responded said their quality of life is either good or excellent, a clear sign the city’s government is successful — in sharp contrast to several other L.A. County cities plagued by poor management and corruption.
But in an interview, Land said that, for her, WeHo’s success also poses one of the city’s biggest challenges as it moves forward.
Land, who is married to artist Martin Gantman, has lived in West Hollywood since 1979 and, according to her official bio, was “part of the successful campaign to make West Hollywood an independent city in 1984.” Since then, she has been involved in one leadership position or another in the community, which has thrived in recent decades.
Throughout her tenure, Land has kept her eye focused on progressive causes (single-payer health care, affordable housing, diversity issues), on economic growth (promoting small business, absorbing immigrant populations), on safety and health (gun/ammo control, women’s issues, the environment, preventing domestic violence) and on improving the quality of life (increasing resources for children, ensuring seniors’ needs).
Over the years, she has received many awards, including being named “Woman of the Year” in 2005 by the L.A. County Commission for Women, and, notably, the “Remarkable Woman” award from the National Council of Jewish Women’s L.A. chapter.
“I’m not a particularly religious person,” Land said. “I wasn’t raised in a religious household. I’m not a temple-goer, though I observe Jewish holidays and love the traditions. … But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the Jewish religion, and to the degree that it’s about giving back, it’s certainly influenced me. … My grandmother used to tell me that you always have to give back. I can’t tell you for sure that she called it tzedakah, that she used that word, but she was all about giving back to others.
“I hate the fact that equality isn’t for everybody,” Land added. “I just don’t like the fact that inequality seems to be rampant, and it’s all really the luck of the draw. I believe that everyone should have housing, everyone should have food, everyone should have health care, and everyone should be able to marry the person they love. Those are the things that drive me.”
Beyond her work for WeHo’s constituents, for which she gets paid $825 monthly, plus standard public employee benefits, Land also serves as executive director and chief executive officer of The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, whom Land refers to as “LGBTQ.”
“The Q stands for ‘questioning,’ ” she said. “Many young people aren’t sure what their sexual orientation is. … It’s a time of discovery, and we want people to feel free to come to talk with us about that. We want any young person who’s feeling that they don’t have an option, we want them to reach out to us. We want them to know they have an option.”
Pointing to the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, she said, “We want all young people to know that they’re perfect just the way they are, and they deserve a chance to achieve their dreams. … They need to know there’s a safe place to go.”
Land said that what’s most rewarding for her is that “when [government] works, you actually get to make things better for people.”
But even in West Hollywood, where the city is “thriving,” she admitted, “There are challenges: 17 percent of our people live below the poverty level; we have seniors fighting to find housing options that meet their needs as they’ve grown older.”
Nevertheless, she added, the city has focused on “providing lots of resources for public safety, for social services; we’ve spent a lot over the years on infrastructure. We just built a brand new library, we’re redoing our parks, we’re always investing, so the work that we do, and the work that the private sector has done, has really helped to raise land values. And that’s great.”
Great, yes, but the mayor acknowledged that rising property values come with a price: WeHo’s diversity is in jeopardy, because it’s harder and harder to afford to live there. She pointed to two new affordable-housing projects opening in the course of the next year. “One we refer to as ‘the Witkin Project,’ for older people, and one at La Brea near Santa Monica, for transitional-age youths as well as people of all ages. So we’re not only working on affordable housing, but also working on programs to maintain the quality of housing that’s already here.”
“We want to make sure we continue to have a diverse community, that we continue to have young people in our community so they can thrive and eventually remain here and become the older people in our community,” she said.
“Our biggest challenge is to manage our success, so that we continue to hold on to our values.”