What do visiting the Hoover Dam, scaling the heights of a tree in a bucket truck, prowling through the streets at night in a police car, ripping off a car door with “Jaws of Life” rescue tools, and taking a trip to the library have in common?
They all help Beverly Hills residents learn more about how their city works.
Since 1996, 722 people have spent ten weeks in an experiential program called Team Beverly Hills that was designed to create more knowledgeable and engaged citizens by immersing them in everything that goes into running their city. Each year before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, 42 residents hear presentations, go on field trips, and participate in a wide variety of activities led by city commissioners, department heads, public safety officers, and more.
“It’s really an amazing program slash introduction to how Beverly Hills works how government functions, how the city functions, how do streetlights turn on, who takes care of the streetlights, who pays for the streetlights,” 2012 graduate and current Human Relations Commission Chair Ori Blumenfeld told the Courier. “It really is a wonderful introduction where every month, you learn about a different facet of just how our city works.”
That was exactly what former Mayor Thomas Levyn had in mind when he launched the program 25 years ago. “To me, there was a large gap between those in the community who were involved and understood City processes and those who wanted to get involved but didn’t see an avenue to do so,” Levyn told the Courier in an email. “As Mayor, I was hoping to suggest an exciting, immersive community experience open to all which would prepare residents for further City interaction, whether as a future council member, commissioner, community activist, or as someone who wanted to know how the various departments of the City work and the services they offer.”
Levyn asked leadership consultant Larry Kohn to formulate such a program. After researching leadership programs around the country, Kohn developed a model that is still in place 25 years later: a city-subsidized 10-session program, where each session explores a different part of city life and government through presentations, field trips, and hands-on activities. Each year, Kohn works with the current mayor and the heads of presenting city departments, commissions, institutions, and nonprofits to develop and revise their presentations.
Team Beverly Hills takes place over 10 evening and weekend sessions from October to March. During each roughly four-hour session, applicants do everything from go on optional police ride-alongs, help find a person in a dark room with the help of heat-sensing cameras, participate in mock Planning Commission sessions, tour BHTV recording equipment, and watching Krav Magah demonstrations. Participants sign liability waivers, Kohn said, but in the 25 years of Team Beverly Hills, the worst that’s ever happened is someone got stuck in a bucket truck for 10 minutes.
“I’m a hands-on learner, so this program completely called to me it wasn’t just like, sit in on our meetings every Tuesday at 9 a.m.,” said Fred Dapp, a realtor and former member of the Next Beverly Hills Committee who attended in 2019. “It’s like ok, let’s go to this place physically, let’s get our hands wet, let’s actually talk about it…each week, we were excited for the next week…they broke it up in a way that they had the audience consistently.” Dapp, like many other alumni interviewed by the Courier, said his favorite experience was the Jaws of Life demonstration from the fire department.
Team Beverly Hills started off with 25 members and has expanded to 42. Each summer, roughly 80 to 90 people apply, and 40 are selected either by random lottery or City Council recommendation. Each year, Beverly Hills High School also nominates two students it feels have leadership potential. To avoid an applicant being rejected numerous times, council members try to nominate people who have been rejected in past cycles, Kohn told the Courier.
Though the program started off completely free, members now pay a $50 fee. The most recent program, which ran from October 2019 until an unexpectedly virtual ceremony in March 2020 right as the pandemic struck, cost the city $15,300 from the city’s General Fund. The money pays for food and optional overnight trips to track the source of the city’s water, from the Hoover Dam all the way to local reservoirs.
As far as Kohn is aware, there was not and still is not any municipal program quite like it.
“Most of the leadership programs come out of the local Chambers of Commerce, so they have a business and business networking flavor to them,” Kohn told the Courier. “We didn’t want to do that. We come from the city, not from the Chamber, and our goal was to motivate people to be more involved in the city .the original dream was to create an inventory of knowledgeable residents who could be more active in the city. There was a time when there wasn’t long waiting lists to get on commissions. Now there’s huge waiting lists to get on commissions, directly as a result of Team Beverly Hills.”
According to Kohn, 85 % of commissioners, and all of the current council members, are graduates of Team Beverly Hills. Current commissioner applications ask applicants whether they participated in the program. Throughout the program, presenters tell participants ways they can get involved, and after the program, alumni join an online mailing list that emails them different city opportunities, from commissioners to volunteer work to boards.
Various graduates told the Courier that Team Beverly Hills helped them determine how they wanted to serve their city.
Blumenfeld moved to Beverly Hills about two years before joining Team Beverly Hills. After joining, he was motivated to take a Community Emergency Response Team certification course after spending time with police and firefighters, and to join a commission after hearing from different commissioners.
“We had one Team Beverly Hills meeting where you basically learned how to be a commissioner we had a mock commission day and we got to be commissioners and work out issues that a particular commission would deal with, and knowing I wanted to get involved with the city, I knew I wanted to become a commissioner,” he said.
Charitable Solicitations Commission Chair and 2017 graduate Steven Smith enjoyed the police training so much that two years later, he took part in the BHPD Citizen Police Academy, an eight to 10-week deep dive into how the department operates. He also started watching Charitable Solicitation Commission meetings online before eventually joining.
“They told people, look at the different commissions that are out there and if you’re interested, sit in on the meetings it’s open to the public,” Smith said.
Kathi DeLuca, who also attended in 2017, was inspired during the library visit to join the board of the Greystone Mansion. “Through the library, one of the people who came to visit was the president and vice president of the Greystone Mansion,” she said. “I happened to be sitting right in the front row, and so the girls were talking and telling us about the Greystone, and she started telling us we could become a member and they were looking for members of the board, so of course my hand flew up.”
After the pandemic struck, Kohn and his team considered a virtual program, but decided Team Beverly Hills would not be Team Beverly Hills without its site visits and interactive trainings. Currently, no program is planned for the 2021-22 season, but Kohn hopes it can return the following year. In addition to creating new leaders, Kohn said one of his favorite aspects of Team Beverly Hills is appreciating existing ones.
The greatest value that people get is they get a chance to see the level of talent of people involved in running the city,” he said. “Mostly the focus is on the knowledge and capability of the department chairs and staff and the people who really make the city work, because they don’t really get a chance to show their skills to a group other than Team Beverly Hills.”