Chamber of Commerce Hosts First Candidate Forum

Candidates for Beverly Hills City Council gathered for the first time on March 30 for a forum hosted by the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce (BHCC). 

The June 7 election will see 11 candidates compete for three open City Council seats. Given that large number, the BHCC hosted two panels for the City Council forum, with six candidates participating in the first and three following them. Two City Council candidates, Darian Bojeaux and Akshat “AB” Bhatia did not participate.

Public safety took precedence in the City Council portion of the forum, with the three incumbents defending the Council’s record of responding to the increase in crime and the challengers attempting to lay out an alternative to that record.  

Candidates all agreed on the need to attract new officers to address staffing shortages in the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD). The candidates also found common ground in their support of the effort to recall District Attorney George Gascón, whose policies they blame for exacerbating crime in the city. 

While challengers spoke about the need to improve public safety, incumbents tried to contextualize crime trends and offer strident defenses of the city’s response.

“The increase in crime in Beverly Hills is not solely a Beverly Hills problem,” Mayor Robert Wunderlich said. “It’s a national problem. It’s a regional problem. Beverly Hills actually is vastly safer than our surrounding neighborhoods, both in terms of crime and in terms of homelessness. But I understand that safer is not enough.”

“As I hear some suggestions that are being put forward, I’m not hearing anything that we’re not already doing,” Wunderlich said. “Over the course of my five years on City Council, we increased the police budget by 40%.”

Wunderlich highlighted other safety measures the Council has supported or implemented, including adding more CCTV cameras and automatic license plate readers, hiring private armed security firms, rolling out a police drone program, and passing ordinances aimed at curtailing harassment related to public demonstrations.  

Councilmember Lester Friedman added that the Council had also supported the city’s Fire Department, increasing and upgrading equipment and launching the nurse practitioner program. 

To address recruitment issues, Planning Commission Chair Andy Licht suggested making working conditions more appealing to prospective candidates by reducing working hours. 

Councilmember John Mirisch suggested that BHPD could use technology as a force multiplier, using artificial intelligence to monitor the city’s many CCTV camera feeds. He reiterated a recent suggestion of his to purchase more mobile command centers. 

“If there are issues, whether it be protests or a rash of crimes, we can deploy mobile command systems wherever we need to strategically and that can be a base for more foot patrols,” he said.

The forum discussion also repeatedly touched on the southeast of the city, which sitting Councilmember John Mirisch described as the “the ugly stepchild” of Beverly Hills in comparison to the ritzy Business Triangle. All candidates agreed on the importance of attracting and retaining businesses in the area.

Public Works Commissioner Sharona Nazarian accused the Council of neglecting the southeast. 

“There are certain areas in our business district that are kind of falling apart. You walk on South Beverly, and you look at the sidewalks and they’re really decrepit,” she said. “It’s not becoming of our city.”

Planning Commission Chair Andy Licht emphasized that the city itself can only encourage certain forms of development.

“We aren’t developers as a city, we’re only here to provide [the] opportunity to make it easier for developers to do and encourage them [to do] what we want them to do,” he said. 

Mirisch, who is running for his fourth term, said that the city had failed to revitalize the southeast despite years of lip service. He suggested forming a Business Improvement District, an area in which businesses pay an additional tax to fund projects that serve local businesses and encourage commercial activity. 

Councilmember Lester Friedman defended the Council’s efforts in the southeast, saying he had recently moved his business to Southeast Beverly Hills. “Could it be improved? Yes, it could be improved,” he said. “I just don’t see it as a decrepit area. I see it as an opportunity.”

Forum moderator David Mirharooni asked the candidates about the minimal impact of the 2020 Mixed-Use Ordinance, which allowed residential development in large commercial swaths of the city. Since its passage, the city has seen no mixed-use projects, with just two developers expressing an intention to file projects with the city. 

All candidates other than Mirisch expressed some form of support for the concept of mixed-use in the city, with Friedman, Licht, and Wunderlich saying that the ordinance needed to be reviewed and possibly revamped. 

While Vera Markowitz said she was “very much a proponent” of mixed use, she felt that the Council had passed the ordinance without sufficient transparency.

“If you go down any street here, no one knows what’s going on. We need to have better communication with our residents and our residents need to know what’s going on and mixed use is one of the big things,” she said.

Mirisch, the lone dissenting vote against the Mixed-Use Ordinance, reiterated his opposition to “upzoning.”

“We’re not Manhattan, we’re not Paris, we’re Beverly Hills, and we need to be the best version of Beverly Hills that we can be,” he said.

The second panel saw a smaller crowd than the first. Sitting beside right wing-activist and dance instructor Shiva Bagheri and businessman Kevin Kugly, technologist and financial planner Robin Rowe acknowledged the elephant in the room.

“I’m sitting at the table of the people who are not supposed to win,” he said. But much like his prior run for City Council in 2020, he said his goal was to give residents an option outside of the mainstream. 

“I gave people a chance to vote for a candidate who was different,” he said. 

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