Beverly Hills Candidate Forum Stirs Controversy

Update: The remaining candidates for City Council and City Treasurer met for the second night of a forum hosted by the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association and the Municipal League of Beverly Hills on April 28.  

Like the first night, the candidates appeared in pairs: Councilmember John Mirisch and Robin Rowe, Shiva Bagheri and Akshat “AB” Bhatia, and City Treasurer candidates Howard Fisher and Jake Manaster. 

Former Mayor Bob Tanenbaum, President of the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association at the forum, defended his prosecutorial approach to his questioning of incumbent Councilmember Lester Friedman the night before, saying, “I wanted the public to view him and make their own decision whether or not he was being truthful.”

He acknowledged that his combative approach may have surprised observers. 

“It was a passionate exchange and most people are not used to that. So people may very well believe that I’m too passionately involved in the issues that I really care about and I’d probably plead guilty to that,” he said. 

City Council candidates met for the first of two nights for a forum hosted by the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association and the Municipal League of Beverly Hills on April 27. Held in the City Council chambers, the forum was structured with two candidates taking the floor at a time. Councilmember Lester Friedman and Public Works Commissioner Sharona Nazarian appeared together first, followed by Vera Markowitz and Planning Commission Chair Andy Licht, and ending with Councilmember Robert Wunderlich and Darian Bojeaux.

The remaining City Council candidates and the candidates for City Treasurer answered questions on April 28, after press time. The Courier will update this story online following the forum.

Despite the two-person format, only Wunderlich and Bojeaux responded at length to one another, largely on the subject of mixed-use housing, while the other candidates effectively went one at a time.

The forum took on a combative tone early on, however, in the questions posed to Friedman by former Mayor Bob Tanenbaum, the head of the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association and a former prosecutor. At one point Tanenbaum’s questions prompted the council member to compare them to a cross-examination. Some of the questions drew boos from the audience.

Tanenbaum grilled Friedman on flyers sent out by his campaign showing the council member in photos with the fire chief and police chief, which Tanenbaum said violated a state prohibition on officials in uniform from participating in political activity while in uniform. Friedman argued that the photos had been taken prior to his campaign and did not violate the Government Code as they were not originally intended for political use.

Friedman was also asked why he sought the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Democrats given the nonpartisan nature of Beverly Hills elections. Neither Friedman nor Licht, who also sought the endorsement, received the endorsement, which went instead to Nazarian and Wunderlich. However, Tanenbaum did not ask those candidates why they had sought the party’s seal of approval. 

Tanenbaum also followed up with Friedman on a question asked by the Courier that touched on the conduct of former Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli. During her four-year tenure, the city paid more than $7 million in judgments and settlements due to allegations of racial bias, antisemitism, and homophobia.

“The management of that process was based on legal and insurance decisions and carried out as expeditiously as possible,” Friedman previously said in response to the Courier.

Tanenbaum accused Friedman of defending Spagnoli and refusing to let the cases play out in court in front of a jury. Friedman explained that going to trial would risk putting the city on the line for large sums of money “way in excess of what the insurance coverage is.”  

The tone of the questioning drew criticism from city officials, including Councilmember John Mirisch and Vice Mayor Julian Gold.

“I would characterize last night as disgraceful and something which brings shame on our entire city,” Gold told the Courier. “We pride ourselves on our civility. To see one of our residents and a former mayor behave in such a despicable manner reflects very badly on this community.”

In contrast to the questions asked of Friedman, Nazarian was asked about her background and credentials, her charitable work as President of the Rotary Club, her general thoughts on the biggest issues facing the city, and her experience as an immigrant from Iran.

Councilmember John Mirisch said he felt uncomfortable watching the proceedings of the first night.

“It was meant to be a town hall where candidates were able to express their views and it turned into an inquisition,” he told the Courier.

Mirisch said that it is expected that all candidates must answer challenging questions.

“It was unnecessarily adversarial. It’s one thing to ask tough questions and to ask people to justify their records and to give their perspectives. But this felt like it went beyond that,” he said. 

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