After a sometimes contentious public meeting session, the West Hollywood City Council voted 4-0 Monday, March 4 to have City Attorney Mike Jenkins and city staff draft a resolution for the Council to censure city councilman John Duran for what the Council in its public remarks deemed inexcusable personal behaviors “which reflected badly on the city’s reputation.”
Duran resigned his ceremonial post as mayor earlier Monday in a Facebook post followed by a communique to fellow Council members and the city manager. He has consistently maintained his innocence in the sexual assault allegations first levied against him by members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) over the past several months.
In his public social media statement, Duran did not heed numerous public calls for his resignation from his City Council seat. Instead, he declared he would serve out the remainder of his current term, which ends in 2020, but didn’t indicate if he would stand for reelection.
In his post Duran wrote, “handing the Mayor’s gavel to my friend John D’Amico… to fill the remaining two months of my Mayor’s term.” He added, “I am not resigning from council and will complete this term which expires in November of 2020.”
The former mayor wrote that the need to focus on his health was the reason for his decision. “My sobriety and God come first. My health comes next.” Duran then added: “I continue to work with my doctors to try and get my blood and body in the right balance. I am supposed to slow down to half speed and rest for the next 30 days.”
The motion to censure came after public comments from city residents and community business leaders who expressed their frustrations with Duran’s alleged sexual behaviors and public statements deemed inappropriate attributed to him.
Several of the public members queued up from the audience present in the Council chambers to speak including businessman Will Hackner, founder and CEO of the WeHo-based national LGBTQ+ Recreational Sports League organization, Varsity Gay League LLC, who called upon the city council to remove Duran from all offices to include his council seat. Under California state law governing the type of incorporation of WeHo as a general-law city, it is impossible for the council to remove a sitting member from office.
When a young Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles member alleged that Duran made an unwanted sexual overture in October 2019, the incident, even though dismissed after an investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, revived public sentiments about other well known incidents involving the Council member. In 2016, Duran and the city government had been sued by a former city deputy, Ian Owens, over his claim of sexual harassment by Duran.
An out-of-court settlement of $500,000 was paid by the city’s insurer to Owen though neither the city nor Duran admitted any wrongdoing. At the time Duran was not filling the mayoral role.
Owens, prior to filing the lawsuit, had been suspended from his position over an accusation of bugging the phone conversations of fellow deputy Fran Solomon, and of sharing her email correspondences with other city employees.
During the investigation, he insisted he had been a “whistleblower” over inappropriate campaign funding activity by Solomon on behalf of then-Mayor John Heilman, and that he had acted in part because his boss, Duran, had been unwilling to listen to his assertions, which he believed was because of his own rejection of Duran’s sexual advances.
Duran met Owens on the gay dating mobile app Grindr in 2012 and had sex with him prior to his employment with the city.
Duran insisted that had no bearing on Owens being hired as his deputy and that there had been nothing inappropriate about his relations with Owens while Owens was an employee. The resulting scandal led to the dismantling of the city’s deputy program in 2015.
The Owens affair resulted in numerous city residents and some business owners to call for Duran’s resignation or for punitive measures be taken by the council at that time.
Duran was re-elected to his seat after the Owens scandal was made public.
In February of this year, as the sexual misconduct allegations against Duran from three former members of the GMCLA against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, Duran’s critics renewed their calls for him to step down.
As the city prepared for the election on Tuesday March 5, in which three incumbent Council members, John D’Amico, Lindsey Horvath and Lauren Meister, were standing for reelection, the resulting allegations spurred a heated public controversy.
On Feb. 11, the vice chair of the city’s Safety Commission, Robert Oliver, unexpectedly resigned from his post during the commission’s Public Safety meeting in protest of what he perceived as the council’s inaction over the allegations against Duran.
“I have been honored to serve on this commission with you, but I cannot continue to serve on a commission that stays silent on issues of such importance” Oliver said.
The next day on Feb. 12, three members of the Council — Horvath, D’Amico, and Meister — posted on Facebook calling for Duran’s resignation.
“First and most importantly, I condemn in the strongest terms sexual harassment and assault in all its forms. No matter whether it is perpetrated against a woman or man or gender non-conforming person, this behavior is wrong and it is unacceptable.” Horvath wrote adding, “Our City cannot focus on the work of the people when we have to address new and numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, including whether our Mayor used his title to solicit sexual favors. It is not fair to the people of this City to continue seeing ‘West Hollywood’ in the same sentence as these allegations. Our City deserves better.”
D’Amico, in his post, noted the allegations were “dividing” the Council and pulling its “attention“ away from “the long list of good, regular city business we can accomplish every day.”
“To get our city back on track,” he said, “John Duran needs to step away from being Mayor immediately and consult his conscience about what happens next.”
In her statement, Council member Meister wrote: “West Hollywood as a city is suffering as a result of the numerous and repeated allegations against Mayor Duran,” […] “he should step down from the position of mayor, and perhaps, step away from the council position so that he can focus on these issues and the city can focus on moving forward.”
In the time slotted for public comment during the Feb. 18 Council meeting one city resident Tai Sunnanon, a seated member of the city’s Public Facilities Commission, told the Council: “Lately, I have been exhausted, and I have been embarrassed, I have to defend this city with relatives and friends who live out of state because we have not sought the proper due justice to two black men who have died in our neighborhoods,” he said. “I am also exhausted and embarrassed by a mayor who uses gay and sexual liberation as a front with undue and unnecessary behavior that is really unbecoming of this city.”
As the calls for his resignation grew, Duran himself became combative. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times the following day, Duran, referring to his fellow Council members told the paper, “If the three of them are talking about this, and it sounds like they are, that’s a violation of the Brown Act, and the district attorney should investigate. You can’t have meetings outside of public view. Do I think that they all got the idea to put up their statements, all three, at the exact same time without talking to each other? No.”
In a phone call with WeHo city attorney Mike Jenkins on Feb. 20, the Los Angeles Blade was told that the statements posted on Facebook “reflect the individual views of each council member and are not the result of a coordinated effort.”
The Los Angeles Blade then learned that a complaint had been lodged last week alleging a violation of California’s Brown Act with the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey against Horvath, D’Amico, and Meister, for their Facebook posts.
In an email statement, Shiara Davila-Morales, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office responded writing; “We have received a complaint, and it is being reviewed.”
According to Council members and public comment during the March 4 Council meeting, Duran’s own Facebook posts showed that he was out of touch with the realities of today’s climate regarding sexual assault and victimization.
Duran responded to the calls for his departure with his own Facebook post, writing, “I have never hidden from any of you that I am a fully fledged sexual being… We fought too hard in the 70’s and 80’s for the right to be, the right to create a gay male subculture, the right to maintain sexuality in the midst of plague and to come out on the other side into marriage equality. To express yourselves sexually just like any other subculture in America.”
He added, “Now, I understand that the ground has shifted in a tectonic way with the ‘Me Too’ movement. I get that. But the pendulum swings too far when accusation is treated as truth.”
“So, will I resign? HELL NO,” he said. “If my colleagues shorten my Mayoral term, so be it. I didn’t wage this fight for 40 years to cower now.”
With his resignation from the ceremonial position of mayor Monday morning, Duran in effect negated proposed actions by the rest of the Council to remove him. That action had been one of five items listed on the published City Council agenda on the city’s website under Council new business section 5C as prepared by the city attorney Mike Jenkins and city staff.
All of the items had been directed by the council during the February 19 session to be placed on the March 4 agenda. Duran had not be physically present for that session as he had been hospitalized for a blood clot condition. As a result the council delayed actions to remove him from the mayoral role.
Other suggested actions included denying Duran travel funds and reimbursement for funds for any travel associated with city business. Removal from one or all of the subcommittees he serves on as a city official. Denying him reimbursement for any expenses incurred in the performance of city business or his conducting official business on behalf of the city.
The last of the five items was preparation of a motion to censure him. Council member John Heilman initially had argued against censure.
“What we’re essentially inviting is another public meeting with all the people who think he should resign, all the people who think he should be censured,” he said. “John will have his supporters there as well.”
Heilman asked his fellow other three Council members to defer any decision on censuring Duran. He also pointed out that remarks made during the discussions regarding the agenda item by Horvath, D’Amico, and Meister, stating that their viewpoint Duran’s behavior had also made it quite clear they were issuing a censure of his behavior. Heilman then commented that Duran should have an opportunity to review the censure resolution before the Council adopted it, which would make for quite an awkward public session.
The discussion was intensified when city attorney Jenkins then objected to being ordered to draft a censure resolution strongly articulating his viewpoint that allegations of sexual misconduct by Duran have not been proved.
Horvath interrupted noting that allegations were in fact documented by an independent investigator investigating previous complaints of sexual harassment alleged by Duran’s former deputy Ian Owens. She conceded that while the investigator was unable to substantiate those accusations of sexual harassment by Owens, he did report back that Duran had made inappropriate comments to city staff personnel.
Following Horvath’s remarks, D’Amico suggested that Jenkins should consider public statements made in recent weeks by Duran that indicated inappropriate behavior, alluding to the former mayor’s Facebook posts.
After Jenkins indicated that he would draft the proposal but cautioned the language may not be ready until April.
Heilman, after the other actions taken by council regarding stripping Duran of most duties and included the a clause inserted by Horvath that a city staff person would always be present at any meeting between Duran and others while in the course of conducting city business, then joined in the final unanimous vote to censure Duran.
The council then elected D’Amico mayor to serve until the new Council was seated after the certification of the election results on April 15 along with Horvath to serve as mayor pro tempore.
(Additional reporting by John Paul King and the staff of the Los Angeles Blade)