When William Brien got elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009, his colleagues Linda Briskman and Frank Fenton presented him a wooden sign emblazoned with three words: “When Pigs Fly!” As a figure of speech, a flying pig usually refers to something so far-fetched it will never happen. But according to Brien, who was reelected to the city council earlier this month, the words can also imply the quality of sticking to one’s guns or standing up for what a person believes in.
In an administrative and political career spanning 14 years, Brien is arguably a flying pig. As a member of the City of Beverly Hills Parks and Recreation Commission in 1998, he helped introduce a ban on public smoking that, he reckons, was one of the first measures of its kind in the entire nation. During his first term on the City Council, he helped cut more than $30 million from the city budget over a two-year period without layoffs, thereby not only averting economic disaster but generating a $10-million budget surplus in 2012 that has enabled the city to increase investments in schools, purchase a new ambulance, and put aside money for future investments in the southeastern portion of Beverly Hills near La Cienaga Boulevard.
Wednesday, March 27, marked Brien’s last day in office as mayor. A day earlier, he talked to Beverly Hills Patch about his political achievements, his vision for Beverly Hills—and what it’s like to have grown up as the grandson of Earl Warren, a governor of California and the 14th chief justice of the United States whose legal decisions ended school segregation, instituted the Miranda law for the protection of the rights of people accused of crimes, declared the outlawing of interracial marriage unconstitutional and created the one-person-one-vote system of legislative representation.
Excerpts from the interview:
Beverly Hills Patch: Are you happy with the recent election results?
William Brien: Well, I got reelected, so that’s a very positive position to be in. I would have liked to see a better turnout. I think we have to figure out ways to get more people to vote and be part of what’s going on in the community. After all, few things touch people’s lives more than the actions of a council in the city that they live. We control the budgets, police, Fire and city services—and sometimes when things are going pretty well, you may not have as many people turning out to vote. But I don’t think that’s the best way to exercise people’s right to vote.
What would be some of the ways to get voters to turn out in greater numbers?
Brien: I think there are a variety of ways to do that. Some people have talked about doing all votes by mail. That way, everyone gets a permanent absentee ballot—in essence, a permanent ballot. I’m not sure about that as the actual solution to the problem. But I do think that when you look at the presidential election, there’s much higher turnout. Maybe we should be looking at having our elections during the presidential and gubernatorial elections every two years. That way, you naturally have a much higher turnout of voters.
Couple that with a community like Beverly Hills. The voters are very educated people who actually pay attention to who’s running when they’re engaged in it [the election process]. Now, there are some downsides to having local elections along with presidential and gubernatorial elections. People tend to focus on the national elections and congressional and state and assembly seats. That can dilute the interest in city council races. But when you have 15,000 to 18,000 people voting in the last two presidential elections. And you have 4,800 to 5,500 people voting in the last two council elections, that’s a big drop-off. I think we’ve got to have more people engaged in this process.
What did you think of the campaigns that you and your competitors ran on?
Brien: Well, I tried to run a very positive campaign focused on the facts. But I got attacked pretty hard by one of the local newspapers, the [Beverly Hills] Courier. Many of the things written in the newspaper as news pieces on the front page were not based on the facts. I’ll give you an example. It was implied that I raised taxes. I didn’t raise taxes. In the state of California, city councils cannot raise taxes—the taxes are raised by a vote of the people. In fact, the only tax measure that was on the ballot four years ago, I was opposed to.
To imply that I was not opposed to the subway tunnel going under the high school? Again, not factual. To say that I support the Westside subway extension is factual—I do support the Westside subway extension.
Why do you oppose the subway tunnel going under the Beverly Hills High School?
Brien: Because I think there are other routes down the road that will not impact the building of the high school, which has got limited property. We have an oil well on the school campus. I supported removing the oil well—not because there’s a safety issue with the oil well but because the oil well is not a compatible land use for a high school campus. Years ago it was okay to put it there—that’s how it got there. Now, if you want to put an oil well on a high school campus in the state of California, you can’t do it. So, the law has changed. And that’s one of the concerns about building a tunnel under the high school. Not because it can’t be done safely, but because of what would happen down the road if the legislature passes some law that says you can no longer build schools or remodel buildings within “x” feet of a subway tunnel.
What has been your approach toward negotiating the metro tunnel plans with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority?
Brien: I have said from the beginning that I am willing to sit and talk with them. They have my respect and I have their respect. To walk away from the table, which is what has happened, is the wrong thing to do. Because if you walk away from the table, decisions will be made for you—or you can decide it in a courtroom. But we filed a state lawsuit and last month we filed a federal lawsuit because there were some time factors associated with the environmental impact reports. The reality is, the tunnel is coming. The lawsuits challenge the EIRs, not the tunnel route. So we have to work with the MTA and the school district to resolve the issue.
What’s your vision for Beverly Hills?
Brien: My vision for Beverly Hills is to continue to find ways to protect the tranquil quality of life of residents here. To maintain our city services and support our schools. But I also think it’s important to look at your business community and make sure that you’re serving them as well. The business community brings in a little more than 70 percent of the money that allows us to provide those services—police, Fire, schools, the tranquil quality of life, great streets, parks.
I’ve streamlined the permit process for our restaurants and businesses to remodel or relocate here in Beverly Hills. The permit process takes well under 70 days now—it used to take four to six months.
The Beverly Hills brand name has got to be more than just great hotels, great retail, great restaurants. And now, with the Annenberg Performing Arts Center coming on in October, the Westside will have a venue to match the Geffen. This new theater is going to be a game-changer in the City of Beverly Hills. It gives us something that will draw more tourists here and more people from the region—Santa Monica and Culver City and parts of Los Angeles and the Valley. It’ll be a great place for people to come in for a weekend, a night or for a show and to have dinner.
So what’s it like having been mayor of one of the most recognizable brand names in the world?
Brien: It’s been great. I grew up in this city. I’ve lived here just shy of 55 years. It’s one of the most recognized cities in the world but it’s recognized because of all the things we’ve talked about—wonderful homes, a great place to live and raise your kids, but also phenomenal police and Fire that have a less than three-minute response time. A great business district that generates a lot of revenue. People don’t realize that during the workweek we get between 250,000 to 300,000 people in the city. And yet it’s a community of 35,000 residents in about five and a half square miles.
We’re redoing our parks—restoring Beverly Gardens Park and finding more green space. We’re looking to expand into the orange groves off Coldwater Canyon Park in a joint venture between the City of L.A. and the City of Beverly Hills. We’re going to build a new community center and redo the play area for kids, the bathrooms and the drainage system at Roxbury Park.
What was your maternal grandfather Earl Warren like? What’s your favorite memory of him?
Brien: He was a very kind man—a very smart man—and obviously a tremendous politician because you couldn’t have gotten to where he got otherwise. One of my enduring memories of him was at the old Senator Hotel in Sacramento, where we were spending the holidays. My younger brother and I had gotten into an elevator, and as kids would do, my brother hit all the buttons [for the floors]. And all of a sudden, this big hand comes into the door as it’s closing and my grandfather gets on. He sees all the buttons on the elevator lit up and says to my brother, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna walk down the stairs and you’re gonna meet me in the lobby. And I’m gonna apologize to every single person who gets onto this elevator.”
And after we met him in the lobby, he said, “Now you’re going to walk back up the stairs and I’m going to meet you on the floor where the room is, and we’re going to start over.” And you know, I never forgot that. Every time I get on an elevator—and I’ve seen some kids push the buttons—I always think, Boy, if my grandfather were here, they’d be doing a lot of walking today.