December 15, 2019 The Newspaper Serving LGBT Los Angeles

WeHo Safety Commissioner Steps Down Due to Inaction on Duran Sexual Harassment Allegations

Fed up with the City’s silence regarding alleged sexual harassment allegations against City of West Hollywood Mayor John Duran, Safety Commission Vice Chair Robert Oliver unexpectedly resigned at last night’s Public Safety Special Meeting.

“I’d like to know why the rest of the commission would stay silent when we have the second, third and fourth allegation against the mayor of our city,” Oliver said, citing a story published on Feb. 5 in the Los Angeles Times and referencing a lawsuit in 2016 in which Duran’s City Hall deputy accused him of sexual harassment.

The City settled that lawsuit with a payment of $500,000 to former deputy Ian Owens. Duran admitted hiring Owens after meeting him on the Grindr hookup app and having sex with him. But he denied Owens’ allegations that he acted in a sexually inappropriate way as his boss.

When asked to comment on the allegations and Oliver stepping down, Duran noted the difference between “sexual expression and sexual harassment.”

“One is unlawful and one is not,” Duran said in an interview via email. “The three allegations against me – one was investigated and determined to not be true. The other two we just learned about in the past week and need to conduct an investigation on each. One claim is that I said something sexually inappropriate to someone four years ago! He claims that I apologized for the comment but he didn’t feel it was remorseful enough. An offensive comment made four years ago is not sexual harassment. The other has yet to file a claim with the organization [GMCLA]. We will encourage him to file his claim so that the organization can investigate. “

Oliver, who is openly gay, said that he was concerned about older gay men abusing power over young gay men.

“Having come out at 14 years old, I can now, at 29, say that I have lived the majority of my life as an out and very proud gay man,” Oliver said in an interview via email. “I have spent much of that time as an advocate for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But I have experienced firsthand those men in power who feel it is their right to take advantage of those beneath them. And I will never accept anyone’s use of their sexual liberation as cover for sexual harassment. We as a community should feel liberated, and we have those who came before us to thank for that.”

Photo: Courtesy. Safety Commissioner Amanda Laflen.

The only commissioner who supported Oliver’s request that the commission call for Duran’s resignation Monday night was Amanda Laflen.

“I spoke up because no one else would, and I found that deeply disturbing,” Oliver said via email. “The silence at all levels of West Hollywood’s leadership for years has astounded me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made my statement Monday night at the Public Safety Commission meeting, but I expected something—anything. With the exception of Commissioner Laflen, the response was silence, which I felt was a reflection of the silence of the entire City. So at that moment, I had no option but to step down and leave that meeting.”
Oliver said that if his sudden resignation forces others out of silence, it would be his proudest achievement as Commissioner. Laflen said that the resignation encouraged an outpour of “support from residents and leadership of West Hollywood.”

“I am disappointed I was the only Commissioner to speak in agreement with Commissioner Oliver’s call for Mayor Duran’s resignation at our Public Safety Meeting Monday night, following serious allegations of sexual misconduct,” Laflen said in an interview via email. “I have personally experienced sexual harassment and intimidation, but I feel the experience of some members of the LGBTQ community, including young gay men, is different than mine, because there are many who suggest there should be a different standard for gay men. It should go without saying that LGBTQ people have the right to feel safe and not be subjected to unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances. No one should be made to feel they are in the wrong for feeling uncomfortable when saying no.” 

Photo: Courtesy GMCLA.
West Hollywood Mayor and former Chair of GMCLA John Duran speaking at a rally outside L.A. City Hall after the Orland Pulse shooting in 2016.

Duran announced last week that he was stepping down as chair of Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. He said that he is leaving the board because of a “toxic” environment at GMCLA that he attributes to the allegations about him, as reported by Wehoville.com.

“An accusation is not proof that something occurred,” Duran said via email. “There must be due process of law. Every accusation must be taken seriously. But there should be forbearance from a rush to judgment until the matter is investigated. Otherwise, any of us are vulnerable to the conclusion of guilt on mere accusation.”

Duran has allegedly been accused of behavior like putting his hand into the underwear of chorus members and making inappropriate sexual comments to them. In interviews with L.A. Times, three current or former chorus members accused Duran of inappropriate touching and comments. They said in the L.A. Times article that these allegations were reported to the chorus membership committee, which handles internal complaints, but chorus leadership did not follow up.

The L.A. Times reported that chorus member Brian Phillip Nichoalds said that Duran slipped his hand inside Nichoalds’ waistband and made sexually inappropriate comments. Former chorus member Joey Firoben said he reported two incidents — one alleging that Duran made inappropriate comments and another alleging that a different chorus member groped him multiple times during a dress rehearsal, according to the L.A. Times. Former chorus member Jason Tong said he left the chorus after Duran slipped his hand inside the waistband of his underwear in a changing room before a show.

According to the L.A. Times, Duran said that he was made aware of only one allegation – Tong’s – and that an independent investigator found no corroborating evidence to validate the accusation.

“…I hope the #MeToo movement will finally come to our city—the time will come when we stop automatically dismissing those who come forward to tell their stories,” Oliver said Monday night. “And, in the absence of hard evidence—when it comes down to he said / he said—why do we seem to always err on the side of the person in power, even in light of multiple serious allegations? Luckily that has been changing in our country, but we must hold our leadership to the same standard we hold others. Before we fix the world, we need to fix ourselves. Otherwise, we are simply hypocrites.

Oliver said via email that a rich history of activism is no excuse for anyone’s unhealthy relationship with sex or compulsions toward abuse, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“It is time for the City of West Hollywood to finally speak up and say enough is enough,” Oliver said. “If you hold any title in the city of West Hollywood – whether you’re a councilmember, commissioner or advisory board member – your silence is your complicity. If you are a community member and don’t like what’s going on, the next City Council meeting is February 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Council Chambers — 625 North San Vicente Boulevard. Fill out a speaker card, and speak up during public comment. Let your voice be heard.”

This story is developing. Check back online for the latest updates.

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