The list of complaints about Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association president Richard Close, from what can be dubbed his “cabinet,” is at the most, minimal.
One of the few discrepancies in Close’s judgment however, according to SOHA vice president Jules Feir, is his taste in catering.
“The meetings my wife and I would go to back then were at a small bank on the corner of Ventura and Fulton and they would get about 20 people,” Feir said. “Richard would bring two bottles of soda and some cookies. One time I asked him, ‘Can’t you bring anything better than this?’ So he challenged me to do it.”
“That was in 1995, and I’ve been getting ‘Restaurants of the Month’ since then. That’s how it started. I couldn’t stand the stuff that he was bringing.”
Aside from delightful food options from some of Sherman Oaks’ most well known restaurants, attendees at SOHA’s monthly community meetings have become accustomed to yet another appealing tradition: access to Los Angeles’ highest profile politicians.
Under the guidance of Close, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association has transitioned into one of the San Fernando Valley’s vital and powerful community organizations, with a penchant for drawing hefty crowds and attracting the “who’s who” of local politicians and city officials. And as the organization continues to grow, residents continue to become more involved, and a new crop of Sherman Oaks homeowners crawl into the fold, Close’s mission endures: remain an effective champion for Sherman Oaks.
On Aug. 15, 30th Congressional District candidates Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, longtime allies, paid a visit to the SOHA monthly community meeting to debate issues affecting Valley communities prior to the upcoming November election. Months before, Close, a friend of both men, publicly endorsed Berman for the Congressional seat in the newly drawn district.
Seeing as how both men are Democrats and have each built a working relationship with SOHA, some confusion surrounded Close’s choice to publicly endorse Berman.
Close, who has served as SOHA president since 1976, maintains that over the years, his stake in personal relationships, although important, is not critical to the operation of the SOHA organization.
The Homeowners Association and its members, from Close’s perspective, is what is in demand.
“I know these people because virtually every candidate comes and meets with the association and me before they’re elected,” Close said. “So we get to know them before they are big shots. Although the association does not endorse candidates for office, I do. Over the years, I develop relationships with this people.”
“I’m not saying who’s a good person or a bad person, I’m just saying who I think is the best person. This isn’t personal. I’m not afraid of backing the person that does not win. I endorse who I think is the best. I don’t need anything from these people. If a person holds a grudge against me, then so be it. In reality, elected officials know that someday, they have to come back to people for something.”
Despite Close’s endorsement of Berman, Sherman continues to acknowledge the prominence of Close and the SOHA organization.
“Richard Close has helped create one of the most vibrant home owners associations in the LA area,” Sherman said. “He's smart, incisive, and works hard.”
The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association began in 1964. According to Close, SOHA, originally known as the Sherman Oaks Highlands Association, was formed when the excavation for the San Diego freeway caused homes on the Sherman Oaks side of the 405 to slide down the mountain, which today causes a steep incline when entering the Valley.
Upon moving to Sherman Oaks in January of 1974, Close took over the leading role in SOHA in 1976, at a time when 300 families belonged to the organization.
Close’s initial act to advance SOHA involved opening his wallet and ravaging it.
“When I began, it had no money,” Close said. “So in order to send out mailings to members, the board of director members would loan money, in order to have meetings and mailings. There was no sound financial footing.”
Flash forward to local community meetings in which Close provided cookies and soda, then flash further forward to today, where SOHA maintains 2,100 families, seven times the amount of the day Close became president.
The biggest issue that kickstarted SOHA’s growth, according to Close, was in 1978 when SOHA member Howard Jarvis introduced Proposition 13, which proposed the reduction of property tax rates on homes by 57 percent.
“That issue, for people that own real estate, is probably the No. 1 political issue in the last 30 or 40 years,” Close said.
As Prop 13 gained steam at SOHA, and after Feir took over the catering duties, attendance at SOHA meetings ballooned. As a result, SOHA has welcomed in the city’s most recognizable and influential politicians and public officers on a monthly basis, from Mayor Tom Bradley to Mayor Villaraigosa.
During the summer of this year, LA City Councilman Tom LaBonge, 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, as well as Berman and Sherman, have all showed up on Wednesday nights to speak to SOHA residents in the cafeteria of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High School.
Parking was a lost cause on several occasions.
“The number one reason they come out is our large attendance,” Close said. “We normally get about 175 to 200 people at every meeting. For most groups, 30 to 40 people is a large turnout. Elected officials want to talk to a lot of people, as opposed to a small group.”
“Number two, they realize that the people in the audience are involved in civic matters, that they vote, and they’re interested in what’s being said. More importantly, the general public is not a Republican group, a Democratic group, a Liberal group; it’s a cross-section of the Sherman Oaks community.”
Never has the community’s involvement been more evident than at the August Berman-Sherman debate, where attendees held signs, blurted out remarks of support and dissension, and in numerous cases, seemed to slip under the skin of the congressional candidates.
"For decades, SOHA has set the gold standard for community advocacy organizations in the Valley,” Berman said. “The membership is as engaged and energized as the community it represents — which has contributed to their successes over the years.”
Rarely is there an instance when less than 200 residents are in attendance because there is rarely a meeting without an influential guest, which has become more prevalent in recent months.
Close greatly attributes the steady attendance and enthusiasm to the SOHA newsletter.
The newsletter is sent to SOHA members, plus about 1,200 VIPs, according to Close. Those VIPs are elected officials throughout LA County, their staff people, and the media.
“We treat people fairly,” Close said of why public officials feel inclined to attend meetings. “We don’t take cheap shots. We give them a forum. We don’t let them off easily, but on the other hand, we don’t abuse the privilege of having them come in.
“Plenty of politicians criticize our newsletter because it’s not balanced. I tell them if they want something balanced, they should read the New York Times. We’re an advocacy group. We’re not putting out a newspaper.”
Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who visited SOHA’s September 19 meeting, said that attendance, in addition to his friendship with Close, are the motivational factors for his consistant visits.
“It’s one of the most active organizations in the city, if not the most active,” Yaroslavsky said. “You can see, there will be a couple hundred people at a meeting when there is no controversy. For me, and I’m sure for others, it’s not often you get to have a focus group of 200 people. In two hours, you can get a sense of what’s going on in the community that you couldn’t get walking precincts for two weeks.”
Check back tomorrow for Part II, which profiles the influence of Richard Close within the Valley and the Sherman Oaks Community.