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It's the Process -- Don't be Stupid

by Frank Gruber

"Is this a real emergency, or just a tactic?" Superior Court Judge David Yaffe asked attorneys Chris Harding and Tom Larmore Wednesday morning in Department 86 of Superior Court in downtown L.A.

Harding and Larmore, on behalf of the Santa Monica Transportation Council (SMTC), were seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) to halt the start of construction on Santa Monica's downtown plan, and they needed an emergency to justify it.

Harding and Larmore argued that starting construction without an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would constitute the requisite crisis.

Justice may be blind, but in this case the judge's vision was 20-20.

The construction impact sections of EIRs always boil down to noise and dust. Do we need EIRs to tell us that?

If the SMTC was concerned about construction impacts, a phone call might have been more effective, and presumably cheaper, than hiring Harding and Larmore to sue the city. Do they really think that our hyper-sensitive City Council and staff would ignore input from influential property owners and the officers of neighborhood associations about something as noncontroversial as mitigating noise and dust?

(If anyone should know how sensitive Council members are to constituent complaints, it should be Harding who is, after all, suing the city over its sensitivity to a complaint about a certain playhouse.)

It was obvious to Judge Yaffe that the SMTC had a different agenda, and that was to stall the project itself.

The idea of reducing traffic lanes scares some people to death, and some of those people formed the SMTC to fight the plan, because the plan does just that.

But where were they during all the meetings of the Design Working Group (of which I was a member) and the Planning Commission during all the years the city developed the plan? During that time the city commissioned, and in those meetings the public discussed, numerous traffic studies.

Nor did City Council approve the plan in the dead of night. There was a long public hearing. At that hearing many speakers expressed doubts about specifics of the plan, including big issues like where to locate the transit lanes, but few protested the plan in its entirety or its basic premises.

Judge Yaffe's ruling was a victory for an orderly public process. The odd, but amusing, thing was that Harding's and Larmore's firm, which has so often defended developers against late hits from the public, was trying to derail a project at the last minute. But fear of traffic makes strange bedfellows. Consider the irony of Harding and his colleagues drafting declarations in support of the TRO for the signatures of Ellen Brennan and Art Harris, who are more often Harding's no growth foes.

After returning from the early morning hearing, which took place at the courthouse in downtown L.A., I attended Wednesday's ceremonial ground breaking for the downtown project. A good time was had by all, particularly Mayor Mike Feinstein, who got to hold the jackhammer.

Big Blue Bus director John Catoe said we are "on the verge of a renaissance in transportation." I hope he is right. People are already talking about double-decking the freeways, and that won't solve anything.

I glimpsed a bit of the future Wednesday when I used my excursion to the courthouse in downtown L.A. to try the new Metro Rapid bus service. These buses have the ability to extend green lights and as the bus barreled down Wilshire east of Fairfax, all the lights changed to yellow as we exited each intersection. Very cool -- civilized, even. Thirty-five minutes from 14th and Wilshire to the subway stop at Western.

My only regret about the ceremony was that former Council member Paul Rosenstein was not there.

While all the Council members deserve credit for voting for the project, which required vision and more than a bit of political courage, Rosenstein, as the chair of the Design Working Group, was the quarterback. Rosenstein's abilities as a good listener had a lot to do with how relatively noncontroversial the project became. He gave process life.

Process. Process is nearly as important as substance when it comes to the living wage ordinance.

The City Council, by a 5-2 vote, has now asked staff to prepare a living wage ordinance. The council also gave staff a list of issues about which it wants more information, and it did not specify the amount of the minimum wage.

This caution makes sense. The council has now indicated formally that it wants a living wage to benefit low wage workers, but a poorly drafted law will not do them any favors.

A few years ago the City Council, trying to appease a group of vocal constituents, prohibited most second units in single family zones. The council did this even though -- as members of the public had warned -- state law did not permit it. Last week the court of appeal overturned the law.

Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) did an excellent job developing and presenting their plan to the City Council. Even the opponents of the living wage must recognize they are up against a serious and disciplined movement.

In particular, SMART, with help from Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and an impressive legal team, presented Council with a detailed legal analysis supporting the city's right to pass its own minimum wage and to limit it to certain businesses.

No legal brief is persuasive, however, until it is compared with the other side's brief, and Council would do well to obtain "opposing" advice. If it is awkward for the City Attorney to critique a law she may later have to defend, then Council should hire outside counsel specifically to prepare an opposing view. At the least, Council members should have no illusions about what findings they need to make.

Right now SMART and their union allies have momentum and are effectively mobilizing not only their worker constituents but also public opinion. But they risk losing momentum if Council passes a law that becomes stuck in court, even if the courts ultimately approve it, or a law that is so cumbersome that, regardless of its merits, the public perceives it as unworkable.
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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