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Bully Bully Bully

By Frank Gruber

That was some rant City Council Member Pam O'Connor went into Tuesday night about the school funding agreement. Ms. O'Connor is normally one of my favorite council members, and she ultimately did the right thing and voted for the agreement, but along the way she sounded like the worst kind of right-wing public education basher.

Because Mayor Richard Bloom and Council member Ken Genser did the job with eloquent remarks about public process and politics, I won't spend much time parsing the words ("schoolyard bullies," "pit bulls," "thugs," "slash and burn" politics, etc.) Ms. O'Connor and Council member Mike Feinstein used to describe the school funding activists who made guaranteeing a steady stream of City funding for the schools a hot political issue.

But it was weird having those words ringing in my ears three nights later when I attended Jackson Browne's "For the Arts" benefit concert at Barnum Hall and weirder still Saturday afternoon when I enjoyed the School District's arts festival at the Pier. I mean, there I was, shoulder to shoulder with bullies and thugs, yet it seemed that all people cared about was children.

Yet going back to the Council meeting, it was perhaps weirdest of all to hear Ms. O'Connor and Mr. Feinstein insult residents who organized themselves for collective action, when they both owe their political careers to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and Mr. Feinstein is a Green Party member who presumably lives to organize "folks" for political action.

What do Council members O'Connor and Feinstein believe "petitioning" government for the "redress of grievances" is all about?

If politics offend you, find a cooler kitchen.

And although Mr. Feinstein's point that the City Council has been generous in the past was well taken, he should understand that the voters didn't elect him so that he could abstain when his feelings were hurt because notwithstanding past generosity people don't like to beg and no one else liked his proposal for the District to swap land for money. His non-vote last week was reminiscent of his not taking a position two years ago on Santa Monica College's Prop. U.

Sticks and stones and all that, but Ms. O'Connor hit an ugly bottom with her charges that the School District is a "dark hole" and otherwise irresponsible and unaccountable when it comes to finances, the Brown Act, and anything else she could imagine. In her view, the City couldn't trust the District with the City's money.

Hmmm. Would it be thuggish to mention the tens of millions of dollars of cost overruns for the Public Safety Facility, or the fact that the City is spending more tens of millions to build a new library that except for the parking isn't much bigger than the old one?

Would I be a bully to point out that after a couple bond issues, our school facilities look pretty good, but it took a decade for the City just to decide what to do with Virginia Park?

Would it be slash and burn politics to remind everyone that the City has financial problems in the first place because Council members O'Connor and Feinstein and their colleagues recklessly increased routine operations spending by nearly 25 percent (and more than $20 million) in two years (2000-2002), mostly for purposes that most residents would say are less important than educating children?

All in all, Council members O'Connor and Feinstein embarrassed themselves more than making any charges against either school officials or the CEPS activists that stick, but the rhetoric they used was poisonous and took all the joy out of what should have been a celebration of local politics at its best -- an engaged populace, intelligent public administration, broad-thinking elected officials.

One more thing. Mayor Bloom congratulated everyone for getting the school funding agreement passed and said that it was a good thing, "particularly for the children of this community."

I respectfully disagree. We middle aged types have no cause to be noble. Funding education is "particularly" good for us grown-ups who want the next generation to be productive enough to pay our social security, who are safer when young adults have jobs rather than rap sheets, and who want our real estate investments to appreciate.

* * *

Since the Planning Commission continued the hearing on the Bass/Barbanell fence and hedge at 16 Seaview Terrace, I feel empowered to continue my obsession with it.

The most distressing aspect of the Planning Commission hearing was not the failure to drop the matter when there weren't four votes to grant the Bass/Barbanell's appeal, or Commissioner Arlene Hopkins endorsing conversion of a public way into a gated community, but rather an email the Bass/Barbanells obtained from Police Chief James Butts endorsing the fence.

While Chief Butts tried to limit his opinion to the immediate circumstances of a walk street that police cannot patrol by squad car, his email represents a dramatic change in policy that needs to be addressed at the highest levels.

Chief Butts wrote Ms. Barbanell that it was his belief "that the application of physical barriers are proven to harden targets and reduce susceptibility to crime."

"To harden targets?" Is this the embassy in Baghdad we're talking about, or a neighborhood where houses sell for more than a million and residents live among the city's most luxurious hotels?

To my knowledge, going back to my years on the Planning Commission, the police and the Planning Department have always agreed in fence cases that to prevent crime, it was better to increase "eyes on the street" than to build walls.

When it comes to crime and transients, everyone claims unique circumstances, notwithstanding that the crime rate is way down, and I've never heard anyone testify that his or her neighborhood didn't have a "homeless problem."

At the Commission hearing, in response to Ms. Barbanell's claim that her neighborhood had unique security issues, Commissioners Dad and O'Day each pointed out that they lived in neighborhoods where people had been murdered. Commissioner O'Day, for instance, lives on Seventeenth Street, near the sites of many shootings.

Does Chief Butts believe that it would be a good idea for everyone in the Pico Neighborhood to harden their targets by erecting six-foot walls and fourteen-foot hedges?

If we follow Chief Butts' new logic, and let everyone with a "special case" build high fences and walls (which are of questionable utility anyway), we will lose the openness and civility that are the true barriers to criminal behavior.

I remember when Seaview Terrace still had its high walls and fences. It was a dump. Even today, the vacant lot at the corner of the Terrace and Appian Way, and the boarded-up house at the top of the steps (which I'm told recently sold to a family with children for $1.6 million), could be case studies for the "broken window" theory of crime.

The best thing that will happen to reduce crime and vagrancy on Seaview Terrace will be the construction of the recently approved apartment building on the vacant lot, a project Ms. Barbanell and Mr. Bass fought for years. ("ARB Gives Major Projects Mixed Reviews," Dec. 19, 2003)

The new residents will help enliven the walk street, and hopefully bring it back to something like what its developer envisioned for it back in 1914.

* * *

I have been writing this column for almost four years -- more than 180 columns. But when I meet readers for the first time, the column about 90 percent of them remember is the one I wrote after David Attias ran his car down that crowded street in Santa Barbara.

And there are many other readers who regularly inquire about the welfare of David, who is a patient at Patton State Hospital, where he was committed for treatment of his mental illness.

I bring this up because I received a note from David's mother, Santa Monica resident Diana Attias, informing me that NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, is conducting its inaugural Los Angeles County walkathon on Saturday, May 22.

The 5K "NAMIWALKS FOR THE MIND OF AMERICA" will take place at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale. For more information, or to make a donation, either call (213) 351-2874, or click on www.namiwalkslac.org.

It shouldn't take a case like David's, or the sight of so many mentally ill people on our streets, for us to realize that mental illness is as much as part of human life as mental health. Those of us who have our sanity have no right to believe we did something to deserve it, and we should do as much as we can to help not only the mentally ill, but also those who work to understand mental illness' causes and devise its cures.

Eds. note: Frank Gruber's column can be found at "Mothers and Fathers and Sons and Daughters," May 2, 2001

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