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How to Have Clout in Santa Monica
By Frank Gruber
It took several years of incremental organizing and lobbying the City Council for Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) to reach the point where it had the gumption to propose a school funding amendment to the City's Charter.
Then CEPS collected 15,000 signatures, a huge number of Santa Monica's voters.
Along the way, right up to (and for some council members, including) their approval of the school funding agreement two weeks ago, members of our City Council regularly (but some more colorfully than others) vilified CEPS and its proposal for being, among other things, reckless and divisive.
Of course, this story did have a happy ending when City Manager Susan McCarthy and Schools Superintendent John Deasy worked out a compromise and the City Council -- counting those 15,000 noses -- barely approved the deal.
So that's the treatment you get for four or five years of spadework and 15,000 signatures.
That is, that's what you get if you're trying to get more money for schools.
However, if all you want to do is prevent people from building apartments, the requirements for public participation are different.
A little more loosey-goosey, so to speak.
You will need to find a handful of Santa Monicans Fearful of Change (SMFCs). But then if you all find a couple council members, and you ask nicely, the council members will put your item on the council agenda.
Then stand back. The City Council will take it from there. Without calling you reckless or divisive, the council will tell planning staff to whip up an interim ordinance like the one that a couple years ago knocked the guts out of what had been a successful zoning policy, which the City Council had passed after a long public process, to encourage downtown housing development.
Then, after the Planning Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of staff time in a public process, at the City Council's behest, to develop design standards and streamline the procedures for project review, you can show up with another handful of people -- mostly Planning Commissioners and members of the Architectural Review Board who fear cuts in their powers to micromanage -- and get the council to derail that, too.
Just to be ironic, the council might even do that on the same night they come agonizingly close to not approving the deal with the schools.
So if you want to know how to have clout, you might also take note that the handful of unhappy commissioners and other SMFCs who derailed the new downtown standards, were pretty much the only speakers who showed up after a massive leafleting of the city with an hysterical flyer warning residents that the City Council was going to take away their right to manage growth and allow "massive blocks of... wall-to-wall six-story buildings."
So don't bother with all this mass movement stuff, or carefully educating the populace with facts. You can do it, as CEPS did, if you want to, but what's the point?
If you want to be listened to, if you want to appear before the City Council with five or six friends and each have the power of, say, 2,000 people, if you want the Council to treat you with the respect you have for yourself and which you doubtlessly deserve, the secret is to forget issues like education.
Don't be reckless.
Just find something to be against.
* * *
I don't have much add to the Lookout's coverage of the Planning Commission's decision on the Stephanie Barbanell/Jerry Bass fence and hedge on Seaview Terrace ("Fence Saga Likely Ends," May 21, 2004), since reporter Olin Erickson recounted the heart of the story, namely now Ms. Barbanell managed to pull the Commission's collective chain over the course of two meetings.
I wouldn't want to play poker with Stephanie Barbanell or, for that matter, bargain for a pile of old LPs at a garage sale. There she was, defiant. Sure she only had three votes to grant her appeal when she needed four, sure she was on the brink of getting nothing, but there she stood, refusing to grovel and accept the bone of compromise four commissioners were painfully trying to devise.
That was two weeks ago. Then last week, there she was again, still bold, still fearless, refusing to budge. That is, refusing to budge until Commissioner Arlene Hopkins' motion to grant the variance lost on a five to one vote.
Oh well. What are a few hours of our lives give or take?
I may from time to time criticize various planning commissioners for one failing or another, but I have to admit they have "turn the other cheek" down cold.
On the other hand, I can't let this issue go without saying something about the amazing dialectic Commissioner Hopkins had with herself about historical preservation. I wish I could link to a little video clip so everyone could see it.
Ms. Hopkins wanted to grant the Bass/Barbanell's original request for a variance because she thought it was unfair that the City was claiming a public easement over Seaview Terrace, and preventing the residents from gating their community. In her view this was leading to a "degradation of the historic character" of the walk street.
For Ms. Hopkins (and it's worth noting that Commissioner Jay Johnson also wanted to gate the street), it was a matter of "historic preservation," yet the only significant historical aspect to Seaview Terrace is its public access.
The buildings there are a mishmash of historical inauthenticities. The one undeniable historic quality worth preserving is that back in 1914 the original developer required the lot buyers to agree to keep a 30-foot wide strip down the center open for walk and park purposes.
What the Planning Commission did last week by requiring the Bass/Barbanells to tear down the last remaining fence and clear the bulk of that easement is probably the most substantial action it has taken for historic preservation in a long time.
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