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Politics: Here, There, Everywhere

By Frank Gruber

January 18, 2011 -- Suffering a hangover from November’s election, the Santa Monica City Council has been hearing various complaints about and considering various actions regarding the local political process.

Last week the council considered both changing the way the mayor is elected and whether to add requirements that members disclose campaign contributions, and since the election the council has also considered increasing campaign disclosure requirements. Although the council members voted 5-1 to have staff examine the issues of how to elect the mayor, from their comments at the meeting it seems unlikely the council will ultimately change the current system, and they voted 4-2 not to require themselves to disclose campaign contributions from parties with matters pending before them.

I hope I’m not a shill for the status quo and the powers-that-be, but I have to agree with former Mayor Michael Feinstein. He told the council, when it was considering the mayor selection issue, that any ideas about changing the current system of having council members elect the mayor themselves, were solutions in search of a problem. I would apply that to the financial disclosure issues, too. (I hope Mr. Feinstein, who prides himself on his radical-thinking, forgives me for mentioning his name and “status quo” and “powers-that-be” in the same sentence.)

Council Member Bobby Shriver is charmingly abashed when he recounts how awkward he felt, when he was mayor, being referred to as “Santa Monica Mayor” when he knew that no voters had elected him to the position. And sure, in a “fair” world Council Member Kevin McKeown would have had his turn being mayor by now, after 12 years on the council.

But are these reasons to change the City Charter? After all, there are reasons to keep the current system, too: Mr. Feinstein made a good point when he said that because the primary job of the mayor of Santa Monica is to run City Council meetings the most important qualification for being mayor is to have the approval of the other council members.

As for the financial disclosure rules, Santa Monica already has strict requirements governing direct contributions to campaigns. New rules would apply to independent campaigns, but there are First Amendment limits to regulation of independent expenditures. What’s important is that there are ultimately no secrets about campaign contributions in Santa Monica.

The bigger point is that the quality of a political culture is not a function of rules. It’s a function of participation. Compare Santa Monica to Bell. Santa Monica has a vibrant political culture, with no corruption to speak of, not because an individual’s campaign contributions to City Council members are capped at $250, but because the city has an active and engaged electorate.

In contrast, look at Inglewood, where the people do elect the mayor. Is the politics there better than in Santa Monica? I don’t mean this in any way as a slight to former Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts, who looks like he will win the run-off election there for mayor, but based on press reports, only about 12 percent of registered voters in Inglewood voted in the run-off.

The most pro-democracy rule-change in Santa Monica’s history was when local elections were moved to coincide with the big votes in November of even-numbered years.

* * *

Mr. Butts is not the only former Santa Monica official moving up in the world. John Deasy, former superintendent of the Santa Monica and Malibu schools, was appointed last week to be the superintendent of the huge and hugely troubled Los Angeles district, and Ilene Strauss, former principal of Santa Monica High School, was named to the state school board.

Mr. Deasy was controversial in Santa Monica for special education policies the School District adopted when he was in charge, policies the district later repudiated (and which Mr. Deasy agreed, in retrospect, were a mistake). On the theory that because there are no obvious solutions to the problems of special education and anyone can screw it up, I can give Mr. Deasy a pass on those mistakes.

What I didn’t like about Mr. Deasy was that he left the district after four years, when he was supposed to stay for at least five. Since then, on his upward march towards . . . towards what, I don’t know, Secretary of Education? . . . Mr. Deasy spent a few years at a large suburban district in Maryland and a couple of years at the Gates Foundation.

A school district is like the proverbial ocean liner than can’t be turned in a short period of time. “Fixing” the L.A. district is a project that will take a decade at least, and will involve social changes far beyond the powers of a schools superintendent acting alone. An effective superintendent needs political capital, and that takes time (and results, which also take time) to accumulate.

Mr. Deasy is 50. While it is possible that he may not even survive in his new job a few months -- a new L.A. School Board will be elected this spring, and the new board will have the power to fire him -- I hope that if the new board keeps him, both he and the board quietly express the hope to each other that he will still be the superintendent when he turns 60.

If that happens, we know that the L.A. schools will have improved.

* * *

Gov. Jerry Brown deserves a lot of credit for shaking up the way people look at the California budget. In particular, his proposals to redistribute revenues and responsibilities back to local governments are long overdue. Attitudes toward the role of government divide on regional lines in California, and it is crucial for the state’s future to find ways for regional and local governments, not to mention school boards, to regain the right to levy taxes for regional and local governance.

One of the initial means by which Gov. Brown wants to instigate this change is to dissolve all the redevelopment agencies in the state; estimates are that this would free-up $1.7 billion in property taxes. For the most part -- and I know this is a big generalization that will offend some hard-working redevelopment people -- redevelopment agencies do little around the state other than waste needed tax revenues on subsidies to businesses that play localities off against each other to get the best deal. There is scant evidence that on the whole redevelopment has aided the economy.

As a Californian, I believe Brown’s proposal is a good idea, but only if the money will be redirected to counties, cities and school districts -- i.e., not to the state.

As a Santa Monican, I’m torn. (See "Santa Monica Officials Alarmed by Governor's Plan to Axe Redevelopment Agencies "January 13, 2011)

In its early days the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency (which is, of course, the City itself) was as wasteful and destructive as the typical redevelopment agency. The City used redevelopment money to destroy half the old Ocean Park beachfront and turn Ocean Park Boulevard into a mini-divided highway to subsidize high-end apartments and condos. It then built parking structures to subsidize Santa Monica Place, which was the final nail in downtown’s coffin 30 years ago before it became a white elephant itself. Yet in recent years the City has made somewhat better use of the money generated in the gigantic earthquake redevelopment zone, with a number of good public benefit projects on the drawing boards.

Nonetheless, even these projects will primarily, although not exclusively, benefit Santa Monicans. It is a fair question to ask whether the rest of the state and the county should subsidize them with tax-increment revenues. Santa Monica is one of the wealthier cities in California. Before opposing the governor’s initiative, I would like to know what alternatives the City has to finance these projects, such as bonds, and I would like to know more precisely where all the liberated redevelopment money from around the state will go.

* * *

Because I was out of town, I wrote this column before hearing about the death of Samohi freshman Matthew Mezza. While it’s too early for me to have anything to say about this tragedy, I want to send my condolences to his family and to the entire school community.


Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on amazon.com.


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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net 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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