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The Beginning of the End of the Liberal Façade in Santa Monica

By Oscar de la Torre

Maria and I were happy and excited to hear the news that Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos confirmed our claim that the City of Santa Monica was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Her decision went further and found that people of color have not received equal protection of the laws in our “liberal” City ("Plaintiffs Win Voting Rights Suit Against the City of Santa Monica," November 13, 2018).

Judge Palazuelos’s decision provides our City an opportunity to right a historic wrong by eliminating the unlawful and unconstitutional at-large election system and replacing it with the more inclusive district-based system of elections.

District-based elections will ensure that every neighborhood gets represented and this ends the monopoly of power that some politicians have manipulated for personal gain. This change, coupled with the recently passed term limits of City Councilmembers (73.5 percent voter approval), will undoubtedly strengthen our democracy.

But it also signifies the beginning of the end for a group of elected officials that is out of touch with the values and needs of a majority of Santa Monica’s residents.

Many are right, in part, to attribute the filing of the lawsuit to the City Council’s decision in 2015 to defund the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC) while at the same time funding the Police Activities League (PAL) while PAL’s staff was under investigation for allegations of child molestation.

It’s fitting that the City Council’s dishonest and malicious attack on the Pico Neighborhood’s only social justice organization would lead to an overhaul of the power structure in our City. Analyzing the sequence of unjust decision-making at City Hall that led to the filing of the lawsuit demonstrates that indeed the universe tilts towards justice.

Being raised in the Pico Neighborhood I was always aware of the income and racial disparities in our City. What I didn’t know was the history of how racial segregation and marginalization was sanctioned and sustained by our City leaders.

In 1947, with the increase of people of color moving into Santa Monica after WWII, the all-white and conservative City Council voted to implement the at-large election system to ensure that Blacks and Mexicans would not get a seat on the City Council.

In 1992, the liberal City Council voted in a split 4-3 decision to reject districts and continue that system and the legacy of exclusion it perpetuated. (Councilmembers Ken Genser, Bob Hollbrook and Tony Vasquez voted in favor of districts, while Denny Zane, Kelly Olsen, Judy Abdo and Herb Katz voted against.)

One thing we learned from this case is that no matter if conservatives or if liberals were in power, one thing remained constant, people of color would be marginalized and denied their right to elect a representative of their choice to the City Council.

The impact of this marginalization led to environmental dumping, social neglect and the unequal distribution of public investment, including public education.

In fact, the problems that gave rise to the creation of the PYFC -- mainly 63 gun-related homicides of Pico Neighborhood youth since 1982 -- is directly related to this system of exclusion, concentrated poverty and marginalization.

As we have learned, absolute power corrupts absolutely but powerlessness creates vulnerabilities in the community that leads to generational poverty, violence and even targeting of our children for abuse by those in power.

The evidence we exposed during the trial illustrates how the establishment works to control the levers of power in Santa Monica.

It was surprising for me to watch the tape of the City Council meeting in 1992 and learn that Zane voted with the majority in the infamous 4-3 vote to deny people of color living in the Pico Neighborhood a seat at the table.

History has shown us that power behaves the same and even well-intentioned liberals can have blind spots.

I was also not surprised to learn through sworn depositions and testimony that some of our current Councilmembers have learned to “talk progressive” and hide their implicit bias behind their self proclaimed identity as “environmentalists.”

Terry O’Day and Kevin McKeowen admitted that during their tenure as Councilmembers, they have not once agendized a discussion regarding the environmental hazards affecting Pico Neighborhood residents.

These environmental hazards include air pollution from the freeway, the emission of methane gas at Gandara Park and disproportionate impact of the City yards and placement of transportation infrastructure in the Pico Neighborhood.

One has to watch the tapes and read the transcripts to understand that some of our “progressive” elected leaders have difficult challenges ahead of their re-election campaigns.

Dr. Morgan Kousser warned City officials in 1992 that the City Council’s racist dirty laundry was going to be exposed, costing millions in an unsuccessful bid to defend an unjust system but unfortunately his warnings fell on deaf ears at City Hall.

The City Council’s ego-driven decision to appeal the legal victory in Pico Neighborhood Association & Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica is indicative of the culture of corruption and self interest that permeates our City government.

The current Santa Monica City Council needs to stop their decision to appeal Judge Palazuelo’s favorable ruling that provides us an opportunity to remedy our City’s exclusionary past.

The City has already wasted as much as $10 million of our public funds hiring an outside law firm to defend an unlawful and unconstitutional system of elections.

We have a crisis on our streets leading to rising crime and the City Council would rather spend our public funds and staff time on a failed attempt to reverse a Judge’s decision that was vetted through six weeks of evidence and testimony.

They should instead invest the funds in case managers and law enforcement to assist our most vulnerable and mentally ill before more people are victimized on our City streets.

Why are we here? City Councilmembers are putting their own desires and political needs ahead of the needs of our residents and that, my fellow Santa Monicans, is not public service or good government.

The only thing that can stop this charade is resident accountability. Who has the most to lose from a neighborhood-centered approach to governance? Who really benefits from fighting the judgment?

As our local government aligns itself with a right wing national movement to diminish voting rights, this is not a time to sit on the sidelines of progressive change.

If you care about voting rights,justice, fairness and inclusive government join us on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 at 5pm in front of the Santa Monica City Hall to call for #NOAPPEAL and #CIVILIANOVERSIGHT.

Oscar de la Torre is a School Board member and executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC)

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