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City, College Officials Eye Each Other Warily

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

August 3 -- Fueled by an apparent failure to communicate, City and Santa Monica College officials accused each other of intimidation and disingenuousness after a public hearing on the new airport campus last week.

The fallout over last Tuesday’s City Council meeting revealed the extent of the mutual distrust between the two parties as they negotiated access to the campus near Bundy and Airport avenues.

The tensions were palpable during Council member Ken Genser’s tough questioning of college supporters, which sometimes took on the air of a cross examination.

“We were put on the defensive unnecessarily,” College Board President Carole Currey said after the meeting.

“I think we were put on the defensive unnecessarily,” Genser shot back.

At issue is an easement granting access to the Bundy campus parking lot. The College -- which has spent $15 million renovating the campus it bought for $30 million four years ago -- wants the easement it says historically goes with the property, but the City is reluctant to grant it.

At last week’s meeting, 15 supporters of the College argued for the easement, which provides access to the campus parking lots and which they argued is necessary if scheduled courses are to continue through the Fall semester.

They were met with stiff questioning, particularly by Genser, who wanted to know more than some of them could answer.

“I was blindsided by a question that wasn’t at the heart of what I was saying,” said Leslie Kawaguchi, a professor at the College. “I thought I was taking my oral exams again where the purpose is to intimidate you.”

Genser said that he “intended a challenge” to remarks by Kawaguchi and other College supporters who called the City’s motives into question. The speakers accused the City of usurping the authority of the College, trying to “shrink the College” and obstructing education, according to the testimony.

Currey, however, thought Genser’s questioning was “kind of unfair” and “off-base” and that Kawaguchi “couldn’t have been expected to know the answer” to his question about access to the campus from Airport Avenue.

Mayor Pam O’Connor saw nothing wrong with Genser’s line of questioning.

“I don’t think there were any questions that were off the topic,” O’Connor said. If she had thought the questioning was out of line, she would have called him on it, the mayor added.

The College had sent a six page letter to the Council, and questioning was within bounds as long as it stuck to the topics raised by that letter, O’Connor explained.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie agreed. “I didn’t perceive anything unusual,” she said.

“I really doubt that it was his intention to intimidate anyone,” Moutrie said. “I think he values public process.”

“Maybe somebody thinks Ken’s style is intimidating,” O’Connor said, “But frankly, if somebody is up there being asked a direct question and they feel intimidated, we can’t help it.

“He’s a man and he’s direct,” O’Connor said. “Nobody is required to answer any questions, so if they find it intimidating, they can choose not to answer.”

School Board member Oscar de la Torre, who’d shown up in an unofficial capacity to support the College, thought Genser had “done a good job” of asking “tough questions.”

“I wouldn’t put another elected official ‘on blast,’” de la Torre said, but “everyone has their own style.”

Although the Brown Act -- the State statute which governs public meetings of governmental bodies -- doesn’t address the response of council members to the public when the topic under discussion is on the meeting’s agenda, parliamentary procedure does prescribe accepted manners and customs.

Speakers should be able to make their presentation uninterrupted and clarifying questions should be posed in a courteous and respectful manner, according to James H. Stewart, past President of the California State Association of Parliamentarians.

Council members “shouldn’t comment on the public comment,” Stewart explained, and they “should not be getting into a debate or a dialogue” with the public.

Based on his comments from the dais, Genser seemed to be aware that he was stretching the boundaries.

“I’m trying really just to get a little dialogue here, and I know that’s not exactly in the rules,” Genser said Tuesday while questioning Interim College President Thomas J. Donner.

“Sounds good to me,” Donner interjected, before Genser launched into a 420-word series of comments punctuated by questions.

Genser later said he had wanted to have a discussion “to understand their point of view.”

He rejected Kawaguchi’s claim that “it was clear he had an agenda.”

“I wish she’d explain it to me,” Genser said, adding that he’d received no information from the College before the meeting and had only learned of its request for vehicular access by reading about it in the news.

Although he was offended by the implication that the City of Santa Monica was “the problem” in getting access to the new campus, he did say “Santa Monica probably should be part of the solution.”

“I’d like to be part of the solution,” Genser said.

“Hopefully we can work it out,” agreed Currey.

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