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Critics Zero in on Santa Monica City Manager's Spending Priorities  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

Second in a series

March 14, 2017 -- Arriving in Santa Monica in June 2015, City Manager Rick Cole pledged to provide transparency, connect with a community divided over crucial issues like development and use the innovation and practices of good governance for which he was already reputed.

To help better communicate with residents, including more than half a dozen highly involved neighborhood organizations, slow-growth activist groups and government watchdogs, Cole expanded the City's public outreach efforts.

Shortly after being hired, he won approval for what was ultimately a $600,000 reorganization of the communications department that included hiring five new staff members ("Council Approves Sweeping Reorganization of Santa Monica’s Public Communications Department," September 9, 2015).

But something critics are quick to note: Such spending is adding up.

In March of last year, the City hired an outside public relations firm to help convince the public to use the Expo Light Rail Line, which would open on May 20 and already was a big story in the region ("Santa Monica Hires Media Firm for Expo Launch and Education Campaign," March 7, 2016).

Then last month, the same firm, GOOD Worldwide Inc., was set to win another $350,000 from the City Council for "communications and outreach" on topics such as homelessness and diversity.

That was when Cole exchanged words with one of his bosses, Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, when she questioned the need to the spend the money after the City had already expanded its public relations staff.

Cole became, as he subsequently acknowledged, "passionate" in defending the new spending. ("Talk About Santa Monica Government Communications Gets Heated," February 17, 2017).

“We buy a bus and you don’t blink, but we advertise a bus and you’re asking how come we’re spending money," Cole responded. "We’re spending money because we’re going to produce results.

“We live in an age of communication, and if we don’t want to play in that world, then we’re going to play in 1950. But this is 2017, and we have to invest in communication.”

Mayor Ted Winterer ended the exchange.

Although Cole apologized for his tone, the flare-up was of keen interest to detractors of the council and Cole.

They believe the City is on a public relations spending-spree -- courtesy of taxpayer dollars -- aimed at preventing legitimate questions from the public about City policies.

“I found it outrageous that as one of his first moves as City Manager, Cole hired himself not one but five new PR people,” said Tricia Crane, a board member of Northeast Neighbors, a neighborhood association that Cole met and spoke with in January.

“He sees himself as a salesman,” said Crane, one of Cole's harshest critics and co-author of Measure LV, the initiative by Residocracy, a slow-growth group, defeated in the November 8 election.

“I informed him that we are not his customers,” she said.

Cole's critics think he is trying to sell the idea that most residents support City decisions by casting them as implacable, perpetual whiners who represent only a vocal few.

Cole, in turn, does seem to find them beyond his -- or anyone's -- ability to reach.

“For a vocal and significant group of residents, nothing short of a dramatic reversal of priorities and practices in city government would be acceptable,” Cole wrote in an email to the Lookout.

“They believe, and they are certainly entitled to their opinion, that the City is drastically off track,” Cole said. “The broad brush of unhappiness is generally applied to the entire Council, the department heads, my predecessor as well as me.

“I don't think I can make personal headway against this generalized critique -- my focus is to try to address those issues substantively and to remember that from consistent election results, these thoughtful, caring people do represent a significant minority, but not a majority in the community."

There have been recent clashes over what many community activists believe is too much development, a bloated highly paid bureaucracy and at least one new capital project they view as unnecessarily expensive.

Cole's lobbying for a new City Services Building for City Hall -- ultra green but also extremely costly -- has angered critics ("Council Rejects Appeal of $75 Million Santa Monica City Hall Annex," January 26, 2017).

They say their own analysis shows the price tag could reach as much as $141 million, once all costs, including long-terming borrowing, are added in.

Their figures, which were widely circulated in social media, were part of what Cole condemned as Trump-esque “alternative facts.”

Angered into silence at first, those protesting the project lobbed the accusation back at Cole, saying the City was still providing fuzzy and confusing numbers on the project's ultimate cost.

"It's just a trophy for them," one audience member groused.

When it is finally built, the new City Services Building could be the greenest, most sustainable building in California history, and one of the costliest per square foot.

But mostly, Cole is under intense scrutiny because of the "transformative" (his description) changes on the deck for Santa Monica’s estimated 93,640 residents.

The City is openly moving to a future that is likely to be denser and characterized by notably taller buildings. Many of them will be mixed-use complexes of five or more floors with apartments on top and shops below.

Preferably, the new complexes will be close enough to the Expo Line to walk, bike or take a bus to one of it stations, cutting back on the use of cars and alleviating traffic congestion.

The council hopes its plans for new building also will finally address the City’s shortage of housing. A trio of especially large and tall projects downtown is in the wings as well, awaiting a council vote.

Cole said his reading of Santa Monica's residents is that most have a "more nuanced view" of how their city is moving toward the future.

It is that "neglected portion of our community," he says he is trying to engage.

“It turns out that not everyone believes that everything the City does is either evil or wonderful," Cole said.

Part III: Cole's role in the battle over development

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