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City Hall Takes the Stand
By Jorge Casuso
December 26, 2019 -- City Council members, including a new appointee, held on to their seats, at least for now, as an appeal court decides their fate next year.
The voting rights lawsuit was one of several court cases that put City Hall on the stand in 2019, as Santa Monica fought legal battles over its home sharing and hotel worker ordinances.
The year started with a new face joining the Council when Ana Jara, a Pico Neighborhood activist was tapped to replace Tony Vazquez on the dais.
It took two quick rounds of voting before Jara became the first Hispanic from the Pico Neighborhood to join the Council ("EXTRA Council Appoints Latina from Pico Neighborhood to Fill Vacant Seat," January 22, 2019).
Council Appeals Voting Rights Decision to Oust Them
A month later, Jara would join her colleagues in a unanimous vote to appeal a Superior Court ruling that found Santa Monica's at large election system discriminates against Latino voters ("EXTRA Santa Monica Council Votes to Appeal Voting Rights Ruling," February 21, 2019).
The vote came eight days after Superior Court Judge Yvette M. Palazuelos ordered the City to hold a district-based election on July 2 for all seven Council seats.
She also prohibited Council members not elected under districts from serving after August 15 ("Judge Orders Special District Elections for Council in Final Ruling," February 16, 2019).
The following month, the court allowed the seven Council members to continue serving while the appeal is heard ("Appeals Court Grants Temporary Stay Allowing Council to Serve After August 15," March 19, 2019).
A decision his expected in July, giving the City time to prepare for the November election.
Santa Monica taxpayers will have to wait until the lawsuit ends to learn what the City has paid one of the nation's most expensive law firms to fight the three-year-old case ("City Officials Won't Reveal Cost of Voting Rights Lawsuit Until Case is Closed," March 5, 2019).
Pension Debt Takes Bite Out of Budget
With a looming pension debt approaching half a billion dollars, the City Council voted last summer to tighten Santa Monica's fiscal belt ("Council Approves Nearly $713 Million Belt-Tightening Budget for Upcoming Fiscal Year," June 26, 2019).
The new $712.9 million budget approved in June marked a steep drop from previous annual budgets as the City cut community services, left vacant positions unfilled and redeployed staff and resources.
The centerpiece was a plan to pay down the City's estimated $448 million in unfunded pension liability by making a $9.3 million payment ("City Should Immediately Boost Annual Pension Payments, Report from Top Finance Official Recommends," April 23, 2019).
Similar payments will be needed in future years to rein in a debt that is expected to grow as senior municipal employees reach retirement age.
In 2019, the City made separate payments to 28 retired employees whose pensions were so large they exceeded IRS limits ("SPECIAL REPORT -- Santa Monica Tops List of California Cities with Biggest Pensions," August 13, 2019).
Home Sharing Law Withstands Legal Attacks
Santa Monica's home sharing ordinance passed legal muster in 2019 as courts upheld what is widely considered the strictest such law in the nation.
In March, a California Appeals Court affirmed the City's right to penalize online platforms for booking short-term rentals of properties not licensed under its home-sharing law ("EXTRA -- Appeals Court Affirms Santa Monica's Right to Regulate Online Homesharing Platform," March 13, 2019).
In October, a Federal Appeals Court rejected a potential class-action lawsuit against the City that claimed the law, which bans leasing residential property short term unless the owner is present, is unconstitutional ("EXTRA -- Federal Appeals Court Upholds Santa Monica's Home Sharing Law," October 3, 2019).
That decision came one month after the City further tightened its law to address loopholes that allowed a house on upscale Adelaide Drive to be rented as a quasi youth hostel ("Santa Monica Tightens Loopholes in Home-Sharing Law," September 11, 2019).
The house -- offered for rent on Airbnb to as many as 36 guests at a time -- caused an uproar in the North of Montana neighborhood ("Home Rented as Quasi Hostel Raises Concerns About Home-Sharing Law," August 13, 2019).
Council Sets Workloads for Hotel Housekeepers
The Council made headlines in August when it unanimously approved an ordinance that protects housekeepers from sexual violence and sets workloads normally negotiated by the union ("Santa Monica Council Unanimously Approves Groundbreaking Hotel Ordinance," August 28, 2019).
A study issued before the vote predicted the provision would hurt those it intends to help and deal a blow to Santa Monica's thriving hotel industry ("Proposed Santa Monica Law to Protect Hotel Housekeepers Could Backfire, Report Says," May 21, 2019).
But the outcome of the vote seemed preordained when the names of three Council members appeared on a list of supporters below a letter urging them to vote for the ordinance ("Councilmembers' Names Appear on List Urging Them to Support Hotel Ordinance," August 23, 2019).
The new law exempted union hotels, whose housekeepers, it turned out, had heavier workloads than those dictated by he ordinance ("EXCLUSIVE -- Most Union Housekeepers Have Heavier Workloads Than Required by Hotel Ordinance," September 9, 2019).
As the year came to an end, a U.S. District Court gave Santa Monica the go-ahead to implement the workload provisions ("Court Gives Santa Monica Go-Ahead to Implement Housekeeper Workload Provisions," December 18, 2019).
Not all of the Council's business last year was focused on local concerns.
In May, the City embarked on an $800 million 10-year plan to fight climate change that is likely the most costly and ambitious initiative of its kind for a city its size in the nation ("Santa Monica Adopts $800 Million Plan to Fight Climate Change," May 29, 2019).
And in August, the Council did its part to help prevent a nuclear war by endorsing a list of policy solutions to reduce the "risks posed by nuclear weapons."
The solutions include "renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first" ("Santa Monica City Council Poised to Take Nuclear Stance," August 9, 2019).
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