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Something Causes Grumpiness in the City of Santa Monica

By Frank Gruber

Watching war and politics in Afghanistan, one must be thankful that we live in a society where it is war that is politics by other means and not the other way around.

But watching politics in Santa Monica, people are not thankful. They are grumpy. People are so grumpy about local politics that the City Council Tuesday evening instructed staff to return with proposals to amend our election laws, and members of the public have placed an initiative on the ballot that would dramatically change our political system.

I get a little grumpy, too, but it is good to have a little perspective. There is nothing terribly wrong with politics in Santa Monica, certainly when compared to local politics elsewhere.

For instance, elections are contested in Santa Monica. This is no small good: consider that the most powerful politicians in the region, the Los Angeles County Supervisors, rarely face meaningful opposition. The same goes for most elections in the region, at least when there is an incumbent.

Our politics and our politicians are clean. The biggest hint of a scandal involved the unauthorized use of a photocopier. Our bureaucrats are clean, too. No credible person has ever charged our staff with improprieties.

Furthermore, and this is where some readers will start feeling grumpy, the most powerful political force in the community is just what reformers say should be the most powerful political force in a community: a local organization that relies on a broad base of residents. Love it or hate it, but Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has mobilized ordinary citizens into effective collective action, precisely what everyone says political organizations should do.

Ultimately, although everyone -- certainly myself included -- has something to complain about from time to time, Santa Monica is a well-governed city. We are just a small part of a megalopolis, but our City Hall operates its own police and fire departments, its own bus line, and takes care of one of the region's great resources, the beach, as well as the urban center for a subregion with several times the population of the city.

But even if nothing is exactly rotten in the City of Santa Monica, people are, when it comes politics, unhappy.

Naturally, those who have been losing elections to SMRR are not in the best frame of mind. Although they would do better to look inward, at why their message has proven unpopular, or outward, at why SMRR has such credibility among the voters, the losers in recent elections prefer to blame "slate politics," as if SMRR invented the campaign contribution.

Nonetheless, I, as one who has often enough opposed SMRR candidates but who was, until I started writing for The Lookout, a long-time SMRR member, can understand this frustration. SMRR has especially dominated elections since 1998, and the opposition has not done well since the early 90s. I miss the creative tension that existed for most of the past 20 years between SMRR and its opponents -- tension that kept both sides on their toes.

What I see now is an organization, SMRR, that is dangerously complacent yet infuriatingly anxious -- smug, yet so cautious that it won't take a stand that might alienate even one noisy voter. I also see a group that has not replaced its activists from within, but rather has shown itself susceptible to manipulation by outsiders with energy and their own agendas.

Yet, when I look at the opposition, I see politicians who doom themselves because they won't let go of right-wing positions that the majority of Santa Monicans just don't like, such as union bashing by the hotels, or homeless trashing by the terminally irate. The local business interests that traditionally fund the opposition proclaim their right to pay workers whatever they want to pay them, thus alienating most voters. At the same time they are so "protectionist" that they do nothing to support, and in fact oppose, smart development that the majority of Santa Monicans want -- such as the Target store.

At the same time one wishes that the most important vote was not the one 120 or so members of SMRR take to determine SMRR's endorsements. That doesn't feel democratic.

Nor does it feel democratic that a candidate needs $100,000 to mount a serious campaign.

One proposed solution, or, rather, several proposed solutions, are contained in the VERITAS initiative, which has recently submitted what sponsors believe are enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Its most significant changes would be to have our seven council members elected by district, to impose term limits, to have the mayor elected directly by the people, and to give the mayor the power to veto ordinances.

Much of the money behind the signature campaign for VERITAS came from businesses opposed to SMRR, and people have tended to view Veritas from a pro-SMRR or anti-SMRR perspective. The proponents of VERITAS, however, Irene Zivi and Paul DeSantis, have been pushing proposals like it for awhile, and originally they had support from SMRR council members.

I take Zivi and DeSantis at face value, that they genuinely expect that their proposals will improve politics in Santa Monica, by giving representation to minority interests (with districts), by making it easier (i.e., cheaper) for independent candidates to run, by reducing the power of incumbency (with term limits), and by using an elected mayor to galvanize political interest among a sometimes apathetic electorate.

But I predict the VERITAS proposals would make things worse, from the perspective of both government and politics, and not because SMRR would probably have a lock on four or five districts.

While once reformers promoted electoral districts to give voice to minority interests, current thinking is that minority voices are best heard when many people are listening. For instance, the Hispanic interests behind the living-wage movement might not have had as much influence on the five SMRR council members if only one ran in the Pico Neighborhood.

At the same time, we need only look at Los Angeles to see how district elections have increased the power of incumbency, as it is easier for a council-member to dominate the politics of a single district than a whole city.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with an elected mayor, but the mayor under VERITAS would only have the power to break ties in City Council and the power to veto, as the executive power of the city will still be in the hands of the city manager. The VERITAS supporters talk about "separation of powers," but this mayor would awkwardly sit half in and half out of our "legislature" -- bargaining a threatened veto, on the dais, against whether there were five votes to override.

Perhaps we should adopt a true mayoral system, as in bigger cities, but in that case the voters should consider that separately.

That points to the biggest problem with VERITAS -- it jumbles too many proposals together. Zivi and DeSantis may have the best of motives, but dramatic proposals like these should emerge from a more measured public process.

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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