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Prop. U (Twists and) Turns?

By Frank Gruber

Discretion might have been the better part of valor for the anti-growth opponents of Prop. U.

Richard Bloom and Ken Genser turned a fiscal issue, raising taxes to support Santa Monica College, something the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Foundation might (and did) oppose, into a vote on growth.

Now that the anti-growthers lost in a landslide, and would have lost in an even bigger landslide if turnout had been greater, can we get beyond the idea that there is a consensus against growth in Santa Monica?

I know the NIMBYs will now say that they didn't lose anything, that "everyone is for education" and that's why they lost, but that's not true. Not everyone is for education.

I remember when Santa Monica NIMBYs opposed building the new elementary school in Ocean Park.

And, excuse me, but you are not for education if you are against it when you think it adds to traffic.

The no-growth element in Santa Monica politics has not won an election since the defeat of Michael McCarty's beach hotel proposal for 415 PCH.

The most clear-cut vote was the one in 1994 for the Civic Center Plan. Tom Hayden, Mike Feinstein and others mounted a well-publicized anti-growth campaign against it, but it passed with 60 percent of the vote.

Then in 1998 Santa Monicans voted to authorize the City to build more affordable housing, one of the most difficult votes ever to win.

But it is also worth looking at the votes on bond issues. No bond issue in Santa Monica has received less than 64 percent of the vote in recent memory.

I do not mean to equate the popularity of schools and libraries and public safety buildings and, in some quarters, affordable housing with the popularity of growth. But given that anti-growthers are willing to fight bond issues, and equate building schools with development, it is fair to argue that the popularity of bond issues indicates that the public has a more nuanced attitude toward growth than that of the neighborhood organizations who purport to speak -- or harangue -- on their behalf, and from which Santa Monica's anti-growth, "neighborhood protectionist" politicians have emerged.

It should not have been a surprise, but it was, that the City's 2001 residents' survey found that only 14 percent of Santa Monicans consider too much growth, and only 21 percent consider traffic, to be important problems facing the city. These figures are consistent with past surveys.

These votes and survey results do not mean that Santa Monicans want to give developers carte blanche. Certainly the initial round of down-zoning in the 80s made sense.

But there is no evidence that there is a consensus either against growth or in favor of the way the City conducts its business. While part of the attack on Prop. U was based on plain NIMBYism, another part was based on the College's presumed "arrogance." Anti-SMC city officials say that the College does not listen to the people the same way that the City does.

Interestingly, though, the College did two percentage points better on Prop. U than it did in 1992 on a much smaller bond issue in a Presidential election year, when presumably more Democrats, who tend to support bond issues, were voting. Notwithstanding all the College-bashing, the College is more popular with voters than ever.

Perhaps our anti-Madison Site Theater council members should think twice the next time they want to criticize that modest effort at civic improvement. Just as a swallow does not a summer make, a few neighbors who have irrational fears about traffic doesn't mean the electorate as a whole doesn't think a little culture would be a good thing.

Santa Monicans by and large are progressives; i.e., they believe in progress, and they do not believe that the best -- or only -- measure of a society is how smoothly flows the traffic.

It is true, of course, that anti-growth candidates have won elections to City Council, but could any of them have won without the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights? None of the four council members who did not support Prop. U, for instance, have ever raised much money for their own campaigns.

The anti-growthers have been quite effective at running and winning at the SMRR convention or in the SMRR Steering Committee, but that doesn't mean they speak for SMRR on growth.

The disconnect between the four and the rest of SMRR on Prop. U was dramatic. SMRR endorsed officials or appointees dominate various entities, beginning with the College Board of Trustees, that endorsed Prop. U, including the School Board, the Rent Control Board, and the Commission on Older Americans.

So what does this mean, politically? Word is that the SMRR leadership is unhappy that Bloom and Genser went public with opposition to the bond, after the leadership had agreed, in deference to the sensibilities of its anti-growth council members, not to have SMRR take an official position.

But I'm not sure what this unhappiness means. I told a friend -- a liberal, former SMRR stalwart -- that I heard the SMRR leadership was unhappy at the antics of the SMRR council members. His jaded response was, "AGAIN!"

At the same time, all signs point to SMRR's opposition taking its usual suicidal route far to the right of the Santa Monica electorate.

Meaning that as long as SMRR wrongly believes it needs NIMBY votes, as long as NIMBYs can mask their conservative agenda by giving lip service to liberal ideals, and as long as the SMRR opposition doesn't even pay lip service to those ideals, the anti-growthers, who represent the mainstream of neither SMRR nor its opposition, will set the agenda in Santa Monica.

I hope that's not for too long.

Meeting notes:

The Madison Advisory Group will meet Tuesday, March 12, at 7:00 p.m., in the Madison cafeteria. The group's meetings are open to the public. This meeting will focus on the background data the group has gathered from tours of the existing SMC performing arts facilities and theater facilities at other colleges.

The group has also tentatively scheduled a meeting for Wednesday, April 10. at 7:00 p.m. in the Madison cafeteria.

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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