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What I Say
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Take this Job, Seriously, and Let's Let the Good Times Roll Down Lonely Avenue

By Frank Gruber

When I began this column, I dedicated it to Ray Charles, for reasons both painfully obvious and maddeningly obscure.

The original title was going to be "Tell the Truth," but that would have set too high a standard.

Then I was going to call it "Drown(ing) in My Own Tears," but that seemed too abject a plea for sympathy.

I settled on "What I Say," and what do you know, but last week the Librarian of Congress included "What'd I Say, Parts 1 & 2" in the inaugural selection of sound recordings to be included in the National Recording Registry.

Pursuant to an Act of Congress, each year the Librarian is to select recordings for the Registry that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The Librarian selected the torrid "What'd I Say" along with recordings such the description of the crash of the Hindenburg, because the song "combines the call-and response structure of the church with the sexually charged message of the blues."

That's exactly what I've tried to do with this column -- combine call and response and sexually charged, all in the context of Santa Monica politics!

Let me tell you -- it's not been easy.

* * *

From the sublime to the ... whatever. Michael Feinstein's walk-out from Tuesday night's City Council meeting. Wow. What'd he say? "I don't feel my colleagues are taking their jobs seriously." ("Feinstein Denounces 'Government by Lottery,'" Jan. 31)

I'm going to use a little "call and response" to help me remember that quote:

"I don't feel my colleagues are taking their jobs seriously."

"Baby, one more time."

"I don't feel my colleagues are taking their jobs seriously."

"Let me hear you say, yeah ..."

* * *

Earlier in the evening Feinstein and his colleagues voted to enact an "interim" ordinance to prevent property owners in Sunset Park and the North of Wilshire area from building new houses, or expanding old ones, to the size permitted by current zoning. The interim ordinance applies to the two neighborhoods reduced zoning standards enacted a few years ago, after a long process, for the North of Montana neighborhood. ("Council Bans Monster Mansions," Jan.30)

According to the findings contained in the interim ordinance, the Council had to pass it, instead of waiting for the results of a regular planning process (or, for that matter waiting to see if the North of Montana down-zoning achieved its objectives), because "there exists a current and immediate threat to the public safety, health, and welfare should the interim ordinance not be adopted and should development inconsistent with the contemplated revisions ... be allowed to occur."

Okay, so what's new -- the City Council declares an emergency to justify passing an interim ordinance. Big deal.

But according to the staff report in the five years from 1997 to 2002 only 16 homes in Sunset Park and 15 in North of Wilshire, were "redeveloped." That's just three per year in each neighborhood.

There's no data, testimony or other indication in the staff report that anyone found these "redevelopments" objectionable, let alone an "immediate threat to the public safety, health, and welfare."

Tell the truth.

"Taking their jobs seriously?"

What'd I say?

* * *

Last week I wrote about how our no-growth City Council liked to dissipate the energies of planning staff by having them work on interim ordinances that address non-issues instead of real planning. The emergency down-zoning in Sunset Park and North of Wilshire is a perfect example.

What's even worse is that to declare these phoney emergencies, City Council forces planning staff and the City Attorney's Office, who should have some professional standards (I hope they're being forced!), to validate this shameful junk-planning, and to make law from these patently false findings, as if they're taking dictation.

The whole idea is to perpetuate a political culture of crisis and resentment -- that we are under siege from "overdevelopment," that our neighborhoods need to be "saved," that change is to be feared -- when the facts are quite the opposite.

You would think the City Council would have learned after the "granny flat" debacle, when it had to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees because of similarly "cooked" findings, but then -- why take the job seriously?

* * *

I also wrote last week about the rhetoric no-growthers use. Note the artful use, in the language of the ordinance that I quoted above, of the word "development," and note that the context is two R1 neighborhoods. I.e., the "development" at issue is the remodeling or replacement of individual, single-family houses, all 31 of them over five years.

Is building a single house "development?" Not in the normal sense of the term -- but it is if you want to demonize a homeowner who wants to add a second story to an old house. And that demonization certainly will be familiar to anyone who has tried to do so in Santa Monica recently, because apparently the best way for a white, middle-class homeowner in Santa Monica to appreciate what it's like to "drive while black" is to apply for a permit to build a house, or even an addition.

I don't know what the development standards in Sunset Park and North of Wilshire should be -- but a squeaky wheel is not the same as a broken wheel, and if it ain't broke, you can at least wait to fix it. Wait, that is, to hear from the public during the regular planning process.

* * *

The funny thing is, I largely agree with Feinstein when it comes to the Council's drawing lots to make choices amongst themselves for working groups and task forces. It's wrong. We don't elect council-members to roll the dice. We elect them to make choices, in public, and on the record.

But the bigger problem is the City Council's practice of putting three council-members in each group. Three is perilously close to a majority, and violates at least the spirit of the Brown Act.

The three council-members tend to dominate the proceedings. If they come to an agreement, then, when the matter is finally before the whole council, it's easy for them to pick up a fourth vote and pass whatever got hammered out in the more informal and less procedurally rigorous sessions of the task force.

I've attended many meetings of task forces and working groups, sometimes as a member, and while these committees are quite useful, the danger is that their conclusions too often reflect the narrow views of the stake-holders with the most direct interests, and the public officials with the most personal interest, in whatever the problem is, because it's they who attend the meetings.

By the time the recommendations are ready to present to City Council, the council-members who sat on the committee are so invested in the compromises they negotiated, that Council may not be able to conduct the free-wheeling public discussion that is the essence of the process.

* * *

Amidst all this, it's great to watch professionals at work, taking their jobs seriously. Saturday I attended one of the community meetings the Big Blue Bus is currently conducting to obtain feedback about its operations. I'll report on what I learned in a future column, but there are two meetings remaining and I encourage anyone interested in local public transportation to attend. Here is the relevant information:

Tuesday, February 4th, 5:00p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Tom Bradley Youth & Family Center
5213 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles

Wednesday, February 5th, 5:00p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Virginia Park (Thelma Terry Center)
2200 Virginia Avenue
Santa Monica

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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