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Since I've Been Gone

By Frank Gruber

I returned from Italy Wednesday night, so I missed the memorials and the reopening of the Farmers Market.

I took my own walk down Arizona Thursday.

For what it's worth, I agree that "the markets must go on," even if the sight of them in operation might trigger tears and anxious memories among the survivors and those who mourn.

But, as some farmer put it, the vegetables don't stop growing.

* * *

Although the removal of Kelly Olsen from the Planning Commission was a great day for the city, it was something of a personal tragedy for me, as now I'm going to find it so hard to criticize City Council member Michael Feinstein, since he cast the deciding vote against Santa Monica's demagogue of the discontented.

I was in Italy when Olsen's ship ran aground -- on vacation, relaxed, thinking only good things about the world. For a brief, mellow moment I considered that the classy thing to do would be to write another column about my parents' dog and leave Olsen alone.

As I said, the moment was brief.

I kicked Olsen when he was up. Don't I have the right to kick him when he's down?

Olsen and I have something in common -- we have both been un-reappointed to the Planning Commission. We could start a club of the "dis-appointed" with former commissioners Kathy Weremiuk and Anthony Loui.

Come to think of it, it would be a lot more fun to go out to dinner with just Kathy and Tony and not tell Olsen what restaurant we're meeting at and have a good meal and not worry about whether more than 25 percent of our tab is for alcohol.

There was much blather said and written about Olsen before and after the vote, starting with the assumption that he represents residents.

I know a lot of residents, and most of them think Olsen is a loudmouthed hypocrite.

Did Olsen represent the residents who wanted their corner stores open early and late? The residents who wanted another Trader Joes? The residents who wanted Target? The residents who want a residential downtown, or more apartments in Ocean Park, or the Madison Site Theater? Who don't think five stories equal "canyonization?" The residents who don't think Santa Monica is descending into hell on a flood of alcohol?

Even so, it wasn't Olsen's views that made him so terrible. There are many no-growthers in Santa Monica who wouldn't disgrace the city if they were on the Planning Commission.

But Olsen is a bully.

Throughout his tenure on the Planning Commission, Olsen accused the Planning Department -- and the prior Planning Commission -- of corruption, of making decisions "behind closed doors," of "rubber-stamping" the wishes of developers.

Olsen went out with a flourish, saying that City Council's vote against him "sends a pretty clear message to the Planning Commission, the planning staff and to residents that corruption and gross mismanagement in the Planning Department will be tolerated by the City Council."

But Olsen never produced a shred of evidence for his charges.

Olsen is a small-time Joe McCarthy. China was lost, so McCarthy made a career out of saying reds controlled the State Department. Buildings were built in Santa Monica, so Olsen makes a career out of saying the Planning Department is corrupt.

After the vote on Olsen, I got an email from a friend expressing the hope that civility will now return to the commission and politics. My response was that in a democracy the presence of civility is important, but not as important as the absence of fear.

As one of the few people willing to criticize Olsen in public, I can't tell you how often people thanked me for doing so, meanwhile expressing their reluctance to do the same, fearing retribution from Olsen or his political backers.

Was it only coincidence that Planning Director Suzanne Frick only faced up to the commissioners and defended her staff the day after Olsen was removed from the Commission? ("Planning Director Suzanne Frick's Statement," July 14, 2003)

Over the past four years the Planning Department, petrified of Olsen's sneer, has stopped planning. They don't advise developers any more about how they could improve their projects -- i.e., they don't do their jobs -- because they are afraid Olsen will accuse them of connivance.

At the first Commission meeting after Olsen's demise Commissioner Jay Johnson moaned that the Commission was losing Olsen's "institutional memory." What a joke.

True, Olsen took over a commission that had no institutional memory, because soon after his appointment Ken Breisch and John Zinner resigned, and all the other commissioners were new. But Olsen filled the void not with "memory," but with his own fantasy of how the planning system should work, namely that the process should revolve around the subjective judgments of the Planning Commission, rather than, for instance, the law.

Central to this vision was that the Commission ruled staff and could treat them like dirt -- an "institutional memory" that was appealing to his fellow commissioners but which had nothing to do with law or the mutual respect that had previously governed relations between staff and the Commission.

Memo to the Planning Commission: Planning staff work for the City Manager, not for you. They are not your servants. They are professionals. They make mistakes, but they are not fit subjects for you to humiliate.

Memo to City Manager Susan McCarthy and Planning Director Frick: You let Olsen get away with his smear tactics and his interference. You should have brought the matter to the Commission and to City Council a long time ago.

For all Olsen's piety about transparency, he continually tried to manipulate the process, whether by badgering staff, or encouraging appeals from the Architectural Review Board, or organizing opposition to projects on which he might later have to vote.

Weirdly enough, the people who seemed most in fear of Olsen were the other members of the Planning Commission. I wonder if their spouses and significant others have noticed lower levels of stress in their mates now that they don't have to share a dais with a ticking time bomb.

The other commissioners were always glancing over their shoulders to see what Olsen would do next, and watching Chair Darrell Clarke trying to deal with Olsen was like watching an anxious grandmother trying to mollify the eccentric in the family so he won't ruin Thanksgiving dinner.

Three words come to mind: "battered commissioner syndrome."

Without Olsen badgering them, this commission could be good. For all the commissioners' happy talk about "consensus," Olsen lost many votes 6 to 1 or 5 to 2. And don't forget that it must have been psychologically grueling to vote against Olsen, since whenever he lost a vote he would retreat into his patented condescending pout -- sort of naked aggression on the verge of tears.

There is a potential good nucleus on the Commission of Barbara Brown, Darrell Clarke, and Arlene Hopkins. They at least realize that the place is not Levittown and the time is not 1955.

I don't know much about the new guy, Terry O'Day, but in his first action he persuaded the Commission to let the Architectural Review Board do its job on a project, rather than micro manage the design, and that's a good start.

Jay Johnson often has his heart in the right place, and could be good if he ever read a book about urban planning. Even Julie Lopez Dad could be good if she recognized that her fellow humans sometimes make mistakes and/or sometimes have needs and concerns that are legitimate even if they are not hers.

As for Geraldine Moyle, I'll say nothing and hope that she continues to skip as many of the Commission's meetings as possible.
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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