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Don't Go There

By Frank Gruber

There's only one poll that counts, right, and that's the one on election day. And what happened?

Statewide we learned that whatever complaints Californians have about their state government, they are not willing to do anything structural about it, as Prop. 56 went down in flames. So we will continue to have minority rule in Sacramento, stalemate, under-funded schools, and uncoordinated ballot box government.

That is on the long-term. Perhaps on the short-term the Democratic legislature will have earned enough clout with Governor Schwarzenegger by cheerleading for his two propositions to gain at least a few years of serious and bipartisan attention to what ails us.

In Santa Monica we learned that the Santa Monica Democratic Club is hardly representative. Readers will recall that the self-appointed vanguard of Santa Monica Democrats endorsed Dennis Kucinich for President, but in Santa Monica, John Kerry received six times the number of votes Mr. Kucinich did.

That's typical in Santa Monica, where any group of like-minded people can get together, form an organization, and immediately presume to speak for everyone else. Our Planning Department, for instance, gives official status to self-appointed "neighborhood organizations" in the review of developments.

We live in a town where the key endorsements in local elections come from (i) the one hundred or so active members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights who attend SMRR's annual convention (or sometimes from the ten members of the SMRR Steering Committee), (ii) an even smaller group of SMRR-opponents who, depending on the year, might meet in someone's living room or at the Chamber of Commerce, and (iii) from the police and firefighter unions, which have few members who live in Santa Monica.

But who cares? It's just local politics. How many Santa Monicans are more interested in what happens in City Hall than in Haiti?

One self-appointed group that is willing to go out and see how much public support it has is Community for Excellent Public Schools. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was myself a member of CEPS until I started fulminating in cyberspace.)

CEPS, as everyone who does pay attention to local news knows, is promoting a ballot measure to require the City of Santa Monica to contribute a minimum of $6 million each year to the School District.

CEPS members and supporters were out in force on election day, gathering signatures, and now have, apparently, more than half the 8,000 they need to put the measure on the ballot. ("CEPS Capitalizes on Election," March 3, 2004)

So far they don't have my signature, although it was tough to resist the entreaties of once and probably future City Council candidate, and friend and neighbor Abby Arnold, who was collecting signatures outside my polling place at Joslyn Park.

But I resisted, figuring that I'm not going to sign until I spend at least one column agonizing over my decision.

And I am in agony. In one respect, the CEPS measure represents what I most dislike about California politics: ballot box government. While the alternative shouldn't be bake sales, financing our schools shouldn't come to this, where citizens have to micro-manage the allocation of taxes.

But a combination of court cases and ballot measures have brought us to this point, where the CEPS people have a good argument that they need to take action because the School Board no longer has realistic means to raise money.

They also can turn to a history of votes on bond issues and parcel taxes going back fifteen years that demonstrate that the schools are the number one priority for the local electorate.

Yet, it's an understatement to say that the CEPS measure is divisive. SMRR itself is split, as key members of the organization, such as Denny Zane and Ralph Mechur, comprise a big presence within CEPS, while all the members of City Council SMRR got elected oppose CEPS's measure.

The measure is also stirring up municipal employees, who fear that a diversion of city revenues will come out of their budgets and paychecks. According to a Lookout report, the police union is preparing to attack the measure by first sifting through the District's financial records. ("City's Unions Take on Charter Amendment," Feb. 23, 2004)

This is a bad idea. By and large, Santa Monica is a well-run city and we have excellent public schools, but a battle between town and gown is not going to make government look good.

Is the School District perfectly managed? Probably not, but as opposed to their ringing endorsements of school bonds, did the voters approve the bonds for the Public Safety Building? No. Did the building not cost tens of millions more than budgeted? Yes. Did the City not increase its general fund budget more than $20 million, nearly 25 percent, in just two years, between 2000 and 2002, without anticipating what a downturn in the stock market would do to its pension obligations and thus self-inflicting its budget crisis? Yes.

I want to say to everyone, "Don't go there."

The City has real responsibilities, but it also has much more control over its finances than the School District has over its. City Council must realize that residents, notwithstanding various squeaky wheels, are more concerned about the schools than they are about repaving streets, zoning enforcement, the retail mix on the Promenade, new police cars, parking studies, and just about everything else City Council likes to spend money on.

And yes, I could include in that list programs that I like, such as social services and housing. But choices have to be made.

It's hard to believe that a few weeks ago the City almost spent $200,000 for an experimental SUV, but at least the City Council pulled back from that at the last minute.("Council Turns Down Car Deal," Feb. 26, 2004)

The City Council needs to make a commitment to the schools that is substantial, regular, and long-term, perhaps by dedicating a particular revenue stream to the District.

If the City Council doesn't do that, then what's a voter to do, but resort to the ballot box?
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