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Small D Democracy in Action

By Frank Gruber

I wouldn't be writing this column if I didn't love local politics, but last Tuesday evening's City Council hearing gave a good example why.

Let me put the meeting in context. In Washington the 9/11 Commission has been conducting its explosive hearings on what went wrong in the fight on terrorism. I got hooked watching Richard Clarke's testimony a couple weeks ago (I also read his book; talk about depressing), and I couldn't help but watch all of Condoleeza Rice's, too.

You may be surprised to learn that the people running the big show in Washington, both the politicians and their staffs, don't seem that different from the people who run the little show here in Santa Monica.

I don't mean that as an indiscriminate knock on D.C. or City Hall. What I do mean is that governing is only as difficult as predicting the future, there are competing interests all over the place, the competence of the people in government runs the gamut from zero to extraordinary, and most of us folks in the gallery don't have the foggiest.

Tuesday City Council had on its agenda two proposals to revise building standards in most of the multi-family districts in the city. I hardly expected by the end of the evening I would be pondering big philosophical issues about democracy.

But that's what happened.

As The Lookout has reported, most of the meeting was taken up with discussion of staff's proposal to eliminate review by the Architectural Review Board of projects that satisfy defined design criteria. ("Council Deadlocks on Proposal to Eliminate Public Input," April 15)

That the issue was fraught with political significance was highlighted by an unusual introduction to the staff report that City Manager Susan McCarthy gave prior to the Planning Department's presentation. Obviously to counter accusations that staff had conjured up the proposals in secret, Ms. McCarthy detailed the history of public hearings the Department had held on the proposals.

I thought she was auditioning for the White House Chief of Staff position in the next administration.

On one side of the ARB review issue, you had staff and some Council-members saying that we don't need design review for relatively small projects that satisfy specific design criteria, and that we should plan "by code and not by process."

They argued that having every project go through the ARB created backlogs at both the ARB and the Planning Commission that stretched the approval process beyond reasonable limits, so that projects, even small ones, routinely took two or three years to receive approval.

On the other side, you had fifteen speakers (by my count) and some Council members saying that to eliminate this "public review" would be undemocratic and contrary to what Council member Ken Genser called, "the political culture of the community."

Mind you, as I said in a column two weeks ago, I believe the ARB generally does good work, and that a compromise could be reached by removing "massing" from the purview of the ARB for projects that fit pre-approved building profiles.

(In any case, there never were many procedural problems with ARB review until a few years ago, when then-Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen started encouraging appeals of ARB approvals. That got the Planning Commissioners into the design-review business, from which they can't seem to extricate themselves, not only on ARB-appeals, but also, on routine condo projects, when they often spend hours doing the ARB's work.)

Back to the meeting. Sitting in the audience I couldn't help but try to put to use that Poli Sci degree I got 30 years ago. What is democracy? Or what are its crucial elements?

On the one hand, is the essence of democracy the right to appear at a public hearing and give your two cents on an issue, presumably two cents that relate to your personal interests? If exasperated one evening after listening to two or three hours of public testimony on a contentious issue, take a moment and realize that this notion has a good pedigree. It's the sentiment, more or less, in the petition/redress/grievances part of the First Amendment.

On the other hand, is democracy more a matter of electing legislators who pass laws to improve life for the community as a whole, and then following those laws? The staff's "code not process" argument echoed a "laws not men" formulation that has had some popularity since 1776.

On a third hand, is democracy more a function of protecting rights? This is the idea that says we can never have perfect democracy, but we can have a civil society. But then, what are rights? A property owner has her property rights, she says, but a neighbor says, as did one speaker at the hearing Tuesday, that he has the right to have his neighborhood stay the same as when he moved into it.

Who is right, and what's the democratic thing to do?

No answer here, but for stimulating the intellectual juices, if you get tired of watching present and past heads of the CIA, the FBI, the NSC, the Justice Department, et al., play "who's on first," then tune into the Santa Monica City Council.

I'm not kidding.

* * *

There were also substantive issues that came up at the hearing that are worth mentioning.

There was a lot of talk about a well-intentioned proposal from the Planning Commission to "front-load" the process by having developers meet with neighbors before submitting their plans, to, it was hoped, resolve any differences early. Unfortunately, Santa Monica has tried this, and it doesn't work.

For several years the City has been requiring developers to meet with local community organizations for just this purpose, but with little to show for it.

Two projects come to mind, the Boulangerie mixed-use projects and Community Corporation's Main & Pacific apartment house, both on Main Street. The developers of both projects had extensive meetings with neighbors, and in both cases they made substantial changes in response to "community input." Nonetheless, the opponents of the projects fought them to the bitter end.

Why? Serious opponents of development are not concerned with design issues -- they don't want the development to happen, and they know that delay is a good tactic.

Another argument against the staff proposals was that defined standards would lead to "cookie cutter design." "Cookie cutter," when used in the context of Santa Monica, is a word like "canyonization," i.e., a word that has no meaning.

The staff's proposals affect small projects that are by their nature infill projects. Assuming, for the sake of argument only, that uniformity in an urban streetscape is a bad thing (contrary to experience in most cities of the world), it would take hundreds of years at the present rate of construction to put more than a handful of new "cookie-cut" projects next door to each other or even on any one block.

One last thing, and perhaps it relates to the democracy issue. Contrary to the myths, development is no longer a hot issue in Santa Monica. Few neighbors appear at ARB and Planning Commission hearings to complain about development, particularly the routine projects that are the subject of staff's proposals.

As I said above, only fifteen people appeared Tuesday night to testify against the proposals, despite a lot of press. Fifteen is a fraction of the number that testify on issues that engage the public, like schools or how to treat the homeless.

And consider who spoke. Of the fifteen, at least eleven were "regulars:" one was from the ARB (Sergio Zeballos); three from the Planning Commission (Jay Johnson, Darrell Clarke and Arlene Hopkins); four (Ellen Brennan, Art Harris, Stephanie Barbanell, and Jerry Bass) were no-growth activists who have been involved in many appeals of planning and ARB decisions; two (Jerry Rubin and Patricia Hoffman) are community activists who regularly comment at City Council; and one was Joy Fullmer.

So that left four "civilians," and one of them was a disgruntled former employee of developer Craig Jones, who thought the meeting was about the downtown design standards.

The remaining three aired their views, which had their good and bad points. I have already mentioned the resident who said that he had the right to move into a neighborhood and proscribe any future changes.

But one resident's testimony perfectly summarized the situation in Santa Monica. After introducing herself as someone speaking at her first public hearing, she announced her outrage that City Council "had decided" to eliminate public input.

Then, the kicker. As if she were invoking Yogi Berra's famous description of the nightclub that was so crowded no one went there any more, she said that she was disgusted with a Santa Monica that had become so crowded that everyone was moving out.

Those who might be interested in learning about what's going on in California from a broader perspective than you can get from this column should consider attending the California Studies Association's annual conference next week at Loyola Marymount. The title of this year's conference is "Gimme Shelter."

One panel I would like to advertise will take place Friday, at 10:30 a.m. The title is "Urbanism and the California Dream: Changes in the Paradigm."

The panel will use downtown Santa Monica as a case study. Panelists include yours truly, the aforementioned Craig Jones, Joan Ling from Community Corp. of Santa Monica, Christian Peralta from Livable Places, and D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.

More information and a PDF program and registration form click here.
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