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A Good Night's Work

By Frank Gruber

The Santa Monica City Council had a good night's work last Tuesday, voting to enact a living wage law, passing a reasonable budget, and authorizing the Planning Department to start a process to revise the most important elements of the City's General Plan.

Living wage. The Council voted 4-3 to enact a living wage applicable to the City and its contractors. After years of agitation on this issue, many backs and forths, dire warnings, much drama, and one unpleasant referendum, the Council's actions seemed anti-climactic.

But the city is ending up at a good place -- improbably.

Although in the referendum the living wage movement lost on its groundbreaking original plan to require a special minimum wage for private businesses in the Coastal Zone, the movement won, as a byproduct, what it most wanted and what workers most needed: union recognition in the big hotels.

More than half of hotel workers now have union contracts, and further organizing is proceeding apace.

Rather than try to push a new version of the private sector living wage, the movement sensibly returned to the City asking for the kind of law, affecting mainly City contractors, many other governments (121, according to the Los Angeles Times), including the City of Los Angeles, have already enacted.

Just last week, the day after the City Council indicated its intention to pass such an ordinance in Santa Monica, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal approved Berkeley's version. (Interestingly enough, one issue in the case was that the Berkeley law applied to a limited geographic area, Berkeley's marina; the court found that Berkeley had the power to make geographic distinctions, something critics of Santa Monica's original living wage ordinance disputed.)

With the hotels becoming unionized, and the City and its contractors having to pay good wages, other employers will have to raise their wages and other working standards to compete. Meanwhile, the City and local businesses will not have to shoulder the costs of administrating a complicated local minimum wage.

I supported the original living wage law, but I am not unhappy with how things turned out.

* * *

The budget. This was not an exciting budget year. Money was tight enough to prevent the City Council from funding any big initiatives, but revenues firmed up enough so that there was not the crisis atmosphere of the two previous years.

The increasing costs of funding future retirement obligations for the City's employees continued to hammer the City. That number increased another $6 million, to $22.4 million; the figure was only $4.37 million in 2001-02. Unfortunately, there is not much the City can do about these costs, as they depend on the amount of investment income the retirement trusts can earn.

As part of the budget, the City is going to ask voters to approve an increase in the hotel bed tax. The current tax is lower than that in, for instance, Los Angeles.

There is no question municipal expenditures will continue to increase. The City, for instance, will need to pay more in future years under its agreement with the School District. There will also be more costs associated with the new Main Library and our expanding park system, beginning with Virginia Park and then including future parks at the Airport and the Civic Center, and perhaps other locations depending what land the City (or Santa Monica College) can acquire.

I would like the City to have the authority to increase the bed tax, which it must obtain from the voters, but it seems that if the investment climate and economy were to improve, so that the City's retirement contributions might level out or decrease as revenues continue to increase, the City might not need to increase the tax if it could manage to keep tight control over other expenditures.

So this year's budget is more interesting for the vantage point it will give for looking at the future than what it is on its own.

* * *

The news that did not receive much attention at the Council meeting was perhaps the most far reaching: the decision to revise the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan.

As William Fulton, the preeminent expert on California Planning, put it in his Guide to California Planning, the state-mandated "general plan" of a city or county has become in the past 30 years "the supreme document guiding [its] future physical development."

Notwithstanding the implication of universality, "general plans" are not single documents, but rather include various "elements." Communities adopt these elements separately.

The elements with the most impact on subsequent decisions are those for land use and circulation.

Santa Monica last revised its land use and circulation elements in the mid 80s, in a process that began more than 20 years ago. (The initial version was approved in 1984, and minor revisions were made in 1987; the elements are usually called the "1984/87 Land Use and Circulation Elements.")

While 20 years is a not a long time in the life of a city, it is a long time in the life of a plan. As a future benchmark, the 1984/87 elements cite what the city would be like in the year 2000.

I recently reread the 1984/87 elements, and I was impressed. Of course, the planners and citizens who wrote them could not predict the future, but they articulated a vision of the city that was simultaneously forward thinking and protective of what Santa Monica was (and is).

Perhaps what most impressed me was how the planners anticipated the "smart growth" and "new urbanism" movements of the 90s, before they were so named and long before they became any planner's gospel. The documents pay close attention to pedestrian scale and what's now known as traffic calming, and take steps in the direction of mixed-use and density.

The planners couldn't anticipate the success of the Promenade, or the earthquake and the recession of the 90s, but they planned for the downtown housing boom and predicted preferential parking districts.

Just like us today they expected that a transit system on rails would reach downtown Santa Monica.

It's time for the city to take another look at itself and figure out what another 20 years of urban evolution should do. This is important, and I'll be spending a lot of column inches on this process during the next couple years. I could ask my readers to bear with me, but instead I'll ask you to get involved.

It's important for the planners to hear from everyone in the city on this issue, not from just the planning junkies.

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