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Gangs? What Gangs?

By Frank Gruber

The auditorium at Edison school was full. In many of the seats sat City Council members and members of the School Board, but on the dais were four civil servants: the City Manager, the Police Chief, the Superintendent of Schools, and the principal of Edison. ("Frustrated Parents Boo Police and School Officials at Community Meeting," October 6, 2004.)

They were stoic. But as I watched them catch the flak, I wondered if they ever wondered if it was part of their job descriptions to deal with the anger and fear that can only emerge with the relief that comes from the miracle, as several speakers described it, that in the middle of the afternoon a gangster shot 14 bullets at a high school student returning home on his bike but missed with every one.

I was waiting for a politician at least to give the rhetorical equivalent of a big hug, but all I got was the hired hands trying to explain why years of everyone "doing their best" still left us with a situation where some young people want to kill each other.

Excuse me, but kids killing kids is a political matter, not a budgetary issue.

As I write this, I have arrayed before me the political mailers I've received so far this year: an eight-page mailer from Herb Katz, a four-page mailer from SMRR, two mailers from Michael Feinstein, and a three-page letter from Bobby Shriver. The word "gang" never appears. Nor is the word mentioned in the SMRR platform. I haven't found it in any of the Chamber of Commerce political sites either.

It's the traffic, stupid.

After the meeting I spoke with School Board member Oscar de la Torre, who told me that in all of the Pico Neighborhood there are perhaps three dozen or so serious gang members, of whom only five or six are violent.

De la Torre wasn't dismissing the threat; on the contrary, his point was that even a few such dangerous people cause a lot of pain.

They drive to Mar Vista to kill people, and the Mar Vistans come here to kill us.

Since 1989 some two-dozen youths have lost their lives on Pico streets due to gang violence.

What strikes me is the "asymmetricality," to borrow a phrase from current thinking about warfare. As asymmetrical war in Iraq bogs down the U.S. military, certainly asymmetrical gang war is bogging down us.

Think of it. Twelve thousand people live in the Pico Neighborhood, 85,000 in Santa Monica, we spend $100 million on schools, tens of millions on police, millions on recreation and youth services, and somehow no one has the imagination to reach half a dozen lost souls?

To tell them they are somebody? Or to make them somebody?

* * *

One thing I try to do in this column is to flag important meetings coming up on the calendar, in the hope readers might attend them. Residents in general have no appreciation for how important these meetings are; they think that laws just happen, that the City Council and boards and commissions, and the bureaucrats, do what they want to do without regard to what residents might tell them.

I've been attending meetings in Santa Monica for 15 years or so, and nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, residents say different and contradictory things, so not everyone is going to think their comments have an impact or their concerns are heard, but we have squeaky wheel government in Santa Monica and the squeakiest wheels are those that regularly roll into meetings.

One meeting I did not alert readers to took place on Saturday. It was a "special meeting" of the Planning Commission to discuss the process for revising the land use and circulation elements of the general plan, and the Commission's role in the process.

The reason I didn't inform readers of this meeting in last week's column is that I didn't know about it. The reason I didn't know about it was that Commission Chair Barbara Brown didn't call the meeting until the middle of the week, when notices were posted at City Hall and on the web.

That's right -- this was the Commission's first important meeting on the general plan update, a process that is supposed to be wide open to the public, and the Commission's Chair called a special meeting on 72 hours' notice.

I spoke to Chair Brown. She told me the purpose of the meeting was only for the Commission to learn about the general plan update process, and that no decisions would be made. But she also said that the Commission wanted to have the meeting before its Oct. 28 joint meeting with the City Council that would kick off the general plan process, so that the commissioners could have a "conversation" among themselves about what their role should be.

In fact, included in the agenda was "Development of Recommendations to the City Council Regarding the Circulation Element, Land Use Element and Zoning Ordinance Update." How can the Commission develop "recommendations" without making decisions?

And if the joint meeting isn't until Oct. 28, what was the rush?

Because Saturday's meeting was being called a "workshop," staff told me minutes would not be taken. Because it took place at Ken Edwards Center, there would be no videotaping, only audio recording.

So if members of the public who couldn't attend the meeting want to find out what happened, they are pretty much out of luck, since these audiotapes are usually inscrutable. Fortunately, Santa Monica has an active press, and The Lookout and the other media sent reporters.

The general plan process needs to be not only open to the public, but also driven by the public. The Planning Commission's short noticed meeting was not an auspicious start.

* * *

And the award for campaign chutzpah this week goes to ... Michael Feinstein, who sent out a mailer taking credit for a 250 percent increase in the City's funding of the schools, from a little over $2 million dollars in 1997 to the $6 million of the 2004 school funding agreement.

But Feinstein was the only City Council member who did not vote for the agreement.

* * *

I have previously written that the City should not lose the opportunity to expand Memorial Park by purchasing the Fisher Lumber site, so now that the matter is on Tuesday night's City Council agenda, I won't write much.

Except that if you read the staff report , you should realize that the purchase will not be without costs that go beyond the purchase price.

Those costs include the loss of $200,000 per year in tax revenues, probably as much money to build the park as to buy the land, and then increased operating expenses for the expanded park.

The staff report doesn't mention the loss of more jobs in what was formerly Santa Monica's industrial corridor. Jobs that sustained the Pico Neighborhood.

So while our politicians congratulate themselves on making this purchase of future open space, I hope they also realize that we can't pay for it or for the social costs of converting jobs into soccer fields unless we also pay attention to economic development that serves all our residents.
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