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Guide from the Perplexed

By Frank Gruber

For the most part, Jorge Casuso, the editor and publisher of The Lookout, lets me write what I want in this column, except that he won't let me endorse candidates in local elections. Taking positions on propositions is okay, because they represent issues, but since I am the only regular opinion spouter on the site, he doesn't want me taking sides where personalities are involved.

Thank you, Jorge. If I could announce for whom I plan to vote this year in the local elections, I'd have to admit that less than three weeks before the election I'm as undecided as gun-owning union member in Ohio.

Oops, I just admitted it.

I have rarely been this perplexed, especially when it comes down to City Council. The fact is, and I don't know if many people will agree with me on this, but the quality of the people running is remarkably high, which the residents of Santa Monica should take as a compliment.

On one hand, you have the incumbents; whatever you think of their policies, they are a conscientious bunch. If conscientiousness is not good enough for you, and you don't like what's been going on at City Hall, then the challengers are also quite credible.

I have a political junkie friend who lives in L.A. He likes to listen to Santa Monica City Council meetings on KCRW. Incredulous, I once asked him why. He said the discussion was generally at a high level; referring to Joy Fulmer, he said, "Even your cranks usually make sense."

I do plan to write about the City Council election, however, as I have in the past. I am going to candidate forums, reading the candidates' various statements, and waiting for The Lookout to publish the results of our own survey. I'm especially interested to see how the non-incumbent candidates say they would vote today on the 20 issues I highlighted in the "matrix" I published a few weeks ago. ("WHAT I SAY: The Matrix," September 27, 2004)

In the meantime, I'll talk about some of the other races and propositions.

* * *

The best example of our good fortune in having good candidates is the race for School Board. There are only four candidates running for three seats, and all four are well qualified. It's a shame that one will lose.

Two incumbents, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez, are running and many voters will conclude that they deserve second terms. Although the schools have weathered controversies, scores are up, schools facilities, after expenditure of school bond funds, are in better condition, and the district negotiated a landmark funding agreement with the City of Santa Monica.

If the two incumbents are the favorites, then Ana Maria Jara and Kathy Wisnicki are running for the third seat on the board. Both candidates are qualified and articulate. Both have performed years of volunteer work for the district. Both Jara and Wisnicki represent constituencies that are in many ways opposite, but which both deserve representation on the board.

Jara is from the Pico Neighborhood and would bring to the board an understanding of the needs of disadvantaged children from families without long generations of academic degrees. The board and Superintendent John Deasy have already made raising the achievement levels of these students their primary goal; but one can argue that these children can never have too much representation on the board.

Wisnicki is from Malibu, the wealthiest part of the district, but one can also argue that as an integral part of the district, Malibu needs representation on the board, too. Everyone is aware of the secessionist movement brewing among some Malibu parents; while I don't have an opinion on the merits of that proposal yet, clearly the level of suspicion that these parents have of the board and the district is going to increase if Malibu has no representation.

Tough choice, but we should be happy whoever wins.

* * *

Prop. N, the City's proposal to increase the "bed tax" on tourists sounds like it's free money, but of course it's not. When I travel I hate learning that a $150 room rate is actually going to be more like $175 or $180 when all the taxes are included, and I assume that travelers to Santa Monica feel the same way.

But I'm voting in favor of Prop. N for a couple reasons, primarily because the increase in the tax will only make Santa Monica's bed tax equal to the bed tax in Los Angeles. Given that the hotels are supporting the increase, I have to assume that we're not losing a competitive edge.

Still, I'm galled by the simplistic argument that it's okay to raise a consumption tax that is already much higher than the sales tax because it's free money that we can use for purposes that we should be willing to finance out of our own pockets.

Which, of course, raises the question why the City is so broke in the first place. If the City Council had not been so profligate in the boom years ending in 2001, then the City would not need this extra money to fund the agreement with the School District.

But then, is the City so broke? Based, at least, on the staff report prepared for the purchase of the Fisher Lumber site, it appears that as the local economy is finding its footing, the City is again taking in surpluses.

I hate to sound like a Republican, but based on its track record, I am hesitant to trust the City Council not to spend the money on more consultants and planners and code enforcers and traffic officers and however else they might please the squeaky wheels, once they realize it's there.

However, in the long term, the City will have legitimate reasons to increase expenditures to operate an expanded parks and recreation system, and of course the City has made a commitment to the schools. The financial difficulties the City has faced since the run up in costs and the run down of the economy do seem to have genuinely chastened both staff and the Council.

So I return to my liberal faith, willing to trust the City with my money, or, even better, some tourist's.

Vote Yes on N.

Upcoming League of Women Voters forums:

October 19, 2004, 7:00 p.m. City Council Candidates
City Council Chambers, Santa Monica City Hall, 1685 Main Street
(Live broadcast on CityTV of Santa Monica)

October 20, 2004, 7:00 p.m. School Board Candidates
John Adams Middle School Library
2425 16th Street

October 21, 2004, 7:00 p.m. State & Local Ballot Measures Pro & Con
Montana Branch Library
1704 Montana Avenue

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