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They're Fighting City Hall and City Hall is Fighting Back

By Frank Gruber

For the first time since 1994, being endorsed for City Council by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights may be more of a liability than an asset. 1994 was when an electorate disgruntled by crime and disorder, recession, declining property values, negative equity, and everything else that was going wrong back then, no doubt including the earthquake, elected Bob Holbrook and Ruth Ebner to City Council over SMRR candidates Tony Vazquez, an incumbent, and Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel.

"City Hall" and all that is emerging as the overriding issue of this year's City Council election, and SMRR, as the dominant political power for most off 25 years, is bearing the brunt.

The reasons for this can be summarized in three words: "hedges," "Bobby" and "Shriver."

A lot of other people are piling on, distributing anonymous mailers with tales of City Hall woe and trying to grab Shriver's perceived coattails, but they wouldn't be getting any further than any other recent attempts to dislodge SMRR from its hold on the Council, if it weren't for the energy the Shriver candidacy has pumped into the anti-SMRR campaign.

Which is odd. Shriver's politics are about as progressive as those of the SMRR candidates, if not sometimes more so, and Shriver has gone out of his way not to direct his message at SMRR; indeed, a good part of his campaign is based on the support he has received from prominent SMRR members and others on the left, including Tom Hayden, and Shriver has distanced himself from attempts to link other, more conservative candidates to him.

But liberal as Shriver is, his campaign that began with, in his words, the "crazy hedges," has struck a chord in people who don't think being a liberal means you check your common sense at the door. Since most voters in Santa Monica are liberals, and they like to think they have common sense, Shriver is getting traction.

As one who has expressed a fair amount of anguish myself about the City Council, I am not terribly displeased with the toasting SMRR toes are getting. But people shouldn't be disingenuous, either. SMRR didn't come into being and it wasn't so successful because SMRR was selling something Santa Monicans didn't want.

I don't care what gripes people have, but if you want to see what Santa Monica would look like if SMRR hadn't taken power 25 years ago, take a drive to Glendale and Burbank, where the local growth machine didn't let go of power. Imagine if our downtown and our boulevards were lined with sterile office buildings covered with black glass.

Or don't bother, just take a look at the Airport Office Park, or the Water Garden and Colorado Place, or the 70s office buildings in downtown. I have a reputation for being pro-growth, but what got me into local politics was a desire that the Civic Center not be turned into yet another super-block, monolithic office development.

At the same time, the SMRR leadership was integral in making Santa Monica a more enjoyable place, at least for those residents who have the psychological capacity to enjoy life. If you like to go to movies, to eat out, to stroll and window shop; if you like more and better parks, a "funner" Pier; if you like to drink a beer while watching the sun set, then give SMRR some credit.

But SMRR didn't know when to stop. Take growth and development. The down-zoning SMRR engineered in the 80s was sensible, and the land use element of the general plan the City adopted under SMRR leadership was an excellent, forward-thinking document that promoted mixed-use development before anyone was talking about "smart growth."

If the City Council had left it at that, and allowed both residents and developers work within those parameters, we wouldn't have a situation today where it takes years to get approval for everything from a second story addition to needed apartments (affordable or market-rate), and where the growth sector in the Planning Department is "code enforcement," i.e., sending letters threatening residents with $25,000 per day fines for their overly tall hedges.

Instead, the responsible planning of the 80s became merely a starting point for a constant political game of playing to the most unhappy, whining, self-pitying bunch in the gallery, especially after 1998 when SMRR obtained a "super-majority" on the Council that included a simple majority of no-growthers and micro-managers. This is when the City became truly meddlesome, with every sort of moratorium and plan revision and task force and "emergency interim ordinance" the Council could rush into law.

Consider landmarking as just one example. It's important to preserve our historical heritage, whether by preserving documents or significant landmarks. But at a certain point, for SMRR appointees to the Landmarks Commission, landmarking became less about preserving history and more about frustrating change.

Meanwhile, it took too long for the Council to come to grips with the fact that the result of humane and thoughtful programs the Council put into effect to deal with the homeless -- the problems they have and the problems they create -- were not having humane results; i.e., notwithstanding individual successes within the "continuum of care," a heartbreaking number of people are still sleeping on the streets (and elsewhere).

SMRR started out as a group of liberals and radicals who looked forward to change, but SMRR became dominated by people who are fearful of change, who don't have much of a vision for Santa Monica other than the status quo -- and staying in power.

But what's ironic is that after all this, I still don't know for whom to vote. You see, it takes awhile, but people do learn. They learn that density does not create traffic. An environmental movement that fifteen years ago was no-growth, now realizes that growth within urban boundaries promotes the environment and improves traffic by, among other things, reducing and shortening car trips. That has had an influence on politicians -- at least those who pay attention.

Ken Genser voted for Target. Michael Feinstein voted not to reappoint Kelly Olsen, the primary proponent of increased code enforcement, to the Planning Commission. During the campaign, Messrs. Genser and Feinstein, and Mayor Richard Bloom, have had the more balanced and reasonable take on amending the hedge and fence law, and the more nuanced answers to questions regarding development and traffic.

Okay, there hasn't been a revolution in consciousness, but Herb Katz, who voted against Target, still thinks the City can solve traffic problems by increasing road capacity, a theory that was debunked long ago. If you look at the responses to The Lookout's questionnaires, the new candidates for the most part (with some exceptions I'll try to get to when I discuss individual candidates) don't give the impression that they understand these issues any better.

Come Election Day, for me it's going to be like ordering from an old-fashioned Chinese menu, x from column A, y from column B.

* * *

Chutzpah award: to Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities, the anonymously funded group sending around the tale of woe flyers, for mailing to voters a letter bashing SMRR signed by two people, "Sterling Meredith, Business Owner and Community Activist," and "Irene Nelson, Santa Monica Resident and Community Activist." (See related story)

I have been active in Santa Monica politics for about fifteen years, and I had never heard of either Mr. Meredith or Ms. Nelson, so I asked about 20 other active Santa Monicans whether they knew either of them. No one knew, or knew of, Ms. Nelson, who is not listed in the phonebook. One correspondent said that he checked the voter rolls, and she wasn't listed there, either.

As for Mr. Meredith, one person I contacted knew him. Mayor, and candidate for reelection, Richard Bloom told me that Mr. Meredith operates the (excellent) cheese and sandwich shop at 313 Wilshire called "Good to Eat." What the mayor said was that he knew Mr. Meredith because he had helped the prior owner of the shop (when it was called Dorny's) clarify a conditional use permit issue that came up when she wanted to sell the business.

Mayor Bloom told me that he's a semi-regular customer of Good to Eat and that he often sees Mr. Meredith, who has never indicated to him that he was having any problems dealing with the City. Interestingly, however, Mayor Bloom said that he most recently saw Mr. Meredith at the Chamber of Commerce offices, where he was catering an event. (Before filing this column I tried to reach Mr. Meredith at Good to Eat, but I was told he was on vacation.)

That Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities calling Mr. Meredith and Ms. Nelson "community activists" takes a certain amount of chutzpah, but they get the Chutzpah award because the whole thing is so unnecessary. I don't know who is behind the group (I've heard two different rumors), but do they think that they are making their case better by not disclosing who they are?

Do they think Santa Monica voters just fell off the pumpkin truck? I don't care who they are, but I'm much more likely to buy their arguments if they tell me.

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