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City Council Candidates: The Four Incumbents

By Frank Gruber

There is no candidate running for the City Council with whom I agree all the time, and I don't make endorsements in this column. But in this and several other columns this week, I will give my evaluation of the candidates' good points and bad points.

This is an opinion column, so be warned: if you disagree with my opinions, adjust your pro and con filters accordingly. I hope, though, that my evaluations fairly describe who the candidates are and what they stand for and are helpful whatever policies you believe are best for Santa Monica. If you disagree with my evaluations, I am sure The Lookout will be happy to publish your letter.

To save me some writing and you some reading, let me say that I have met all eleven major candidates, and I like them all. They all believe in themselves and in good faith want the best for the community.

So with that out of the way, I will start with the incumbents. First, those endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, Richard Bloom and Ken Genser.

The best parts of Richard Bloom are that he is a regular guy who tries to do right, and who speaks from the heart. As often as I have disagreed with Bloom on policies, I relish the memories of various times when his unadorned eloquence from the dais has neatly summarized my own feelings about important issues -- for example, K-12 school funding and fluoridation.

As mayor, Bloom has also presented to the world a friendly image of Santa Monica, and he runs a meeting fairly and with good humor.

All right, what you see with Bloom is what you get: a hard-working family man who cares about his community. So far, so good. But my complaint about Bloom is the lack of that "vision thing." What I don't see in Bloom -- or, rather, what I don't see in his votes because I do see it in his person -- is an understanding that there is a community beyond the one he wanted to protect when he formed Friends of Sunset Park years ago. Santa Monica is not mostly people living in a faux suburb of single-family homes, for which traffic is the most grievous gripe in otherwise rather good lives.

Anyone who reads this column knows that I disagree with Bloom when it comes to development. But beyond jobs and apartments, it perplexes me that Bloom opposed the Madison site theater, because of the exaggerated fears of a few close neighbors, and the 2003 College bond issue, and is not supporting this year's bond issue either. Our quality of life and our future depend more on culture and educational opportunities than on parking.

* * *

If Bloom's strong suit is his heart, then Ken Genser's is his head. His head and his 16 years on the council; there is no one on the council, and there may never have been anyone on the council, with Genser's grasp of the issues and the subtleties of an argument. One can count on Genser, at a council meeting, to ask the most relevant question, often based on his encyclopedic memory of more than two decades of local politics and policies.

But Genser's strengths are also his weaknesses.

Just as there is no one better to have on your side -- and I remember with pleasure what it was like to be on the same side with Genser when it came to the Civic Center plan or Target -- Genser will use his intellect to rationalize decisions that don't make much sense, such as fighting state law on second units or voting against fluoridation, or to justify his almost automatic reflex to accommodate any resident's complaint, no matter how selfish and what the bigger issues are. (As with Bloom, consider Genser's opposition to the Madison site theater.)

While Genser's knowledge base is huge, he also can be fiercely defensive about his long record. He's just as fierce about his friends, too: Genser's record cannot be evaluated without noting that he has been the major political patron of Kelly Olsen. To the extent -- great, in my view -- that the City adopted a high-handed attitude toward residents and local businesses in response to prodding from Olsen when Olsen was on the Planning Commission, and to the extent the Planning Department became demoralized because of Olsen, Genser bears major responsibility.

Then there is the vision thing, and Genser, like his friend Bloom, has never articulated a philosophy of governing beyond constituent service. I never had any problem with Genser's legal position on the Levy playhouse case, but it was indicative to me of a bigger problem when he instinctively sided with the neighbor who was complaining rather than take into consideration the reality that the other neighbor was building a playhouse -- not a two-story addition.

Both Genser and Bloom, in their answers to the "vision for the future" question at the end of The Lookout's questionnaire, said they identified most with the present, and that's what they want to preserve. I'm sure their love for the city is heartfelt; but to me, since Santa Monica has always been about change, it's more than a little wishful.

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There are two other incumbents running, Michael Feinstein and Herb Katz.

I could write a book about Michael Feinstein. Maybe someday someone will -- or perhaps Feinstein will do it himself. Feinstein acts like he believes he should have a place in history. I don't begrudge him that, but it's unfortunate that he chose to seek that place through the Green Party and the Santa Monica City Council: the one doesn't look like it has much of a future, with Feinstein or without him, and the other is a rather small pond compared to Feinstein's ambitions for the bigger world.

I admire Feinstein's courage, but I wish he had more judgment. Feinstein started out in Santa Monica politics as an extreme no-growther, opposing even the building of a new school in Ocean Park. He's grown since then.

In part Feinstein grew because Green Party ideologies grew to accept urbanism, but Feinstein broke with the other no-growthers on the Council in two key votes: not to reappoint Kelly Olsen to the Planning Commission and to certify the EIR for the Boulangerie mixed-use developments. That took courage, because he disappointed former no-growth supporters, and that is the kind of courage (and judgment) that the City Council will need when redoing the land use and circulation elements of the general plan.

But Feinstein also tilts at windmills. His extended tantrum two years ago against SMRR and SMART, when his former patrons wouldn't support his own Green Party candidate for City Council, was silly, and probably lost the election for a genuine progressive, Abby Arnold -- shades of Nader and Gore, for which Feinstein is still unrepentant.

And Feinstein's tirade against Community for Excellent Public Schools and the school funding agreement went way beyond appropriateness, no matter how much better he thought his funding plan was.

Alienating SMRR and SMART, attacking CEPS; Feinstein may be running hard for reelection, but Freud would wonder if he wants another four years. And why should he? Feinstein's old comrade from Civic Center battles, Tom Hayden, has shown there is life after elective office; maybe Feinstein should take a page of Hayden's book, and then write his own.

* * *

Herb Katz calls himself the "voice of reason," but for somebody so reasonable, he is rather sure of himself. (But then, we who consider ourselves reasonable tend to be sure of ourselves.)

The good parts about Katz are his votes, or at least most of them. If you review his votes on the "Matrix," and if you're a liberal, you're going to like most of them. Fluoridation, school funding, the College bonds, reasonable development, he's usually there on what I consider the right side. I don't know if Katz's recent idea of a tent city for the homeless near the beach would work, but I admire him for suggesting something more specific than a "regional solution."

Okay, okay, I know a lot of left-wing people who think the litmus test should be the living wage law, but in retrospect it's hard to look at that complicated piece of legislation, which was designed to get the hotels to the bargaining table more than anything else, as an appropriate test. I mean, I was for the ordinance, but one has to ask if it made sense to put all those living wage eggs in that ungainly basket, given that it had so many features that made it susceptible to attack, and ultimate defeat at the polls (regardless of hardball politics).

So I'm not going to hold his vote against the living wage against Katz, although I hope if he is reelected that he will come around to support a municipal living wage in its ultimate form. I do hold Katz's vote against Target against him, however, because it ran contrary to every other position he's taken regarding land use, and came out of nowhere except misplaced sympathy for downtown property owners.

Katz justly advertises the fact that he's an architect, a qualification that is good to have on the City Council dais. But what I don't see is that Katz has read up on newer theories about urban planning; judging by what he says about traffic, for instance, his thinking is stuck in a 60s suburbia 101 traffic-engineering class.

As advertised, Katz is a reasonable person who has the right instincts to say no when the Council is bent on increasing its meddlesome factor. However, Katz is wrong to say that he opposes a Council that thinks it knows what's best for the city. We elect our representatives precisely to act on what they think is best; at issue is how they will vote.

This is the first of several columns this week evaluating the candidates in next week's election.
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