The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Shoot the Birds?

By Frank Gruber

August 3 -- I have to say I got a little nervous when I read the lead in the Lookout's story last week on the new National Resources Defense Council's report on the water in Santa Monica Bay: ("Santa Monica Beach Among Dirtiest in State, Report Finds," July 30, 2008)

"The beach around the Santa Monica Pier remains one of the dirtiest in the state, logging one of the highest levels of fecal bacteria in ocean water."

"Fecal bacteria?" Huh?

I wondered -- is there a sewer running into the bay?

Then I read on -- it turns out the biggest source of the fecal matter comes from birds.
Somehow that changes it a bit. Isn't it natural to have birds near oceans? What are we supposed to do, shoot them?

* * *

Since the Santa Monica City Council wrapped up its work two weeks ago on the current phase of the update to LUCE -- the land use and circulation elements of the general plan -- I probably won't have to write much about that acronym for the next few months.

But LUCE won't be forgotten, because it's bound to come up in the discussion of that other acronym, "RIFT" -- the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" -- that is on the November ballot and which looks like it will dominate Santa Monica politics until Election Day.

The anti-RIFT campaign -- organized under the banner of "Save Our City" -- got off to its start last Wednesday with a press conference at John Adams Middle School. It was an occasion for the group to show off its coalition that spans the traditional divide between the local business community and the various constituencies that express themselves generally through that other four letter acronym, SMRR -- Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.

About 20 or so anti-RIFTers, fronted by Planning Commissioner Terry O'Day, appeared on the steps of the John Adams auditorium. Just as the press conference was about to begin, about ten pro-RIFTers approached across the lawn.

It looked like we were going to have a middle-aged, concerned citizen rumble. At the moment the RIFTers arrived, I was talking to Jack Koning, the son of Planning Commissioner Hank Koning. Jack just graduated from Santa Monica High School, and just to show how aware today's youth are of cultural references, even those of their grandparents' generation, he immediately started to snap his fingers, "West Side Story" style.

The pro-RIFT forces arrive

I'm pleased to report that there was no violence. A rift divided the two sides, it's true, but it seemed as if in the past most of the people on either side of it had worked with people on the other on one local issue or another.

Mr. O'Day introduced several speakers from the anti-RIFT side, including Oscar de la Torre, President of the School Board, to make the point that if RIFT passes, the reduction in commercial development over the years would reduce city revenues, which would threaten, he said, both municipal programs and the City's contributions to the school district.

Planning Commissioner Terry O'Day and members of Save our City.(Photos by Frank Gruber)

I can understand why the anti-RIFTers are trying to frame the argument this way, and I can even admire their willingness to point out to voters that there are benefits, by the way, to economic development, but I suspect that this is not the best argument to make against RIFT.

The pro-RIFTers will just say that the City has plenty of money and can save money on something else, besides the schools, as typical anti-government ballot box politicians do, and that the issue is and always will be, to paraphrase Council Member Kevin McKeown's summary of all the arguments about the downtown Target years ago, the traffic, stupid.

The fact is that RIFT won't do anything about traffic. The impact on development will be trivial, at most, and certainly only in the future, and the connection between whatever development is not built and traffic is weak, particularly because we don't know what kind of development RIFT will forestall. Nor does RIFT do anything about development up and down the 405 corridor, which is the regional cause for the worst of Santa Monica's traffic.

On that point consider that although the big office developments in Santa Monica were all built by the early '90s, the eastbound traffic in the late afternoon that we all hate didn't become a big problem until about five years ago, and that even now, when you're caught up in that traffic, the road clears once you pass the 405.

Rather than push the revenue argument, it would make more sense for the anti-RIFTers to make a reasoned argument to voters attacking the false premises of RIFT, and pointing out that there are better ways to address traffic congestion and mobility issues than sticking your head in the sands of RIFT -- ways that are addressed, by the way, in LUCE.

The advice I would give the anti-RIFTers is to study the 1994 campaign that defeated the anti-Civic Center plan initiative that a group of residents similar to the group that has promoted RIFT put on the ballot. They tried to make the vote turn on the issue of the 24,000 daily car trips they said the plan would engender.

Everyone expected the initiative to pass -- it was promoted by the popular Tom Hayden, who was on the same ballot running for governor in the Democratic primary -- but the pro-plan City Council countered by having copies of the actual Civic Center plan distributed to every voter as part of the voting materials.

The campaign against the initiative stressed the benefits the plan would bring to the city. The voters were smart enough to understand that, and voted down the initiative in a 60 to 40 landslide.

As it turned out, some of these arguments did get an airing -- at the SMRR convention yesterday ("Divided SMRR Stays Neutral on RIFT," August 3, 2008). Fact is, RIFT has caused a rift at SMRR. A lot of the drama at the convention had to do with RIFT. There was a debate over it, and two votes -- one procedural, and one on whether to endorse pro-RIFT candidate for the City Council Ted Winterer -- indicated that the SMRR membership is nearly split down the middle on the measure.

The SMRR debate on RIFT: L-R Kevin McKeown, Diana Gordon, Oscar de la Torre and Alan Toy

Longtime SMRR activist and former Rent Control Board member Alan Toy, along with Mr. de la Torre, made the arguments against RIFT. Mr. Toy went right after RIFT on its own terms -- he called it a "dishonest measure," because he said it was not about traffic.

In supporting RIFT, Council member McKeown accepted the argument of the initiative's sponsor, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), that there's a "general sense that development is out of control."

I thought it was kind of odd that none of the SMRRs took exception to what Mr. McKeown said; after all, if SMCLC is saying that development is out of control in Santa Monica, well what organization has been largely in control of the City Council for the past ten years?

And what council members endorsed by what organization have been down-zoning Santa Monica for nearly 30? And managing growth quite closely?

I mean, when Diana Gordon of SMCLC, who was paired with Mr. McKeown to give the pro-RIFT argument, told the assembled SMRRs that RIFT "was about a fundamental failure of our city government to implement any growth control," I expected that there might be hisses and moans and groans and howls of protest from the crowd in defense of government by SMRR.

But there were no protests. You know how it goes.

It's the traffic. It makes you stupid.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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