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Frank Gruber

When Conventional Wisdom Masquerades as Common Sense

By Frank Gruber

I had an idea when I read that Santa Monica City Council Member Bobby Shriver had endorsed Measure T (also known as RIFT -- the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic).("Shriver Supports Prop T," October 10, 2008)

When Mr. Shriver endorsed RIFT he said that it was "common sense" that new development will generate more traffic. The problem is that people who study traffic say that that is not quite true, and anyone can tell you that there is bad traffic all over the L.A. region regardless of the amount of development in any particular area.

The "common sense" Mr. Shriver was referring to is in fact just conventional wisdom, and it's the conventional wisdom -- that you can solve traffic problems by spreading out development -- that has created the traffic monster not only in the L.A. region but all over sprawling America.

But anyway the idea I had came from the fact that Mr. Shriver knows a lot about the problem of homelessness. More than I do, I'm sure, and Mr. Shriver has applied considerable energies as a council member to solving the problem of homelessness in Santa Monica and the region.

That got me wondering. Since the presence of homeless people and the presence of bad traffic are the two issues that set off the annoyance buzzers of those residents who purport to speak for all the rest of us (too bad they're not bothered so much by the presence of gang violence), I wondered what Mr. Shriver would do if a group of residents decided to attack the homelessness problem the same way that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City chose to attack the traffic problem.

After all, there are and have been quite a number of residents who criticize the City's programs to deal with the homeless, and they like to say they're taking a "common sense" approach. It's pretty simple to them: rather than solve the problem, the social services the City directs toward the homeless attract more of the drunk, addicted and destitute here. Instead the City should use the police to chase the homeless out of town.

Common sense, right?

What if this group of public spirited residents privately prepared a new initiative -- let's call it the "Residents' Initiative to Make the Homeless Disappear." Applying "what we all know," this initiative would take away much of the City Council's authority over social service programs. It might say that the City could only provide services to 75 homeless people per year, or simply cut the City's social services budget by 75 percent.

The group who drafted the initiative would gather the signatures required to put it on the ballot by telling residents that it would "solve homelessness." In no time 10,000 would sign.

Can you imagine Council Member Shriver's' reaction? He would be appalled. At least I hope he would be. Surely he would tell everyone that we cannot solve a complicated, multi-caused, regional problem like homelessness with simplistic thinking.

Well, traffic is just as complicated and regional as homelessness, but unfortunately Mr. Shriver hasn't spent as much time studying traffic as he's spent studying homelessness. That's why he mistakes conventional wisdom for common sense.

In endorsing RIFT, Mr. Shriver explained why it took him so long to take a position on the measure by saying that he's "not an urban planner." I'm glad he said that, because it lends support to something I've noticed since Mr. Shriver joined the council, which is that I've never heard him say anything that indicates that he's read one word about urban planning.

* * *

Besides the city council and anyone who doesn't share their views about Santa Monica's history or its future, another traditional target of nihilist anger in the city has been Santa Monica College. The college's bond issues always engender opposition from those who say the college is too big for Santa Monica and doesn't serve residents and taxpayers of the city because most of its students are not residents.

A lot of the opposition has traditionally come from Sunset Park, where some residents (not by any means a majority) call the college a "bad neighbor."

So far the bond issues have always passed with big majorities because most Santa Monicans -- few of whom haven't either taken a course at the college or had a family member who did -- love the college and like what it has done with the money the voters voted to tax themselves to give. (The latest example being the new performing arts center with the Broad Stage.)

Measure AA on this year's ballot is a $295 million bond issue designed to allow the college to complete construction of its facilities master plan, a plan that the college developed with considerable public input.

Opponents complain that it is unfair that local residents must bear the burden of these bonds, since most of the college's students are not residents. This is a misplaced argument. Although it is bizarre that local community college districts have responsibility for the capital needs of the community college system -- a program of statewide importance -- for present purposes it should be sufficient that other districts are carrying their load.

Across the border in L.A., for example, the community college board there has a $3.5 billion bond issue on the ballot, and in 2001 and 2003 voters there passed bond issues totaling $2.2 billion.

Santa Monica residents, of course, benefit from University of California and California State University campuses that attract traffic to neighborhoods elsewhere. Our beloved local college seems like a reasonable burden to put up with as our part of the overall system of higher education in the state.

What is of particular interest this year is that all seven members of the City Council support the bond issue. Council Members Richard Bloom, Ken Genser and Kevin McKeown have in the past opposed college bonds or taken a neutral position. Apparently they have noted a change in attitude in the college's administration; I heard from both Messrs. Bloom and Genser that they believed the college, under President Chui Tsang, has demonstrated a much more cooperative attitude toward both the City and the residents than under previous administrations.

One aspect of this has been the work the college has done with the Big Blue Bus to convert more college students, faculty and staff into bus riders. These efforts include a fare card as well as helping to design new routes that reflect where the college's students live.

Ironically, these efforts -- which seem like common sense to me -- were met with hostility from some of the neighbors, who objected to the new bus routes. Which makes me wonder; do these neighbors just like to complain, or are they interested in solutions?

Event notice:

The City is starting to formulate plans for operations at the Annenberg Beach Club, construction of which is proceeding apace and which will open in spring 2009. This Saturday, October 25, there will be a workshop from 10 a.m. to noon at the Ken Edwards Center to obtain input on the City's proposed plans. For details, including information about other meetings, go to the City's webpage for the beach club [].

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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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