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A Gleam in Her Eye

By Frank Gruber

In terms of the 24-hour news cycle, last Tuesday is ancient history, but what a night of political theater it was.  First, President Barack Obama's first address to Congress.  Wow.  After that I rushed over to City Hall just in time to catch the rise of the figurative curtain on a dramatic City Council production.

The plot was about replacing the deceased Herb Katz with a new council member.  The play had a lead cast of six council members and a chorus of about 20 members of the public, not to mention a masked woman with a walk-on role.  ("Three Mysteries Explained," February 27, 2009)

The work had no title, but if I had to choose one I'd call it "She Had a Gleam in Her Eye," the "she" being Council member Pam O'Connor.  Once the action got going Ms. O'Connor only had a few lines, mostly repetitions of the word "Davis," but she nonetheless grabbed the dramatic center.

Ms. O'Connor had to declaim "Davis" eight times, but with a switch from Council Member Ken Genser, Gleam Davis became the new council member. ("Davis Picked to Fill Katz's Seat," February 25, 2009)

After the meeting I talked to a longtime SMRR activist who explained Ms. O'Connor's grit by saying that she clearly has learned something from all her years on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board; as the activist put it, "getting in between Zev (Yaroslavsky) and Antonio (Villaraigoso) can toughen you up some."

It was a thrilling production, but I know what you're thinking: If an evening starts with President Obama and ends with the Santa Monica City Council, shouldn't I be talking about the customary chronological relationship between the sublime and the ridiculous?

I don't see it that way. Only a cynic -- and one with a tin ear for politics -- could have watched Tuesday night's meeting and not have been impressed with the goings on.

Let's begin with the chorus -- the residents who pitched the council one way or another.  I did not, for reasons I've expressed in prior columns, buy the argument that a plurality of them made that the council should choose Ted Winterer because he was the first runner-up in November's election.  But hell, what are politics for but to allow people to make arguments in public that they believe in?

I'll admit there was some low comedy, such as the Winterer supporter who told the council members that they must appoint Mr. Winterer to get someone with integrity on the council.  Strange concept of persuasiveness she had.

But then, after the public hearing, and after Council member Kevin McKeown made obligatory remarks about what a tough job it was to choose a new council member and why, because he represented the people, he was going to nominate Mr. Winterer, the other council members had a rather good discussion about representational democracy.

Council members Richard Bloom, O'Connor, and Bob Holbrook began it by talking about the 27 applications for the position, and what those applications told someone who bothered to read them.  There was nothing maudlin about what the council members said, although at times they expressed a little awe. 

The gist of it was how impressed they were with the articulateness of all these residents stating why they wanted to serve the public.  As I wrote in last week's column, it was like a civics lesson.

Council member Bobby Shriver took the discussion in a different direction.  He made an impassioned but logical argument for calling a special election.  He said it was important for council members to know that power came from the people, and that the way to learn that was to run, and that being elected was a validation that benefited not only the winning candidate but also the city.

It was a populist message -- Mr. Shriver said that the money the City would spend for the election would be the "cheapest hundred thousand" it could spend, given the value we would get for it -- and it was inspiring.  I was ready to jump up and join the call for an election.  I figured at least that Mr. Shriver would announce that he was going to abstain all night.

But he didn't.  The speech was one thing, but when it was over Mr. Shriver said that he was going to vote for Mr. Winterer.  Huh?  How Mr. Shriver could in a moment turn from expounding on the virtues of democracy to declare that he was going to vote for someone who got less than 25 percent of the vote is something I haven't figured out.

If Council member Shriver was channeling William Jennings Bryan, Mayor Ken Genser followed him by channeling Edmund Burke, the British political philosopher conservatives revere.  Burke said that elected officials had a duty to use their judgment, and that they betrayed their constituents if they sacrificed their judgment to the opinions of their constituents.

Instead of trying to divine the will of the public -- as Council members McKeown and Shriver had framed the issue -- Mr. Genser focused his argument on those qualities that he would look for, in the exercise of his judgment, in a new member of the council.

That those qualities Mr. Genser identified as crucial happened to coincide exactly with the resume of applicant Patricia Hoffman, Mr. Genser's longtime political ally, I'm sure was only as coincidental as Mr. Shriver's endorsement of Mr. Winterer, his ally in the recent campaign for Measure T.

But no carping here.  It was quite a discussion.  And all the talk was just prologue to the big action scenes -- the votes themselves.  All eight of them.

I don't have a lot to add to the two articles Jorge Casuso wrote about the meeting, except to emphasize the roles of Ms. O'Connor and Mr. Holbrook.  They were both winners, but in different ways.

Ms. O'Connor won by being steadfast.  Mr. Holbrook won by being pragmatic.  He may have switched his vote back to Mr. Winterer so that the record won't show that he cast the crucial vote to appoint the fifth SMRR member on the council, but it was his vote that was decisive because it triggered Mr. Genser's switch from one SMRR co-chair, Ms. Hoffman, to the other, Ms. Davis.

In so doing Mr. Holbrook ended up with the SMRR candidate with views probably closest to those of his ally Mr. Katz, and one without a long political history going back to the many battles between SMRR and various political formations that included Mr. Holbrook.

As for the other winner, Ms. Davis, she wasn't the flashiest choice -- not one member of the public who spoke pleaded her case -- but she'll do a conscientious job.  She'll have to run for reelection in 2010, and that will give the people another chance at choosing their representative, not to mention the chance that it will give to all the other applicants who will have the chance to unseat her.

Meeting notice: Tomorrow night is the meeting where the City Council votes on various issues relating to the Expo line light rail, as discussed in two recent columns.  For the staff report, click here.


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