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A Serious Man  

By Frank Gruber

January 11, 2010 -- The rumors of the seriousness of his illness turned out to be true, and Ken Genser, Santa Monica’s mayor and longest-serving council member, died Saturday.

I mean no disrespect to the other members of the Santa Monica City Council, or to anyone else involved in politics here, but each week when I’ve written this column I’ve found myself trying to imagine what Ken (this is going to be one of those columns where I’ll be on a first name basis with the subject of it) would think about what I’m writing. Would he be persuaded?

Friend and foe recognized Ken’s intelligence and his ability to focus an argument. He was great to have on your side and murder when he wasn’t. But that’s not why I would visualize him reading the column. He wasn’t the only council member who was sharp and savvy.

The reason I focused on Ken Genser was that he was persuadable. Not necessarily by me, or by anyone else, but by facts. Unlike most politicians who “have views,” or who represent particular constituencies, and unlike most people who are intelligent and who consider themselves rational, Ken took the view that rationality meant more than applying your old arguments, however good they were, to new facts.

Maybe it was because he had suffered a lifetime of ailments, but Ken seemed to look at the City of Santa Monica like a good doctor looks at a patient.

Ken Genser (photo by Frank Gruber)
Ken Genser was the ur-politician of the no-growth, neighborhood association-based political movement that arose in Santa Monica in the late 1980s. Certainly the movement owed its success to him more than anyone. Yet without betraying his growth-skeptical principles, when it came to the three most politically-charged land-use issues of the past 20 years, Ken took positions against his no-growth political base.

The three issues were the 1993 Civic Center plan and the proposal for a downtown Target, both of which he supported, and Measure T in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” which he opposed.

He took these positions because he looked at the facts, compared them to his reasons for opposing growth, and found that the facts didn’t satisfy the reasons.

Although Ken and I agreed on those three issues, and as I said, it was great to have him as an ally, we often disagreed. But then I doubt that there was anyone in Santa Monica, even among his inner circle, who agreed with him all the time. And he was tough; especially until a few years ago, when by his own admission he began to mellow, he could be caustic. A formidable foe.


But with respect to any new issue arising in Santa Monica one always had to ask, “What’s Ken’s take on it,” because until you heard him explain how he saw the situation, (a) you didn’t know what position he’d take, and (b) you really didn’t understand the matter in all its complexity.

A good example was the position Ken took over the years on
funding of the schools, and in particular the support he gave last year to the proposal to direct City redevelopment money towards fixing up the Santa Monica High School campus. On the face of it, there was no political reason for him to be a strong supporter of the schools -- his political base was not the parent groups that garner most of their membership from the city’s homeowners -- but he strongly supported the City’s funding agreement with the schools.

One characteristic reason for his support, which he expressed at a City Council meeting when the school-funding proponents were being castigated for their aggressive tactics, was that he respected grassroots political organizing itself. But I’ll never forget what he told me last year was his reason for supporting the Samohi plan.

Ken said he had looked at the campus, and it looked rundown. I don’t recall that he used the word “dump,” but that was the idea. He said that it didn’t look like the high school campus that a place like Santa Monica should have.

Another Ken Genser, fact-based conclusion.

I hope that Ken slipped into unconsciousness knowing how much he’ll be missed.

* * *

Ken Genser will surely be missed when the City Council discusses the proposed agreement with the Broad Foundations for a museum of contemporary art at the Civic Center. The “agreement in principle” is on tomorrow night’s agenda.

The deal as outlined in the staff report is a good start, and presumably puts Santa Monica in a good position vis-à-vis the other cities vying for the museum, but it only touches on many of the most important issues -- such as the adequacy of the proposed endowment, the design process including the integration of the museum into its surroundings, and the overall size of the building and scope of the program.

With respect to size and scope, the deal terms require at least 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, but otherwise are silent. Thirty thousand square feet is not a large museum. It will be important to know what the program will be for the whole project.

Financially the deal looks to be somewhat better for the City than what was originally discussed – there is not requirement that the City buy the foundations’ current building for $6 million, and the City will not be contributing a lot to operation costs.

This deal will keep the process rolling, but staff and the foundations should soon disclose more basic information, such as where exactly the foundations and the City envision the museum will sit on the site.

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