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Bay City Redux

By Frank Gruber

June 27, 2011 -- Now we know that Santa Monica is still the kind of town where you can pay your rent with cash and not arouse suspicion. Live and let live, that’s the way it’s always been here (except when it comes to land use politics, smoking, noise, liquor licenses, and a few other things we won’t go into here). People mind their own business, especially when it comes to neighbors down the hall.

The revelation that mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, wanted in connection with 19 murders, lived on the lam in an apartment on Third Street for 16 years brings Raymond Chandler’s “Bay City” to mind, not that there’s any indication that he had help from cops in Santa Monica the way he had help from G-men back in Boston.

Especially evocative of Chandler is the detail that Bulger and his main squeeze lived in the “Princess Eugenia Apartments.” You can’t make this up, and Chandler didn’t.

People around the world are wondering why we Santa Monicans didn’t find Bulger here, hiding in plain sight, but honestly -- and I believe I speak for many locals when I say this -- I didn’t know that anyone in Boston had lost him. I mean I know now that he was high on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, but give me a break -- it's not like he was Osama bin Laden. I’m I supposed to go around getting suspicious of every grumpy old guy tagging along behind his wife at the Farmer’s Market?

But then we now know that there is at least one person in Santa Monica who watches daytime television and takes public service announcements from the FBI seriously, and actually relates what he or she hears on TV to his or her daily reality. I can’t wait to learn about who gets the $100,000 reward for putting two and two together and figuring out that a woman who gets her teeth cleaned once-a-month is up to no good.

Ah, yes, the moll. Whitey Bulger gets caught because of the dame, his g.f. Catherine Greig, leaves a trail of indiscretions. Again, you can’t make this up.

The whole thing is like watching James Cagney manage not to get killed at the end of “White Heat,” then escaping the movie because he gets tipped off by a friend in the FBI, and spending the next 15 years living with his ditzy girlfriend in an apartment named for forgotten royalty where he gains a reputation as a grouch.

But what puzzles Santa Monicans the most is why Bulger’s landlord didn’t get suspicious, what with the cash and all. If Bulger and Greig have lived in the Princess Eugenia for 16 years, that means their rent-controlled rent pre-dates vacancy decontrol under Costa-Hawkins. If they have now “voluntarily vacated,” that means the rent can rise to market-rate for the next tenant.

Question for the Rent Board: can Ms. Greig keep the apartment while she does her time? She’ll probably get only a few years for aiding a fugitive, if even that -- maybe Whitey will tell her to turn state’s evidence and make the best deal she can. When she gets out, will we welcome her back to Santa Monica?

* * *

A few weeks ago I wrote that City Manager Rod Gould and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie needed to explain why all of a sudden a planning commissioner, Gwynne Pugh, needed to step down from the commission because he wanted to apply to be considered for consulting work for the City, when for years -- from time to time -- the City had contracted with members of boards and commissions. ("WHAT I SAY: What Price History," May 23, 2011)

Well, unfortunately, Ms. Moutrie came through and provided an explanation in a thorough legal memorandum, which she presented last week to the City Council. ("Conflict of Interest Law Restricts City Boards and Commissions," June 23, 2011) I say unfortunately because the legal reasoning in the memo is rather clear; there is a state law, Govt. Code Section 1090, that as applied by recent cases makes it impossible in nearly any relevant circumstance for a commission member to contract with the City.

Basically, the cases interpret language in the statute, that city officials may not participate in a contract “made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members” to include contracts that although not directly “made by” the commission the official is a member of involved services that the commission subsequently reviews.

Thus, for example, although it would be the City, not the Planning Commission, that would make a contract with Mr. Pugh, the cases hold that since the commission could later take actions that would affect Mr. Pugh’s services, Section 1090 applies, and under 1090, as opposed to other laws relating to conflicts of interest, simply having the relevant commissioner be recused does not solve the problem.

To my mind, this interpretation of 1090 goes too far, and there are other means to police situations like these. But the cases are what they are, and since the penalties are severe for violating 1090, including the possibility of felony prosecutions, it’s best to be cautious. The good news -- good for those who believe Santa Monica benefits from having working professionals on boards and commissions -- is that 1090 appears not to extend to contracts by commissioners with entities that contract with the City, such as, to give an example, Community Corporation.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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