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The Year in Review

By Lookout Staff

It was a year when some of the biggest news was what didn't happen. The Living Wage law, in a referendum watched nationwide, didn't pass. The sluggish economy didn't pick up. The School District budget shortfall grew even bigger after a parcel tax didn't pass. And after a contentious election that saw the nastiest campaign waged before the candidates were even qualified, the City Council didn't change.

Here, in no particular order, are The Lookout's picks for the top stories of 2002.

1. Wage a Losing Battle: Proponents of Santa Monica's unprecedented living wage law were so confident the city's liberal electorate would punch yes on the November ballot, they started celebrating before the polls closed. So it came as a shock when the final votes were counted and the nation's first municipal living wage law covering businesses with no direct financial ties to local government lost by nearly 1,000 votes. The defeat is expected to lift a cloud of economic uncertainty that has shadowed existing and prospective businesses since the living wage battle began more than three years ago -- at least for the time being. Proponents of the measure -- which would have covered businesses in the Coastal Zone that gross more than $5 million a year -- have vowed to fight on.

2. Landmark Wars: In early spring, hundreds of mostly elderly, well-off homeowners launched a grassroots campaign under the banner of property rights. Their goal: to strip the Landmarks Commission of its power to designate their houses as landmarks or include them in historic districts. The group, which raised more than $100,000, gathered nearly 10,000 signatures, enough to qualify a measure for a special election early next year. The City Council - which avidly opposed the initiative - grudgingly placed it on the ballot, calling for a month-long mail-in election, the first in Santa Monica's history. Opponents of the "Homeowners Freedom of Choice Initiative" hope the lengthy timeline - and a well-organized campaign by Santa Monicas for Renters' Rights top political strategist - will defeat the measure. Homeowners, who have already started raising funds for what will likely be a hefty campaign war chest, are confident of victory when the votes are counted March 21.

3. Homeless Crackdown: It will be harder to grab a free meal and find a doorway to sleep in Downtown after the council approved two measures that amount to Santa Monica's first crackdown on the homeless in a decade. In a 5 to 2 vote, the City Council approved an ordinance making it illegal to provide meals without County and City permits in a public park or space. It also unanimously approved an ordinance that tightens antiquated trespassing laws to prohibit sleeping between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. in storefront doorways Downtown. Violators face a maximum of six months in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both. Spurred by Bayside merchants and officials, who complained that transients hanging out on the Promenade are driving business away, the measure is being looked at as a model by municipalities across the state, including Los Angeles.

4. City Council Status Quo: It was an election where the fiercest battle was waged before the campaign began. Abby Arnold's successful bid for the crucial Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights endorsement split the powerful tenants rights group apart, with three of the council members signing on to a last-minute hit piece during the organization's fall convention. Some longtime SMRR leaders who backed Arnold charged that Mayor Michael Feinstein's open support of Green Party member Josefina Aranda after she failed to win the group's nod showed his true colors. In the end, none of the six challengers were able to unseat the three incumbents - Pam O'Connor, Kevin McKeown and Bob Holbrook. Holbrook was likely the biggest winner, holding on to his seat without any key endorsements and the active opposition of the Police Union. As with O'Connor and McKeown, being a familiar face during uncertain times likely helped win Holbrook a fourth term.

5. Three Murder Suicides: When Maria Leticia Vazquez, 21, was stabbed on the City Hall lawn by her estranged husband, it marked the sixth homicide of the year. The September 28 stabbing in front of a large crowd also marked the fourth fatal act of domestic violence in 2002. After killing his wife - who was headed for the police department lobby with her son and her domestic violence advocate for a child custody visitation exchange -- Juan Carlos Vasquez, 27, stabbed himself to death. The incident repeated a similar murder suicide two weeks earlier, only that time the weapon was a gun. Julie Ann D'Anjolell, 51, was shot in the head by her husband during a domestic dispute in their north side apartment. Stephen D'Anjolell, 52, then shot himself in the head. A third murder suicide had occurred earlier in the year when William Wheeler, Jr., 41, murdered his estranged wife in a Sunset Park apartment. Like Vasquez and D'Anjolell, Wheeler took his life, shooting himself after a failed attempt to flee police in Kimball, Nebraska, a tiny railroad town of 2,500. The first homicide of the year was also a case of domestic violence with Albert Victor White bludgeoning his 77-year-old father Pranas "Frank" Brazinskas to death during an argument in their Wilshire/Montana apartment.

6. Downturn Continues: After ending the millenium with a bang, Santa Monica's economy continued to struggle in the wake of the dot.com bust and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Sales were down for a second year and California's staggering $34.5 million budget shortfall will only make things worse. The City faces an $8.5 million budget shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, in large part due to the decline of Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) investment portfolios managed by the state. Lagging tax revenues also have hurt. City officials, who are bracing for cuts in State funds, still expect to get through the immediate crunch without cutting services. But with the State budget in crisis and the economy sluggish, they warn that the local deficit could double for the 2004-05 fiscal year, making service cuts a distinct possibility.

7. School Crisis: 2002 ended with School Superintendent John Deasy proposing to shut down the entire school system for 10 days to bridge an ever widening budget gap. The drastic measure - which requires State approval - would help bridge a $3.4 million shortfall in the current school year that already was being addressed with a laundry list of cost cuts and price hikes, including raising the price of lunch items a quarter and hiking the cost of transportation. But with the failure of a flat $300 parcel tax on the November ballot -- which would have generated $9.6 million a year -- the long list of measures is likely to grow. With Gov. Gray Davis slashing State education funds, the district will face an estimated $11 million funding gap in the next school year. The School Board quickly reconvened the Parcel Tax Committee, which is formulating a $144 tax on residential parcels and $675 on commercial and industrial parcels that would generate between $7 and $8 million annually for six years. To drive home the seriousness of the crisis, the committee was renamed Save Our Schools.

8. Raising the Threshold: Five years ago, the City Council lowered the design review threshold Downtown to encourage new housing. Now, it appears the policy may have been too successful. After spurring the construction of nearly 1,000 units, many of them affordable, the council raised back to 30,000 square feet the threshold that triggers Planning Commission review. Approved in November, the measure -- which extends a 45-day interim ordinance for 18 months -- exempts affordable housing projects with 50 units or less in specified districts citywide. The move came after neighbors complained the construction boom was making life Downtown unbearable, while City officials worried the lower threshold encouraged developers to slice block-long projects to skirt public review. Developers predict the higher threshold will dampen all building Downtown.

9. Boathouse Sinks: An era ended unexpectedly early one April morning, when the Sheriffs arrived at the nearly deserted Santa Monica Pier and changed the locks at the 50-year old Boathouse. The eviction notice posted on the door ended an eight-month legal battle by Boathouse owner Naia Sheffield to hang on to the restaurant her grandfather started. The new tenant, Bubba Gump, will tear down the old wooden structure that had been weathered by half a century of salt air. Plans submitted to the City in May by the Paramount-owned restaurant chain, which beat out seven other bidders for the Boathouse site, calls for a 9,000-square-foot structure, compared to the current 6,000-square-foot building. Supporters of the Boathouse decried its unceremonious end as the latest example of chains taking over mom and pop establishments that had been staples of Santa Monica for generations.

10. Main Street Roundabout: After three years, numerous public hearings, a lawsuit and plenty of design advice -- much of it contradictory -- a one-and-a-half block development on Main Street received the final go-ahead in September. The circuitous route taken by the mixed-use project on the old Boulangerie site was an extreme example of a growing trend. Fittingly, the project ended where it began - at the Planning Commission, which has increasingly become the City's ultimate arbiter when it comes to architectural design, turning down or sending back for redesign an increasing number of projects approved by the City's Architectural Review Board. The Commission initially rejected the development -- which will have 133 housing units above ground-floor retail -- before the City Council tied its hands by approving all but the design elements, which the ARB rejected.

11. End of the Road: After more than a year of torn-up streets, shutdown traffic lanes and the dust and din of construction, the new Downtown Transit Mall finally rolled to completion. City officials and Downtown merchants -- who celebrated with a spirited street party -- hope the $13 million project will help spread the Promenade's success, as pedestrians stroll down the widened, tree-line sidewalks to neighboring streets. But not all the pieces are yet in place. The fast track to outdoor dining paved by the City Council nearly a year-and-a-half ago hit a major roadblock before officials finally gave the green light to the new standards.

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