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Neighborhood Representation Shrinks on Council

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 9 -- Santa Monica voters last Tuesday left most neighborhoods without City Council representation, passing over Pico Neighborhood candidates once again and leaving Ocean Park without a voice on the dais for the first time in a quarter century.

With Bobby Shriver's overwhelming victory, the seven council seats are now filled by five residents from the predominantly white North of Wilshire area and two homeowners from the Sunset Park neighborhood.

The Pico Neighborhood, which is home to half of the city's blacks and Latinos, furthered its dubious record of never having had an elected representative, while Ocean Park failed to have a resident elected to the council for the first time since Rent Control swept Santa Monica in 1979. In addition, the Mid-City area, where renters predominate, also was left with no representation.

And while some say where council members reside is not an issue in a City governed at large, others argue that where you are from directly affects how neighborhood problems are addressed.

"There is definitely a connection between where you live and what you represent," said School Board member Oscar de la Torre, the only elected official from the Pico Neighborhood. "If you're not directly affected by something, such as youth violence in the Pico area, then you're not going to be as passionate about doing something about it."

De la Torre, who is executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, was the campaign manager and architect of an unsuccessful movement to elect Pico residents to the City Council and the College and School boards Tuesday.

"This is the most underserved area of the City, the most poor, with the most crime," De la Torre said, "but we don't have any representation."

Yet others, such as Mayor Richard Bloom, believe City officials are as concerned about what happens in the Pico neighborhood, which has the city's lowest median income, as what happens North of Wilshire, where a large majority of the residents are affluent and white.

"I think (council members) are just as passionate as someone who was elected from that neighborhood," said Bloom, who won reelection Tuesday. "To me, it's very important as a representative that people know I'm paying attention to the issues that affect the entire City."

Tuesday's election results, long-time advocates of redistricting argue, reinforce the need to carve the 8.3-mile City into districts, assuring that every neighborhood would have at least one representative on the council.

"The two areas of concern for citizens are citywide issues and issues more specific to their neighborhood, and the latter does not have a voice," said Paul DeSantis, a Santa Monica attorney who sponsored a failed measure two years ago to vote by neighborhoods.

Though Santa Monica may be small geographically, each neighborhood is unique and faces its own set of problems, said DeSantis, who has been a redistricting advocate for nearly 15 years.

"I have kids, and, therefore, schools in my neighborhood are going to be more of a concern," DeSantis said. "That's just how it works."

At-large elections not only neglect neighborhoods, they give a leg up to candidates with hefty war chests and the backing of political groups, DeSantis said. He contends that more than $1 million was poured into last Tuesday's council election, including contributions from special interest groups.

"In general, whenever you elect governments at large, only the most wealthy citizens will prevail in a race for City Hall because of the high cost of campaigns," DeSantis said. "The only option for candidates who are not wealthy is to seek the endorsements by joining in powerful slates, then they don't become quite as independent.

"District elections would level the playing field a bit," he said.

But opponents of redistricting -- which was defeated by nearly two-thirds of the voters in 2002 -- counter that dividing the city into districts would lead to "parochialism," while not assuring any better representation.

"The less parochial we are towards neighborhood representation, the better," said Bloom, who won his seat in a special election in 1999. "This idea of district elections, which get brought up every few years, has good intentions, but it is a bad idea.

"We would have representatives looking out for the interests of their own neighborhoods," he said. "Council members would be trading votes and say, 'If you back me on this issues for my neighborhood, I'll back you on yours.'"

In addition to such political horse trading, Bloom argues that district elections could potentially lead to neglect for entire areas.

"You would only have one person paying attention to the concerns of that neighborhood," the mayor said. "If they were on the outs with the rest of the council, then they would be ineffective."

Bloom contends that under the current at-large system, neighborhood representation tends to be "cyclical."

"Prior to my election in 1999, there were no representatives who lived in Sunset Park, and now there are two who came in rapid succession," said Bloom, though he acknowledged that the Pico neighborhood appears to be an exception.

The Pico neighborhood has never had an elected council representative, with the area's only councilman, Hillard L. Lawson, an African American, appointed to fill a vacancy from 1973 to 1975.

On the other hand, Ocean Park has been a springboard for renter activists elected to the council since Rent Control swept the City in 1979.

But with incumbent Michael Feinstein's defeat last Tuesday, the tenant bastion was left with no representative for the first time since Ruth Yannatta Goldway was swept to victory by renters 25 years ago. Goldway was the first in a series of mayors from Ocean Park that included James Conn, Judy Abdo and Feinstein.

But since Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights rose to power nearly a quarter century ago, the trend has shifted from a focus on geographic areas to a city divided between landlords and tenants, political observers said.

"Now geographic areas seem less important," said Steve Alpert, a local political observer for three decades. "Previous to SMRR coming on, there were only a few tenants elected, almost everybody was a homeowner.

"The ability to elect tenants has made it such that Ocean Park is no longer the hub," he said. "When Feinstein was elected, it didn't have anything to do with Ocean Park. It wasn't even talked about. It wasn't even mentioned.

"The reality of it is that I don't think people think about area representation anymore," Alpert concluded. "That's the reason why the neighborhood groups are not as important. There are some local issues but 75 to 80 percent (of the issues) are citywide."
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