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Coalition Broadens Scope, Effort to Team up with City Raises Questions

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 29 -- Originally brought together to oppose large-scale growth at Downtown’s indoor mall, members of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) may be looking to do a bit of aggressive growing themselves.

In addition to the vocal non-profit hosting a candidate forum next month, SMCLC -- which sent out 14,000 mailers seeking support in February and has recently injected its voice into local elections -- may be taking its most proactive stab at public policy to date. And they’re starting with traffic.

On the verge of SMCLC’s second year, the group famous for helping defeat mall-giant Macerich’s proposed plan to build three 21-story condo towers at the struggling Santa Monica Place now aims to partner with the City to apply for a joint grant to replace the City’s traffic count system.

“At present, the City is unable to accurately measure current traffic levels and the increased traffic generated by each new development project,” said Diana Gordon, the coalition’s spokesperson. “Without accurate information, elected officials, planning commissioners, residents and voters cannot make informed decisions.”

SMCLC sent a proposal to the City to apply together for the Community Transportation Grant, which gives as much as $3 million to cities across California. According to Gordon, the group has not yet received a response from the City Manager’s office.

Well-organized and boasting several long-time residents as members, SMCLC has for months argued that traffic studies are inaccurate, suggesting the City immensely underestimates the number of cars on Santa Monica’s streets.

“They only count traffic at certain intersections and at certain times of the day," said Gordon.

The request to partner with Santa Monica to seek funds also comes as the public and City Hall are shaping key land-use laws that will help dictate growth long into the future.

And the group’s proposed partnership with the City raises some ethical concerns, experts said.

Partnering with a non-profit not explicitly engaged in political work -- known as a 501(c) 3 -- or with a “community group” may, in fact, help the City secure such the grant for the new study, because partnering is suggested, according to the transportation grant guidelines.

Yet SMCLC -- which bills itself as a “community group” -- is organized as a 501(c) 4 non-profit, allowing it broad political speech for and against candidates and issues, without divulging the identity of its members.

While not technically a political action committee, SMCLC has used that power to lobby on local issues, including some that many argue may affect the upcoming elections and lay at the heart of how the City grows.

“One of the problems I see, is not so much a legal problem, but from a citizens’ standpoint, people should know who’s behind the group,” said Steven Levin, a Political Reform Project Manager with the Center for Governmental Studies. “It goes to transparency.”

While the group clearly lists on its website the names of those who sits on its steering committee and serve as advisors, Gordon declined to say how many people are members or how the group is funded.

“Yes you can see who is steering the group, but who are the main contributors to the group?” Levin asked.

While Gordon said the group is becoming “more proactive” in city issues, she insists SMCLC is not mixing politics and community education by asking for new traffic study system.

“I don’t think it’s political in nature to say we need a change in methodology,” she said. “We need a better model is all, and there’s no particular model we are asking for, just a better one.”

In addition, Gordon said the group would not seek funding, but only partner with the City to help solicit public input.

“The role of (SMCLC) would be as a community group, not to control the money or receive the money,” Gordon said.

In recent weeks, SMCLC has been stepping up public attacks on City Council member Pam O'Connor’s role in the mall redevelopment. O’Connor is widely viewed as more moderate on development than those in favor of slow-growth on the council.

The timing of the attack came shortly before the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) convention, where O’Connor picked up the endorsement of the powerful tenants group, which has controlled City government for most of the past two decades. (see story)

The incumbent council member seeking her fourth term in November acknowledges she did accept contributions from individuals tied to Macerich totaling $3,100 to retire her campaign debt, but notes that, like her collegeagues, she voted against the ambitious proposal. (see story)

While the group has not endorsed any candidates in the general election this fall to date, Gordon said they plan to host their own candidate forum September 28 at the new library.

“The political forum will be very interesting, and we might after the forum put out some information to the public…on what we think happened and what was important,” Gordon said.

“Residents can expect a lively and thought-provoking discussion moderated by Judi Bloom, formerly of ABC News,” according to the announcement. “An innovative format and hard-hitting questions will explore the candidates’ ideas and plans at this critical time in the city’s history.”

As to SMCLC’s future role, Gordon said it is wide open.

“I don’t know what we will turn into, but I do know we are growing,” she said.

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