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Divided SMRR Stays Neutral on RIFT

By Jorge Casuso

August 3 –A deeply divided Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) membership overwhelmingly voted Sunday not to take a position on a hotly contested anti-development initiative on the November ballot, but, in a close vote, left the door open for the group’s steering committee to take a stance.

SMRR officials, however, said it is unlikely the 13-member committee would take a position on the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), which would cap most commercial development at 75,000 square feet a year over the next 15 years. ("Anti-Development Initiative Headed for Ballot," May 20, 2008)

“The SMRR steering committee has never done that,” said former Mayor Dennis Zane, who is a member of the committee and a founder of the powerful tenants’ group.

“It is legally possible, but politically impossible,” said Zane, who told The Lookout he neither supports nor opposes the measure.

SMRR membership votes on RIFT (Photo by Frank Gruber)

The 66 to 63 vote to allow the committee to retain its authority to make an endorsement capped a heated debate over the measure that pitted longstanding allies within the tenants group.

Proponents of the measure said RIFT would pace development without threatening tenants.

“I would never take a stance on an issue that would hurt housing,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “Renters are not threatened. Housing will not be constrained.”

But opponents of the measure disagreed. They argued that if developers are kept from building mixed-use projects in commercial areas, they would build housing projects in residential zones, displacing rent-control tenants.

“I believe this puts more pressure on tenants to get out of their apartments,” said Council member Ken Genser.

The two sides also argured the impacts the measure would have on the city.

“It is essential that we don’t turn into a NIMBY community,” said Alan Toy, a former member of the Rent Control Board. “Growth is inevitable. We need smart growth. This is lop-off growth.”

Planning Commissioner Jay Johnson disagreed. “I think it’s the right way to go,” Johnson said.

“If I’m wrong, we can correct that change,” he said. “They’re saying put no limits. If they’re wrong, they can’t correct it.”

The two sides also argued over the fiscal impacts of RIFT, with opponents charging that the measure would take a bite out of future revenues that could be used to help bankroll the School District and other social services.

Proponents said the fear was exaggerated, since the council could always prioritize the expenditures in the City’s general fund.

The debate became emotionally charged when McKeown accused RIFT opponents of making it difficult to track their finances by registering the new group “Save Our City” with the County Clerk, which does not make financial disclosure statements readily available by fax or on the internet, as does the City. ("RIFT Foes Launch Campaign," July 29,2008)

“There’s less transparency. . . (you) have to go down to Norwalk,” McKeown said, adding that the group’s treasurer has held that post for campaigns traditionally opposed by SMRR, including the living wage and council races.

“What do you think they’re hiding?” McKeown said. “We can’t let this deception go unchallenged.

“The people making the money are the developers,” he said. “The people losing their quality of life are us.”

Dolores Press, a former council member, was more blunt. “My plea,” she said, “is that we not climb into the politically soiled bed” with the developers.

Former Mayor Judy Abdo, co-chair of Save Our City, took offense at the charges. “I’m very concerned about what I’ve heard today,” she said.

Abdo, who is a member of the steering committee, then made a motion from the floor that “we not vote on RIFT today.”

Support for the motion was nearly unanimous.

Former council member David Finkel, then made a motion to “instruct the steering committee not to take a position.”

“People have expressed concerns that the Steering Committee could act,” said Finkel, who is a member of the College Board. The motion would “put this issue to bed.”

Abdo opposed the motion.

“Many things can happen between now and November,” Abdo said. “I think it’s a mistake to tie the hands of the steering committee.”

A vote from the floor was too close to call, although it was clear that RIFT opponents opposed Finkel’s motion, while proponents supported it.

A ballot vote was taken, resulting in the close 66 to 63 vote.


“It is legally possible, but politically impossible." Dennis Zane


“What do you think they’re hiding? We can’t let this deception go unchallenged." Kevin McKeown


“Many things can happen between now and November. I think it’s a mistake to tie the hands of the steering committee.” Judy Abdo


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