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Kate Vernez to Leave Lasting Mark on Santa Monica

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and MarkHarding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors BureauWhen one lives in a city as breathtakingly beautiful and unique as Santa Monica, inevitably that city will be shared with visitors.

By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

June 13, 2014 -- For nearly three decades, Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez has worked to help make Santa Monica a thriving, sustainable community.

Whether it’s cleaning up groundwater contamination or bringing the first light rail line in half a century to the beachside city, Vernez makes consensus and compromise look easy.

In July, Vernez will retire from the City she joined 27 years ago to spend more time with her family. “The big game changer for me was when my eldest daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law moved to London,” Vernez said. “So it’s really to have more time to spend with them.”

She will leave behind a lasting legacy, but she won’t tell you that. Always humble and optimistic, Vernez rarely talks about herself or her achievements. Instead, she flouts the accomplishments of her colleagues in City Hall.

“One of the best things about working for the City of Santa Monica is having the chance to work with excellent City staff,” she said.

Vernez likes to compare Santa Monica to a small county that provides a wide range of services – from public transportation to affordable housing to social services for the poor and homeless.

“There are so many things I love about Santa Monica,” she said. “One is the progressive community that really believes in affordable housing and sharing the benefits of its location.

“The beauty that’s here speaks to the soul and nourishes the soul. And I love the robust dialogue, where there’s always the ability to learn from one another. I think it’s very exciting.”

Born and raised in New York, Vernez is a graduate of Columbia University, where she earned a joint master’s degree in urban planning and community organizing. She began her career with the New York City Housing Agency and the Controller’s office, and quickly rose through the ranks to become Assistant Commissioner for Intergovernmental Relations under Mayor Ed Koch.

In 1987, she moved to Santa Monica and started building the legislative platform for the City, forging important ties with Sacramento and Washington D.C. Her expertise in finding funding helped bankroll major City projects. She also steeped herself in the community, working on the Seascape newsletter and putting together campaigns to keep residents and business owners informed.

Over time, Vernez moved on to what would be her bread and butter: Special Projects. Her biggest challenge, she says, was helping the City fight major oil companies that had contaminated its water wells with Mtbe, a chemical found in gasoline that could pose health risks.

“It was pretty much a David and Goliath situation: Santa Monica vs. the oil companies,” said Vernez, who worked on the legislative angle. “It was challenging, because we were absolutely clear what our responsibility was to the City, which was to make the polluter pay. But we were up against big oil and big money. And we prevailed.

“Although very challenging, it was tremendously rewarding at the end,” she added.

Over the years, Vernez has won the respect and admiration of coworkers, residents and civic leaders. Former Santa Monica Mayor and current Assembly member Richard Bloom has called her “the Swiss Army Knife of Santa Monica.”

In 2011, then-Councilmember Bobby Shriver named an amendment to a council vote the “Vernez rider” in honor of her ability to coordinate large and sometimes conflicting political groups while always looking out for the best interests of the City. The amendment gave City officials the ability to coordinate with Los Angeles on the future of the Santa Monica Airport.

Vernez’s office in City Hall is decorated with souvenirs of major special projects she worked on. There is a piece of conduit from the City’s high-speed internet network, hard hats, a “2nd St.” street sign and commemorative plaques from the groundbreaking for the Expo Light Rail line. On her wall is a large schedule of special projects, charting their beginning to end.

One of Vernez’s biggest accomplishments will be the role she played in helping to bring the rail line to Santa Monica, a project that will help transform Downtown.

“All the other parts of the LA region had rail, except the Westside,” said Vernez, who worked with officials from other Westside communities to facilitate a mobility study that laid the groundwork for the line. “We’re going to be connected to the region and also have our bus system seamlessly integrate with the line.

“The City is putting its money where its mouth is and providing for betterments at each of the stations to increase access,” she said. “It’s exciting. We’re all going to want to get on and ride it.”

Although she will still reside in the area and be a passenger on the train she helped bring, Vernez has a simple parting message for the people of Santa Monica.

“Thank you so much for the opportunity to work for your community; our community,” she said.

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