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Council Appoints Kristin McCowan to Fill Vacant Seat

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated the Kristin McCowan's appointment marked the first time women comprised a majority of the Council. The Council in 1994 -96 included Judy Abdo, Ruth Ebner, Asha Greenberg and Pam O'Connor.

July 14, 2020 -- With one swift vote, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday made history by appointing Kristin McCowan to fill a vacant Council seat.

The appointment of McCowan -- who will replace her high school friend Greg Morena -- marks the first time a Black woman sits on the Council and the second time women make up a majority on the dais.

Kristin McCowan and family
Kristin McCowan and family (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

It is also the first time a majority of the Council is made up of members who were initially appointed, not elected, to office.

Like Morena, McCowan is the only homegrown member of the Council and represents a new generation that grew up in Santa Monica and is a product of its school system.

Morena -- who resigned last month after learning his position bars him from renegotiating his restaurant lease with the City -- urged the Council to choose McCowan from among 115 applicants.

"She's an incredible leader," he said, after joking that he taught her to drive stick shift in high school. "She will carry us forward better and stronger than ever."

McCowan was considered one of two finalists for the open seat, which Council members indicated they wanted to fill with a Black woman.

Councilmember Gleam Davis nominated McCowan and Mayor Kevin McKeown nominated Dr. Karen S. Gunn, a retired psychology professor at Santa Monica College (SMC) and small business owner, who like McCowan is active in the City's Black community.

The nomination lacked the drama of previous appointments, with McCowan immediately winning the backing of Council members Terry O'Day, Ted Winterer and Sue Himmelrich.

Councilmember Ana Jara joined McKeown in backing Gunn before he subsequently changed his vote.

McCowan became the first Black Council member since the 1970s, when former Mayor Nathaniel Trives was elected in 1971 and served two terms and Hilliard Lawson was appointed in 1973.

Before the vote, several speakers urged the Council to withold making an appointment and let the voters decide in November.

"We need more democracy in the city of Santa Monica, not less democracy," said Dalton Smith, a member of Santa Monicans for Demoocracy.

"Let the residents of Santa Monica fill the vacant seat and not the City Council."

Opponents of making an appointment less than four months before the November 3 election noted that it gives the appointed incumbent a leg up.

McCowan joins Davis, O'Day and Jara on the first council majority composed of members who were originally appointed.

McCowan brings government experience at both the local and national levels, having worked in the Obama administration and currently under Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

She is also a member of the Santa Monica Pier Corporation Board, a post she will have to vacate after her appointment.

On her application McCowan notes that her stint with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) prepares her for unforeseen emergencies.

"The experience I gained during hurricane season has especially prepared me for what a Santa Monica City Councilmember might experience during the next big earthquake or a tsunami -- but especially another pandemic," she wrote.

McCowan made a few brief comments after being sworn in during the virtual meeting, saying she was "grateful," "honored" and "humbled" by the appointment.

She said she was eager to get to work. "Thank you," she said. "I'm excited to do the work and read the pages."

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