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Speculation Swirls After McKeown's Surprise Departure

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Editor's note: This article was updated at 8:55 a.m. Thursday to include comments made by Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Gleam Davis during Wednesday's Ocean Park Association (OPA) Zoom meeting.

By Jorge Casuso

May 26, 2021 -- Councilmember Kevin McKeown's shocking announcement that he will retire next month has sent colleagues and political observers searching for a reason they believe has been left unsaid.

The only explanation given at Tuesday night's meeting by McKeown, who is 72, was that "I am well into my seventies" ("McKeown Abruptly Retires," May 26, 2021).

On Wednesday, McKeown took part in a zoom meeting of the Ocean Park Association (OPA) but only said that health was not a factor and that it was the right time to retire.

"You've watched me so you know that I'm a pretty thoughtful guy, not all that impetuous," according to a transcript from his comments on OPA weekly Zoom.. "So I've been thinking about this for some time.

"At the moment there's a lot of change happening in the city. Our city manager's about to leave, we're about to adopt a housing element, a budget.

"These are all actions that should be voted on by people who intend to continue on, so this seemed like the time, the moment, having completed as much as I wanted to, as I could."

An email request from the Lookout to explain his reasons for leaving the Council he has served on for nearly 23 years was not returned, a first for McKeown, who has always responded.

The silence has only fueled the speculation, and the timing has baffled longtime political observers.

McKeown, who was first elected in 1998, has only a year and a half left to complete his sixth term on the Council.

That would tie the record 24 years set by Bob Holbrook and Pam O'Connor, the longest serving Council members in Santa Monica history.

What's more, McKeown announced he would retire on June 11 -- less than two weeks before the Council is scheduled to vote on a proposed $1.3 billion biennial budget.

He also departs shortly before the Council updates the City's Housing Element, a document revised every eight years that dictates affordable housing construction, a top priority for McKeown.

"These are issues he led on," said former Mayor Denny Zane, a co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR). "You know he loved the service.

"Intellectually he was both challenged and enjoyed the challenge," Zane said. "He was really in his element. I'm baffled, like everybody."

Those who served on the dais with McKeown spent the day looking for answers that included an increasing isolation and loss of influence after three slow-growth candidates were swept into office last November.

"I guess he didn't feel anyone supported him, so he didn't owe us anything," said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. "It's a difficult situation."

Councilmember Phil Brock, a challenger who finished first in the November race for three full-term Council seats, agrees, though he said he's still concerned "there's a medical reason."

"The only thing I can think of is he's back to being a minority on the Council," Brock said, "He hasn't had to be in that position for many years.

"Maybe he just decided he didn't want to keep banging his head against the wall," he said. "He may have just decided it's no longer fun."

De la Torre -- who called McKeown's retirement "a real shocker" -- said he understands why "an outlier" like himself might want to leave.

"As an outlier on the School Board for 18 years, it's not a good place to be," de la Torre said. "You are often confronting an entrenched group of people."

De la Torre also believes emotions may have played a part in the abrupt announcement that left the Council literally in the dark after McKeown immediately turned off his computer camera.

"He has very strong emotions, and that may be the reason he did it the way he did," de la Torre said. "If that's why he did it, good for him.

"To take control of your life, there's a lot of dignity in that," he said.

Some believe McKeown may also have been discouraged by the contentious nature of local politics.

During the OPA zoom meeting Wednesday, Councilmember Gleam Davis said it didn't surprise her McKeown would leave given the "toxic" environment that has taken over.

"'You asked why now,'" Davis said. "I think because the environment in this city has become so toxic that a thoughtful, responsible person like Kevin it just broke his heart to see it.

"We're not in a time in which the truth or thoughtfulness matters, it's all about screaming at the top of your lungs and saying it often enough- -- just as it is at the federal level.

"It was better for his mental health not to do it," Davis said. "It's a horrible, horrible loss for the Council regardless of whether you agree with Kevin or not."

Then there are those who believe the real reason for McKeown's departure has yet to be revealed.

"I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop," said Mary Marlow, who heads the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a political watchdog group.

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