By Jorge Casuso
October 11, 2023 -- A skeptical City Council majority early Wednesday morning rejected a plan to have a randomly selected panel of 40 people recommend the future of Santa Monica Airport's 227-acre site.
The four Councilmembers worried the proposed lottery process -- billed by staff as an inclusionary experiment to bring the city "into a room" -- would narrow, not expand, public input and reduce the voices of those most affected.
And they questioned the objectivity of staff members who seemed eager to sell the plan, as well as the experience of Healthy Democracy, the group chosen to lead a process estimated to cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million.
"If the process is done properly we don't need a lottery," said Councilmember Phil Brock, who urged the Council to use a more traditional outreach effort. "We are diminishing the voices of people in this city."
"I remain skeptical of this project, I remain skeptical of the firm," said Brock, a member of the Council's Change faction. "I think there is significant resident opposition to this that's going to make for a very bumpy start."
Councilmember Christine Parra agreed. "A panel of 40 in a city of 90,000 doesn't seem very inclusive to me," she said. "The voices of those people living directly adjacent (to the airport site) have to be strong and mighty."
Councilmember Oscar d e la Torre wanted assurances that those who are most involved in civic affairs remain engaged in the process that will result in a plan presented to the Council.
"How do you deal with the activist voices?" he asked staff. "How do we ensure this process doesn't marginalize those voices?"
The three Councilmembers backed by Santa Monica's liberal establishment countered that traditional outreach efforts have failed to be inclusive.
And they noted that it was the Council that had asked staff to propose a system that would result in input from voices that have not been traditionally heard.
"Our current method of outreach is broken," said Councilmember Jesse Zwick. "I think it would really be upsetting to go back on that innovative mission."
Zwick noted that the most vocal opposition to Healthy Democracy's proposal came from neighborhood groups "that have traditionally wielded outsized power.
"There are certain groups that constitute a tiny percentage of people who are used to being the primary voices in this town," Zwick said.
Mayor Gleam Davis agreed. "The most important voices are the ones you never hear," she said. "This (process) is designed exactly to address this issue."
According to staff, lottery-selected panelists "are everyday people" who "do not have prior experience with the policy topic" and "have a unique capacity for identifying common ground solutions in the public’s best interest" ("Randomly Chosen Panel Should Guide Airport's Future, Officials Say," September 25, 2023).
The proposed process -- which has been tried in a handful of U.S. cities -- was met with stiff opposition from the two neighborhood groups most directly impacted by the airport, as well as the largest airport activist group ("Randomly Chosen Airport Panel Gets Major Pushback," October 9, 2023).
Shortly after 3:30 a.m. Brock made a motion to have Sasaki -- the firm handling the design and technical aspects of the project -- oversee the public process.
The motion was approved 4 to 3, with de la Torre, Negrete and Parra voting in favor and Davis, Zwick and Councilmember Caroline Torosis voting against the motion.