Neighborhood Activists : S.M. Council May Stop Funding 3 Groups

Times Staff Writer

Members of the majority on the Santa Monica City Council have said they may no longer fund three neighborhood organizations that received more than $1.4 million during the last five years.

The groups--the Ocean Park Community Organization, Mid-City Neighbors and the Pico Neighborhood Assn.--had been supported by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, which held a majority on the council from 1981 until last November.

Members of the new majority, controlled by the All Santa Monica Coalition, said that the city should not fund the groups.

"I have a basic philosophical problem with (the groups)," said Mayor Christine E. Reed, a member of the coalition. "This is not a priority. We ought to spend money for the homeless, unemployed youth and the frail elderly. I have never agreed with the basic idea that we have to provide money to empower people."

Councilman Ken Edwards, a Renters' Rights member, said the city has enough money to continue the funding. "There's more money than the city knows what to do with," he said. "It's strictly a political move. Anything they (the council majority) say short of that is dishonest."

Few cities provide direct funding to homeowner associations and Neighborhood Watch groups. Supporters argue that the groups have actually improved the neighborhoods.

During the current fiscal year, the Pico group received $78,218 for community organizing and $58,084 for an employment program, Mid-City was given $86,569 and Ocean Park was alloted $94,847. The funding includes salaries for a director, two organizers and a clerical worker. Their executive directors received $20,000 (Ocean Park), $22,138 (Mid-City) and $27,000 (Pico). Staff members are paid salaries ranging from $16,000 to $18,000 a year.

The grants come from the city's general fund. Each year the organizations submit proposals under the city's Community Development Program. The city staff and the Social Services Commission evaluate the proposals and make a recommendation to the City Council. The council acts on the proposals during June budget sessions.

The Ocean Park Community Organization, which serves a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, has 751 paid members. Mid-City Neighbors, serving 11,000 residents, has 325 paid members. The Pico Neighborhood Assn., serving 14,000 residents, has 1,040 paid members.

Variety of Programs

The organizations have worked with residents on crime-prevention programs, street and park maintenance and lighting, the development of low-cost housing and rent control issues. The groups have also negotiated with developers who want to build in their communities. They have received city funds to renovate buildings and provide jobs to unemployed youth.

The first of Santa Monica's subsidized neighborhood organizations started in Copeland Court, an isolated four-block neighborhood in the Ocean Park area, which was beset with crime.

"The area was made for rip and run," said Santa Monica Councilman James P. Conn. "People were terrified."

For a time, Conn said, police did not patrol the neighborhood. When two rapes and a number of burglaries were committed in Copeland Court in 1978, residents decided to organize. They posted Neighborhood Watch signs in Spanish and English and left their porch lights on at night. Conn claims that the efforts reduced the crime rate.

In 1978, the area received a $225,000 federal grant for a crime-prevention program that led to the formation of the Ocean Park Community Organization.

'Bread and Butter Issues'

Conn, who helped form the group, recently drove around the Ocean Park neighborhood, pointing out parks and street signs that the organization had helped erect, as well as landmark structures that the group had helped preserve.

"We're talking bread and butter issues: stop signs and signals and parks," Conn said.

According to Conn, the city would not have known about some problems were it not for the neighborhood organizations, which, he said, sometimes are more effective than the Police Department in preventing crime.

Santa Monica Police Chief James F. Keane said burglaries have decreased 19% in the past year and 35% since 1980 in Santa Monica.

"I really believe the reason burglaries are down is because of the increase in citizen awareness," Keane said. "I agree that citizens getting together and working together . . . and having Neighborhood Watch meetings has to be given at least equal credit (with an increase in the police force) for the reduction."

Members of the All Santa Monica Coalition have criticized the organizations for being too political and taking actions that smack, as Councilman David G. Epstein put it, of "machine politics."

"Why should we spend $85,000 a year to hire a bunch of organizers to present a particular view in Ocean Park when people can pick up a telephone or use a 20-cent stamp?" Epstein asked.

But Councilman Dennis Zane contends that All Santa Monica Coalition members actually feel threatened by the organizations.

"The beef the new council majority has is that they (the organizations) play the role of council watchdogs," Zane said. " . . . What the neighborhood organizations watch are developers and the financial base of the new majority is developers."

Directors of the three groups contend that city funding has allowed their organizations to involve residents in their neighborhoods at a level unmatched by other cities.

"There is a shell of apathy and alienation in our society that makes it hard to get people to participate in things that affect their lives," said Michael Tarbet, executive director of Mid-City Neighbors. "If we didn't have a staff, it would have been difficult (to overcome)."

Hopes Declined

His hopes for funding faded in January when the council changed the criteria for funding social-service organizations. The council is requiring more information on the the number of low-income residents served.

The changes will make it more difficult for Mid-City Neighbors and the Ocean Park Community Organization to qualify for funds. The Pico Neighborhood Assn., which serves the highest proportion of low-income residents, is thought to be the only group that may qualify for funding.

The council also denied funding to a new group in the more affluent Wilshire-Montana area of Santa Monica. The existing organizations supported the new group, emphasizing that it was unfair to have organizations in some parts of the city and not others. But the council concluded the Wilshire-Montana group was not formed from within the neighborhood, but was imposed on it.

Conn said the groups will not survive without city funding. "The name might be carried on by a handful of activists," he said of the Ocean Park Community Organization. "But in order to keep the staffs and do organizing--that's just impossible."

Search for Funds

The three executive directors said they are beginning to look elsewhere for funding. Larry Fondation, director of Ocean Park, said that he still hopes that one of the All Santa Monica Coalition members will cast a swing vote to fund the organizations.

"People in the neighborhood will lose a valuable resource--people who can spend time talking to city staff to find out what's going on," said Fred Allingham, director of the Pico Neighborhood Assn. "In really affluent neighborhoods that kind of interaction occurs at the Rotary Club or at luncheons. Low- and moderate-income areas might not be able to protect those interests."

The groups' contracts with the city prohibit them from getting involved in campaigns, though they are allowed to do some lobbying. Group leaders contend that they have not been involved in electoral politics. In 1983, however, the Pico and Ocean Park groups were reprimanded for distributing political mailings opposing a Santa Monica initiative.

"Let's face it," Epstein said. "The same people pop up wearing different hats. It sometimes smacks of machine politics."

Conn contends that the groups have been unfairly accused of being part of the rent control movement.

"It depends on what you define as political," Tarbet said. "The fact that residents get together and decide what is good for the neighborhood and pursue those goals rather than having some small elite make the decisions--that could be considered political."

Own Worst Enemy

But one neighborhood activist, who asked not to be named, said that the organizations have been their own worst enemies.

"It's been apparent for the past couple of years that certain elements in the city are not desirous of funding certain groups," he said. "When you see that happen, you have to make an effort not to appear to have political motivations. I don't think we've been able to do that."

The groups have had other problems. Last year former City Manager John H. Alschuler Jr. sought to cut off Mid-City Neighbors' funding.

"Alschuler didn't like the neighborhood groups organizing against his policies," Tarbet said. "He threatened to cut Mid-City Neighbors' funding if we continued to organize against his policies."

In October, a group of landlords, headed by Tom Nitti, a board member of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, attempted to take over the board of directors of the Mid-City Neighbors. Landlords won only three of the 11 seats.

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