‘Outreach’ Is Heated Budget Issue : Councilmen Protest Santa Monica Cuts
Santa Monica City Councilmen James Conn and Dennis Zane were harshly reminded that tenant activists no longer control City Hall this week when they unsuccessfully tried to salvage the city’s primary community outreach programs.
Conn and Zane’s protest of plans to restructure a city newsletter and eliminate a public information officer and community liaison from the city manager’s office was summarily rejected by the new council majority.
The programs were started under councils controlled by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights--the tenant activist group that founded the city’s rent control movement--as a way to communicate with residents. Conn and Zane charged that members of the rival All Santa Monica Coalition were denying public access to City Hall by changing the newsletter, eliminating the positions and cutting off public funding to two neighborhood organizations earlier this year.
“We have effectively curtailed the vehicle through which people can participate at the grass-roots level,” said an angry Conn. “I don’t know how people are supposed to get a handle on what’s going on around here.”
The debate over community outreach was the most heated portion of the lengthy meeting during which the city adopted a $119.8-million budget for 1985-86. At Tuesday’s session, the council added about $20,000 in expenditures to the budget proposed by City Manager John Jalili. The budget is about 1% higher than last year’s and anticipates an $8-million surplus.
Under the budget plan, staff will be added to the Personnel, Police, Recreation and Parks, Municipal Bus and General Services departments. Jalili recommended the elimination of the community liaison and public information officers as part of a four-person cutback of his own staff.
Lynne C. Barrette, the assistant city manager, said the moves would not substantially alter the city’s approach to communicating with residents. The community liaison officer will become an assistant in the Recreation and Parks Department, which will also take over responsibility for publishing the city newsletter, called Seascape. The public information officer position will be eliminated entirely, Barrette said, saving the city about $45,000 a year.
In voting to support Jalili’s changes, Councilman David Epstein praised the city manager’s willingness to streamline his staff. Epstein said he doubted that the changes would seriously damage community access to local government. “We have a small city and an enormous level of participation,” Epstein said. “I don’t detect in the budget any lessened commitment to citizen participation.”
Other members of the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition, which holds a 4-3 council majority, agreed with Epstein’s assessment. Councilman Herb Katz Jr. said he saw no evidence of a problem. Councilman William Jennings called the cutback an experiment, saying the programs could easily be reinstated if community participation decreased. Mayor Christine E. Reed said Jalili was the best judge of how his own office should be organized.
‘We’ll Take Note’
“The city manager understands and recognizes the fact that we want problems resolved and people responded to,” Reed said. “If people start screaming that no one is paying attention to them, we’ll take note of that.”
Conn and Zane, however, questioned why the city would risk alienating the public with a reorganization plan that saved relatively little money. The two councilmen (Councilman Ken Edwards, the third minority member, was absent because of illness) said the positions belonged in the city manager’s office, which is the city’s decision-making center, and charged that the reorganization was motivated by the desire to eliminate programs started by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.
“We believe that the commitment to public education no longer occupies a central space on the agenda,” Zane said. “And for us it did. We think that this is a loss that’s creating barriers to resolving disputes.”
The public-access debate started earlier this year, when the council majority voted to cut off public funding to the Ocean Park Community Organization and the Mid-City Neighbors, two groups that had received hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past five years. At the same time, the council continued funding for the Pico Neighborhood Assn. on the grounds that it served a larger percentage of low-income residents.
Conn charged that the Ocean Park and Mid-City groups were cut off because they “made too much noise” over controversial city issues. “The bottom line here is that the neighborhood organizations dared to make life difficult for the business and development communities,” Conn said. “They were defunded selectively.”
Conn and Zane claimed that the same thinking led to the decision to reorganize the city’s community outreach program. With the next city election still more than a year away, Conn and Zane made it clear that Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights intended to see the programs returned by regaining control of the council.
“We’re not a fly-by-night operation,” Zane said. “We’ve got aggressive ideas about how to make this city better.”