Political Brawl Over Homeless : Santa Monica: Coping with transients emerges as a major election issue. Proposition Y seeks to oust City Atty. Robert Myers, who opponents say is too soft on the homeless.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some love him, some hate him, but no one in Santa Monica is likely to accuse City Atty. Robert M. Myers of being a conventional, play-it-safe politician.

For years, Myers has been the official most closely identified with Santa Monica's tolerant attitude toward the homeless. A determined social activist, he regularly volunteers to help at the food handouts that take place each afternoon in front of City Hall.

His refusal to prosecute transients for some nonviolent minor crimes draws praise from supporters who see him as a person of compassion and enlightenment. Critics, however, regard Myers as the person most responsible for making Santa Monica a magnet for troublemakers, freeloaders and aggressive panhandlers.

Now, nine years after he was first appointed to the job by the City Council, Myers is the target of a ballot measure, Proposition Y in the Nov. 6 election, aimed at removing him from office by making the office elective rather than appointed.

Myers offers no apologies. In fact, when he held an anti-Proposition Y fund-raising event last month, the invitations urged those who came to bring along a homeless friend.

Homelessness, and how the city should respond to the problem, has emerged as a major issue in the city elections. In addition to Proposition Y, the issue figures prominently in the City Council campaigns.

Nine candidates are seeking three seats on the council, and all have felt obliged to take a public position on Proposition Y--four are in favor, and five opposed. Several of the candidates have also made the issue of homelessness a central theme of their campaigns.

But in recent weeks, attention has also focused on the tactics of Proposition Y's chief advocate, Leslie Dutton, president of the conservative Assn. of American Women, because of what opponents call misleading and personal attacks on Myers.

Further muddying the water is the fact that some voters who have lost battles with Myers over rent control or development issues are supporting the ballot measure because they say it is the only way to get him out of office. Myers has been city attorney since 1981 and is the author of the city's tough rent-control law and an advocate of more affordable housing in the city.

On the sidelines and generally frustrated with the entire situation are officials from social service agencies that deal with the homeless. With limited success, they are urging City Council candidates to tone down the rhetoric and seriously discuss what they consider a complicated regional and national problem.

Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, which offers shelter and other programs for homeless people, said there has been a tendency over the years in Santa Monica and elsewhere for local candidates to try "to use homelessness to get elected."

"I think it is a reprehensible thing," she said. "Homeless people are the most powerless people. This is not an issue that can be solved by a local election."

Christine Reed, the lone incumbent among the nine council candidates, was quick out of the blocks last month with a flurry of press releases indicating her indignation over a recent incident in which police officers did not remove two homeless men from sleeping overnight on the grounds of Franklin Elementary School.

At the time, Reed said she was "thoroughly fed up with the current council majority's laissez-faire attitude toward the ever-worsening homeless problem."

Reed says she has fought for several years to get a workable homeless policy in the city, but has been thwarted by the council majority. She is pushing for implementation of a program that would put homeless people to work cleaning up the beach.

"In addition, we have to enforce local laws to protect our citizens," said Reed, who supports Proposition Y. "We cannot allow an elitist majority in City Hall, with their handpicked city attorney, to continually turn their backs on their responsibility to protect law-abiding citizens of this community."

Other candidates, in particular attorney Kathleen Schwallie, say Reed has seized on the homeless issue only to divert attention from an issue on which she is vulnerable: her support over the years for many large development projects.

"We're going to assure that her record is made clear during the campaign," Schwallie said.

Proposition Y, which would amend the City Charter to make the city attorney an elected official rather than a council appointee, was placed on the ballot through an initiative drive that collected nearly 11,000 signatures after the stabbing last spring of an 89-year-old woman by a transient.

Dutton blames Myers' tolerant attitude toward homeless people for a rise in crime by transients. She said the free daily feeding program at City Hall encourages more homeless people to come to Santa Monica.

"We have created a Mecca for a disaster," she said. "Santa Monica has become the home of the homeless."

Many residents are supporting the measure out of frustration of having lost their parks and beaches to homeless people who sleep there. Others are annoyed at being asked for money by transients while dining at outdoor cafes or simply walking around the city.

No one knows exactly how many homeless people there are in Santa Monica, but social service officials believe that hundreds of people are living on city streets and beaches. Social workers generally concur that the Santa Monica-Venice area harbors the largest concentration of homeless in Los Angeles County outside of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

Dutton and other supporters of Proposition Y contend that the city's annual $2-million commitment to homeless programs citywide and Myers' reluctance to aggressively prosecute misdemeanor crimes committed by transients add up to a welcome mat for homeless people.

"As long as transients perceive a hands-off policy here, they are going to keep coming here," said Jean Sedillos, co-chairwoman of Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica, a citywide homeowner group supporting the measure.

Dutton, meanwhile, has gone beyond the homeless issue to attack Myers for other things. Citing his several trespassing arrests at protests of nuclear testing and in opposition to U.S. policies in Central America, she has labeled him a "convicted and habitual criminal." Dutton also recently ran an ad in the Los Angeles Journal, a legal paper, soliciting applications for the job of elected city attorney--which, of course, does not exist.

Some of Myers' allies have launched a counterattack.

"If I was a supporter of the measure, I would be embarrassed by the way the campaign has been handled so far," said attorney Chris Harding.

A group of lawyers from Santa Monica opposing the measure also questioned Dutton's tactics.

"We have often disagreed with our city attorney's positions," the group's statement said. "However, as attorneys we respect honest disagreement, provided that the rules of fair play are observed. . . . Supporters of the elected city attorney initiative have trampled on fair play and integrity."

Mayor Dennis Zane, a longtime Myers supporter, has tried to shift the discussion of Proposition Y away from Myers and the homeless problems, saying it is a question of whether the office of the city attorney should be an elected office.

"We cannot be assured of the skills of someone elected to office," he said at a recent debate sponsored by the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce. "We do not simply need another politician. We have enough with seven politicians."

But Dutton countered that Myers already had politicized the job with his numerous arrests in connection with what she called "trendy political causes."

Zane and other opponents of the measure have argued that if people are unhappy with Myers, they should make it a campaign issue in the upcoming election for three seats on the City Council.

In fact, it would take five of seven City Council votes to remove Myers--something that most political observers in the city regard as unlikely to materialize.

Thus, some of Myers' longtime adversaries on other issues are embracing Proposition Y as a means to an end.

"Something has got to give somewhere," said James Baker, a landlord who is active in the fight to weaken the city's tough rent-control system. "I don't know any other practical, pragmatic way to do it."

So far in the campaign, Myers has been uncharacteristically reticent. He initially refused to respond at all to Dutton's charges, but recently has countered by calling her remarks false and misleading.

In a prepared statement, he said the real victim of Dutton's campaign is the community.

"Ms. Dutton has failed to offer any constructive solutions to the national disgrace of men, women and children living on our streets," he said. "Stirring up fear and prejudice is not helpful in addressing the tragic problems associated with homelessness in America."

Meanwhile, other residents and officials from social service agencies are hoping there can be a real discussion of the homeless issue during the campaign.

"Maybe we should ask the different City Council candidates for their position on the issue," said Daniel R. Kingsley, a vice president with the Maguire Thomas Partners development firm and co-chairman of the Chamber of Commerce's homeless task force. "We shouldn't let their lack of interest keep them from addressing the real issue."

At the Ocean Park Community Center, Vivian Rothstein concurs.

"It does not matter who is city attorney in Santa Monica; this is a mental health crisis," she said. "I wish the energy going toward slamming Bob Myers would go to fighting the closure of mental health clinics."

BACKGROUND

Proposition Y, one of 10 ballot measures to be considered by Santa Monica voters Nov. 6, would make the city attorney an elected position rather than one appointed by the City Council. It was placed on the ballot through an initiative drive sponsored by community members concerned about crime and aggressive panhandling by the city's sizable population of homeless people. City Atty. Robert M. Myers has been targeted by the group because of his reluctance to prosecute nonviolent crimes committed by the homeless. Four City Council candidates have endorsed Proposition Y, and five are opposed to it. In favor are Robert T. Holbrook, Larry Jon Hobbs, Donna Alvarez, and incumbent Councilwoman Christine Reed. Opposed are Tony Vasquez, Kelly Olsen, Kathleen Schwallie, Sharon L. Gilpin and Jean Gebman.

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