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Vote Threatens Ruling Coalition

Think globally, lose locally. By fall, that may be the mantra of a governing coalition that has made Santa Monica a world-renowned symbol of municipal activism.

Even as the beach community continues its attack on ATM fees, orders ocean-front businesses to pay a $10.50 minimum wage and deliberates a first-in-the-nation ordinance requiring handicapped access in private homes, its political leaders are preparing for bloody battle over a much homelier notion. To wit, that city council members should represent--and be elected by--specific neighborhoods.

The Voter Election Reform Initiative for a True Accountability System (Veritas) narrowly qualified for the Nov. 5 ballot after backers, including big, beach-front hotel interests miffed by the living-wage law, put money behind a civic reform proposal that’s been kicking around Santa Monica for decades. The proposal would replace the city’s seven at-large council members with district representatives, as in much larger Los Angeles, thus diminishing the power of ideologically driven slates. It would also mandate direct election of the mayor (currently the mayor is chosen by the council from among its members), institute mayoral veto of council actions and impose term limits on city officials.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be the stuff of high drama: The city council quietly rebuffed the same proposition in 1992 without difficulty. This time around, however, Santa Monica’s hitherto comfortably entrenched activist leadership smells a major test. Calling the initiative part of a “scorched earth policy” by the operators of luxury hotels like Casa del Mar and Shutters, Mayor Michael Feinstein, a Green Party leader who ran with the endorsement of the powerful Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), believes it could pass. “It all depends on how deceptive their mailings are,” says Feinstein.

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Or maybe the voters will simply choose Veritas on the merits. The truth is, Santa Monica desperately needs to freshen up its politics after two decades of almost unbroken one-party rule by the dominant SMRR faction. With rent control effectively taken out of the city’s hands--state law now lets any vacant unit go to market rates--the renters party tried to keep itself vital by tackling ever bigger issues. But the net effect has been to polarize thinking along left-right lines, while turning this relatively small community into a battleground for big unions and big companies that happen to have a presence here. Election spending is way up. Satisfaction with bothersome matters like traffic flow is down. A good dose of neighborhood-minded civic reform, under which slate loyalty will suddenly mean less than constituent service, is surely in order.

Things will depend, of course on how a majority of Santa Monicans are feeling about their weirdly bipolar city, where politicians struggle to fix the world’s problems, while knotty little backyard issues have a way of going unresolved for years. At least some indicators point toward growing discontent. Last year, Santa Monica’s annual survey of resident satisfaction, normally quite rosy, showed that only 10% of its adult residents felt the city did an “excellent” job of addressing neighborhood concerns, down by a third from just two years before. Fully 49% of those who live in single-family homes and 44% of long-time residents expressed dissatisfaction with the neighborhood situation. Meanwhile, the number of those who were “very satisfied” with city services dropped several points, to 35%, while negatives crept up.

If Santa Monicans are really fretting about the home front, it’s not hard to see why. In the proposed Wilshire corridor district, a community pool at Lincoln Middle School has been cracked and empty since 1994, while officials have dithered over funding for earthquake repairs. (I was thinking about how quickly a neighborhood councilman would have jumped on this one when I put my own name on the Veritas petition.) Over in the Mid-City area, it’s not uncommon to see derelicts downing a half-gallon of vodka within two blocks of a school at midday, or tossing the remains of a 12-pack over an apartment wall. To dial 911 seems excessive, but a few constituent calls to a district councilman might get some action. In the City Center district, businessmen are howling that the city broke a promise by launching simultaneous street repairs on all sides of their traffic-snarled establishments. Surely, it couldn’t have happened if a district councilman had his eye on the public works department. North of Montana Avenue, a corporate lawyer type tells me that more than a year ago he sent a nice letter to Councilman and Mayor Feinstein, pointing out the hazard posed by untrimmed trees that sent branches through the windshield of his parked car. He’s still waiting for a reply.

When asked what the city could do better, in fact, the 2001 satisfaction survey found plenty of complaints about traffic problems and homelessness; but nobody mentioned ATMs or wheelchair access to their neighbors’ homes. Those who listed lack of affordable housing as a key problem actually fell to just 10%, from 23% the year before. But city leaders are proceeding with a grand plan to put hundreds of rental units, at least a third of them to be subsidized for low-income tenants, on a downtown ocean-front plot purchased from Rand for $53 million.

The most intriguing battleground in the reform fight could turn out to be the heavily Latino neighborhood south of the 10 Freeway near Pico Boulevard. Community activists there have strongly supported the living-wage push. Yet the neighborhood, according to Veritas proponents, has never had an elected representative on Santa Monica’s currently all-white city council, a situation that would change instantly under district representation.

On this last point, a bit of history is in order. Santa Monica’s original 1906 charter actually mandated district representatives and direct election of the mayor. After some intervening changes, however, a 1946 charter reform established the current at-large system, in a process that was tainted with unsavory racial overtones. A city-commissioned study in 1992 concluded that the electoral setup was based, at least in part, on intent to exclude from political power a burgeoning black population in the World War II-era Pico neighborhood. The study recommended district representation as the best way to avoid a damaging lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act. So, race could become an issue in the Veritas fight--and Santa Monica’s leadership wouldn’t necessarily be on the side of the angels in this one.

Paul DeSantis, a real estate attorney and self-styled “progressive” Democrat who co-sponsored the initiative, says Veritas is really about accountability and independent thinking in city government--hotel money notwithstanding. “Santa Monica is going to remain a liberal community, a progressive community. It’s not going to change,” he says. The major difference, argues DeSantis, is that good candidates with competing views will be able to drum up support by walking their relatively small districts, and they won’t have to depend on money from the Renters Rights party or its opponents.

Feinstein, fiercely proud of his record on neighborhood issues, replies that DeSantis is doing the dirty work of outside forces who want “to kill the living wage before it gets out of Santa Monica,” and vows a major fight this fall. He’s sure that district representation will reduce democracy by giving each voter a stake in just one council member instead of in many, and will lead to a narrow-minded focus by councilmembers on parochial interests.

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Whatever the voters decide, the accompanying debate can only be good for this city by the sea. We’ve had our eyes on the stars for a good, long while. Maybe it’s time to get our feet back on the ground.

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Michael Cieply is a Santa Monica writer.


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