SMRR to members: go away

At the Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) convention on Sunday a friend asked me if it was more fun attending the convention now as a regular member than as a candidate, referring to the fact that at the 2012 and 2014 conventions I was running for city council and going crazy trying to get endorsed. I said, no, it was a lot of fun being a candidate. The only thing I didn’t like about running for office was losing.

Which means that as a recovering candidate I have sympathy and good wishes for anyone who runs for office, especially for local office where there’s not a whole lot of power or glory that comes with winning. (Donald Trump being the exception that proves the rule—since with him, it’s all about power and glory, and therefore no sympathy from me!) So good luck to all the candidates—you’ll all need it.

As for the convention, I wrote last year about how SMRR was afflicted with “founders’ syndrome,” and nothing that happened Sunday indicated that the organization was getting over it. In fact, there were some obvious symptoms, beginning with the SMRR leadership’s mad desire not to allow the membership to decide whether to support or oppose Residocracy’s LUVE initiative.

What happened was that SMRR co-founder and Co-Chair Dennis Zane, running the meeting, allowed Residocracy’s Armen Melkonians the opportunity to begin the meeting with a motion for SMRR to endorse LUVE. Melkonians made an impassioned speech in favor of LUVE, and it looked like we might vote on his motion, but then Zane pulled the always-golden “substitute motion” parliamentary maneuver. Under Robert’s Rules, anyone can make a substitute motion and preempt whatever is going on. In this case the substitute motion was a “compromise” that Zane and other SMRR leaders wanted, namely a motion not to support LUVE combined with a promise to write a less extreme voter approval measure for a future election, said promise meant to be an olive branch to the neighborhood associations and other anti-development factions of Santa Monica politics.

Melkonians looked stunned when he realized that notwithstanding Zane’s giving him a featured speaking slot to extoll LUVE, Zane wouldn’t allow a vote on it. For what it’s worth, I agreed with Melkonians, and voted against the substitute motion. There should have been a straightforward vote (or votes) of the membership to decide whether SMRR should support, oppose, or take no position on, the most significant local measure that will be on the ballot this year.

The other obvious symptom of founders’ syndrome was a panic attack that SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman had when it appeared that her favorite candidate running for City Council, Planning Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy, would lose a third ballot for an endorsement to incumbent Terry O’Day. Hoffman, in support of a motion to dispense with the third ballot, exploded when telling the membership that she wanted to leave the slot open so that the Steering Committee could endorse Kennedy.

As it happened, Hoffman’s fears were unnecessary, as Kennedy survived the third ballot when members who had supported Melkonians (who hadn’t qualified for the third ballot) switched to her, but the whole episode had already turned ugly when the crowd booed the ham-fisted attempt to take away their vote. Now the Steering Committee is free to endorse Kennedy, as it did in 2014 after Kennedy came in fifth in the membership voting.

Speaking of 2014, the biggest difference in Sunday’s convention from the one in 2014 was that in 2014 more than twice as many members attended. At the 2014 convention, 451 members voted in the first round for City Council, while this year the number was 198. I haven’t figured out why attendance cratered. Candidates begging their supporters to attend is what drives attendance at the convention, but for reasons unknown the candidates this year took a laid-back attitude.

While most political organizations want more members, I suspect that SMRR leadership feels good about the decline in membership. Why? Because what motivates their fear of the members making decisions is that ever since SMRR, in the ’80s, became a membership organization various groups have mobilized their members to join SMRR and vote en masse for their candidates and their candidates only. This “bullet voting” has often prevented SMRR from making endorsements at the convention (none were made in 2014). With fewer members (and well-respected incumbents), this wasn’t a problem this year: three council candidates, and full slates of candidates for school and college boards, received endorsements on first ballots.

SMRR leadership has an idealized view that members should be “pure” SMRR and not associated with other groups, but that’s unrealistic and not consistent with American democracy going back to the Federalist Papers or de Toqueville. Americans like to organize themselves. In his introductory remarks convening the convention Zane recalled that before it was a membership organization, SMRR was a “coalition.” Memo to Zane: it still is, and that’s a good thing because people organize around current issues, and that organizing is what can keep an organization like SMRR relevant.

Problems occur when leadership plays favorites. Reflecting their own age-appropriate views as well as their fear of losing elections, SMRR leaders typically favor the anti-development factions in SMRR, even when these anti’s overtly scorn SMRR’s legacy of achievement and good and progressive government. At the convention, the only candidate who spoke negatively about government in Santa Monica, which has been dominated by SMRR for decades, was Melkonians. Yet rather than allow a clean vote on LUVE, which would have repudiated LUVE and Residocracy, the leadership came up with its compromise measure to appease the extreme anti-development group. It serves the SMRR leaders right that their attempt to appease seems, based on what’s been reported in the press (“SMRR “Non-Support” on Slow-Growth Ballot Measure Prompts Anger Among Backers“), to have increased Residocracy’s anger at SMRR.

Memo to Patricia Hoffman: the Residocracy folks aren’t going to vote for Jennifer Kennedy no matter what SMRR does, not when they can bullet vote for Melkonians.

Meanwhile, progressive elements in Santa Monica politics and in the SMRR coalition, including union workers and young advocates for housing and the environment, get short shrift bordering on disrespect from SMRR leadership. Progressive groups around the country are doing everything they can to attract young and diverse new members, for the next generation of leadership, but when these folks show up at SMRR, SMRR leaders seem annoyed more than anything else.

“Get off my lawn!”

Thanks for reading.

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