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.

Housers, united by LUVE

So far I’ve avoided writing about Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative” (LUVE), but now that the Santa Monica City Council will be discussing its merits in a few weeks (at the council’s July 12 meeting) I’ll stop avoiding the unavoidable.

What’s most interesting to me as a political observer is how Residocracy has, with LUVE, fractured the anti-development coalition that has been so successful over the years in setting the Santa Monica political agenda. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that Council Members Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer, two of the most articulate voices skeptical of development in Santa Monica (and two of the city’s most popular politicians), are both strongly opposed to LUVE.

Both McKeown and Winterer were strong supporters of the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic” (RIFT), the measure that the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City put on the ballot in 2008. But LUVE is quite different from RIFT.

RIFT only limited commercial development, which put RIFT squarely in the mainstream of anti-development politics in Santa Monica going back to 1981 when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) first took power in Santa Monica and the City became, to borrow from historian William Fulton (The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to challenge the Los Angeles growth machine. In fact, there were many of us who opposed RIFT only because of its bringing ballot box government into the planning process, not because of its goal of reducing commercial (particularly office) development.

While it is true that during the ’80s SMRR-dominated city councils enacted laws making it harder to build housing (and that during that time little housing was built), paradoxically the purpose of the laws was to save housing. The idea was to preserve existing apartments by making it more difficult and less profitable to tear them down to build condominiums. When the City was sued on the basis that these impediments to building housing violated state law, and lost, the City’s response was brilliant: it maintained, even strengthened, the obstacles to building in residential districts, but satisfied state law by making it easier to build housing in commercial districts (particularly downtown).

I well remember in the mid-’90s, when the City Council was considering the new downtown zoning, listening, at a meeting of the Ocean Park Community Organization, to SMRR leader Dennis Zane try to persuade the late anti-development leader Laurel Roennau why it was good to build housing downtown. (The strategy of protecting neighborhoods by focusing development in commercial zones later became the organizing principle for the LUCE updates to Santa Monica’s general plan.)

Indeed, housing, particularly affordable housing, has always been central to SMRR’s agenda, and has always been popular with Santa Monica voters. When SMRR first challenged the growth machine in the ’80s, one of its goals was to require office developers to pay for affordable housing. In 1990 voters passed Measure R, which requires that 30% of the housing in the city be affordable to low and moderate income households. In 1999 Santa Monica became one of the few cities where a majority of voters approved the building of affordable housing.

The big battles over development since the ’80s have been about commercial development, not housing. There was the Civic Center Plan, which went to the ballot in 1994, and where most of the controversy concerned the expansion of RAND’s offices and RAND’s entitlement to build 250,000 square feet of spec offices. Then there was Target in 2001, a 100% commercial project. Now we have fights over hotels that are essentially commercial developments even though they include housing in the form of condos. Until Residocracy came along, there was little controversy (and that primarily about design issues) over the housing built in Santa Monica since the new zoning in the ’90s, nearly all of which was built downtown.

The recent Paper Mate battle is another case in point: the problem with the project was its adding hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices. At the council meeting where the project was approved, Ted Winterer made a motion to approve it if the developer turned another (the fourth) of the project’s five buildings into housing; Tony Vazquez seconded the motion. If the developer had jumped up and said Yes!, the outcome could have been different. The project might have passed on a 6-1 vote; if so, SMRR would have been less likely to have supported Residocracy’s referendum to overturn the approval. (The vote might even have been 7-0; although McKeown had not said that he would have accepted the total size of the project, he, along with other many other opponents of the project, such as Zane, had said emphatically that what he wanted at the site was housing, not more offices.)

The proponents of LUVE know that they have a problem politically with the housing issue. In their statements and writings in support, they deny that LUVE would prevent housing from being built, and claim that LUVE would protect existing housing. The measure itself is drafted to present the illusion that it supports housing development: it exempts from the 32-foot height limit 100% affordable housing projects (but only up to 50 units, and with the demise of redevelopment it’s almost impossible to build 100% affordable projects anyway), and 77 properties identified as suitable sites for housing in the City’s general plan (but only up to a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 2.5, which would likely mean that a landowner or developer would instead opt for a by-right commercial development flying under the 32-foot limit).

Given this history, it shouldn’t be surprising to see this break between Residocracy, whose leaders have made clear their belief that Santa Monica does not need more housing, and others who are skeptical about growth, but who nonetheless know that we need to house the next generation. They read the papers, and nearly everyday there’s an article about California’s housing crisis.

Although I often quote the Freud phrase, “the narcissism of small differences,” to explain how people largely in agreement can nonetheless have bitter disputes over the iota’s of their disagreements, it’s dismayed me that in Santa Monica people who largely share the same communal values nonetheless continually find themselves in noisy and acrimonious disputes when it comes to development. (And I’ll include myself.)

But as I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that “housers” in Santa Monica have largely united against LUVE. It’s like the Hillary/Bernie fight. At times bitter, but as Paul Begala said, “nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.”

Thanks for reading.

Following some money

The headline in the Lookout for the article about the final financial reports for the 2014 City Council election was “Himmelrich Spent $160,000 of Her Own Money to Win Santa Monica Council Seat,” but even though $160,000 was a record for self-financing a City Council campaign here, I was less interested in how much money Susan Himmelrich spent to win election and more interested in how she spent some of it.

What the article did not report was that Himmelrich paid nearly $30,000 to Dennis Zane and to PZ Associates, an entity that Zane formed. Here’s the breakdown: Himmelrich paid Zane $15,000 for political consulting, plus $4,475 for office expenses, including one flat $3,000 payment. She paid PZ $9,255 partly for consulting services and partly in a category called “campaign paraphernalia/misc.” (PZ is known for running door-to-door campaigns.)

These payments are not out of line for these kinds of services. Why am I focusing on them? For one reason: the payments were breaches of Zane’s fiduciary duty to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). As a member of the SMRR Steering Committee, Zane was guilty of self-dealing, by taking money from a candidate seeking the SMRR endorsement. Self-dealing cannot be made good by disclosure or recusal (not that Zane in fact recused himself).

The SMRR endorsement is crucial to getting elected, especially for anti-development candidates, as no candidate for City Council running on an anti-development platform has ever been elected without the SMRR endorsement. As a follow up to my post in January where I wrote about how Himmelrich finally got the endorsement from the Steering Committee (in a deal where Himmelrich got the committee votes she needed in return for her supporters voting to endorse Andrew Walzer for College Board), I can report that I received a message from Walzer the next day defending the “trade off in voting for [him] and Sue.” Apparently, according to Walzer, it was “complicated,” which naturally made me feel better about it. But in case you had doubts, it did happen.

I’m not the only one still taking a look back at the election, although not everyone has the same motivations. The Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC) had a panel discussion last week about it. I didn’t go, but according to the Lookout, the gist of the meeting was that the election of the anti-development Himmelrich had, in the words of SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman, “‘flipped the balance of power on the City Council.’”

Apparently, though, the struggle continues. Hoffman went on to say that “‘[w]e have a lot more work to do . . . . If we can work together and spend the next few years selecting candidates, that, I think, can make our City Council even better.’”

“Even better.” Given that all seven city council members were elected at least initially with the SMRR endorsement, I guess Hoffman is saying that the old SMRR, the one that based its progressive politics on issues beyond blocking development, is history. And I expect that if the Steering Committee, given its demographics, continues to make the endorsements, the old SMRR will be history.

That’s right, let’s throw out all those bums we supported before who care about housing for all, including the middle-class, and good union jobs and city and social services and childcare and public transportation, etc. You know the ones who understand that Santa Monica is not an island. They’re not sufficiently deferential to our new friends in the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and Residocracy.

* * *

Given the record-breaking $160,000 Himmelrich spent on her campaign, one might wonder why her husband, Housing Commissioner Michael Soloff, had to make campaign contributions, each of $10,000, to SMRR and the SMDC. Why didn’t Himmelrich make the contributions herself? The reason is based on campaign finance law: SMRR and SMDC were running independent campaigns on Himmelrich’s behalf, and because there is a contribution limit for City Council races, the campaigns could not coordinate with Himmelrich. Otherwise, contributions an individual or company might make to SMRR and the SMDC could be counted against the contributor’s limit. Giving money to an independent campaign is a form of coordination, and so Himmelrich couldn’t write the checks. Both she and Soloff are attorneys, and so one expects that they did legal research (but separately, not coordinated!) to satisfy themselves that it’s not coordination if the money comes from a spouse. But let’s face it—even if it’s legal, it’s a dodge. I wonder if the Santa Monica Transparency Project will investigate?

There’s another aspect to this. The old SMRR prided itself on a policy of rarely accepting individual contributions that were more than the limit for council races, which is now $325. The new SMRR not only accepted Soloff’s $10,000, but also $10,000 from the Huntley Hotel, the primary bankroller of anti-development campaigns in the city. Back in July, before the SMRR convention where she’d be seeking the SMRR endorsement, Himmelrich herself gave $1,000. There is no law limiting the amount of contributions to SMRR, and the limit was voluntary, but the limit was once a point of pride. So much for that.

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One footnote: the Lookout piece I quote from above about campaign expenditures got the numbers for my campaign wrong. The article said that I contributed $20,000 and my total campaign expenditure was $75,000, but those numbers are incomplete. The reason the reporter was mistaken is that my campaign accountant had us wrap up our finances in 2015, and the final numbers are in a statement for the period Jan. 1-5 that we filed a few weeks ago. The complete numbers are that I contributed $36,920.90 to my campaign and the total expenditure was $96,128.90. I understand the Lookout will be running a correction, but I wanted the record to be correct.

Thanks for reading.