Santa Monica in 2018: Are All Politics Still Local?

(Note: I haven’t written here about Santa Monica politics since my last blog last summer on the Downtown Community Plan, but I was invited to give a 20-minute talk to the Santa Monica Rotary International Club about the current state of politics here. I gave the talk last Friday, March 23. What appears below is a slightly edited version of my remarks to the Rotary. Much like the travelogues I wrote in the fall about my trips to Norway and Spain, my opinions about the current state of Santa Monica are illustrated—mostly with headlines, to prove to the Rotarians that what I was talking about truly happened.)

Greetings and thanks for inviting to share my thoughts about Santa Monica.

To review my credentials, I’m a former columnist, sometime blogger about Santa Monica, and twice-defeated candidate for City Council. Losing makes me, of course, an expert to talk about Santa Monica politics and issues. In fact, you’ll find during my talk today that losing city council election or two here is a basic qualification for anyone who think he knows how to make Santa Monica government better.

I’m going to start with an update on the development wars. Local governments in California have more control over land use that they have over most issues, and therefore it’s no surprise that development has often been the most contentious issue in local politics, especially in affluent communities where government otherwise does a good job delivering services. Santa Monica has been no exception.

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The most recent wave of anti-development activism crested in 2014 with the defeat of plans to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site. This came after a then new anti-development group, Residocracy, had gathered signatures to put the City Council’s narrow approval of the redevelopment plan on the ballot, and the Council revoked its approval rather than have the plan go to a popular vote.

Flush with that victory, Residocracy again gathered signatures, and put a restrictive development measure, Measure LV, on the ballot in 2016. The anti-development wave then, however, hit a seawall when Measure LV lost decisively.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise that LV lost, given that a similar measure in 2008, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic,” (“RIFT”), had also lost.

What the votes on both initiatives showed is that that while there is a large minority of Santa Monica voters who are motivated by the anti-development message—a bit less than 40 percent of all voters who show up at the polls—those voters are, nonetheless, a minority. It’s telling that no city council candidate running on an anti-development platform has ever won election on his or her own, meaning without an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the most powerful political group in the city.

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In fact, what we’ve seen in the past two elections is that if SMRR withdraws its support from an incumbent it previously endorsed because SMRR’s anti-development wing sees the incumbent as too friendly to development, the incumbent — Pam O’Connor in 2014 and Terry O’Day in 2016 — nevertheless wins reelection. Meaning that following the views of SMRR’s anti-development wing has cost SMRR two seats on the City Council. It used to be that O’Connor and O’Day owed their election to SMRR; now they don’t.

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Getting beyond the politics of development and into the substance of development decision-making, the 13-year process—I have called it “Santa Monica’s long municipal nightmare” —to update the City’s land-use plans finally climaxed in 2017 with passage of the Downtown Community Plan, the “DCP.” We can at least hope that the DCP is the final major plan to come out of the process that started in 2004 with the update to the City’s General Plan. That process was supposed to take two years but took six. Then it took another five years to pass a zoning ordinance to implement the General Plan, then another couple of years for the DCP. Thirteen years—kind of amazing when you think that the plans themselves are supposed to guide the City’s development for only about 20 years. Not to mention that with the defeat of the Paper Mate project, which was the key project for redeveloping the old industrial properties near Bergamot Station, the most important parts of the General Plan update, which focused on the industrial zone, are now irrelevant. We may as well start over now, but the idea of another 13 years is frightening.

The DCP itself was an uneasy compromise. Pro-housing activists did in certain contexts get the theoretical possibility of more development, but by a 4-3 vote the council included financial burdens that developers say as a practical matter will prevent new construction.

In the context of the state and regional housing crisis, which has put on the spot anti-development politicians, especially who those consider themselves to be progressive, the council members who voted to impose the burdens on developers agreed to revisit the plan if it didn’t result in housing being built.

This has led to a de facto truce while people wait and see.

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In that regard, three hotel projects in downtown, including this one designed by Frank Gehry, are coming back with plans that conform to the DCP; but there is always discretion, and we’ll see if they get approved.

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At the moment there is considerable apartment construction going on under the old standards — this photograph shows the groundbreaking for an affordable housing apartment building on Lincoln that was financed by the developer of a market-rate project — but it’s still an open question whether anyone will build under the requirements of the new zoning ordinance and the DCP. So — stay tuned.

Going beyond the development wars, Santa Monica has a lot of purely political news recently.

For one thing, we’re seeing something that has not been much of an issue in Santa Monica for a long time, perhaps not since the days when Raymond Chandler channeled Santa Monica into his crime novels as the corrupt “Bay City.” I’m talking about political corruption, alleged, possible, and real.

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One set of possible cases of malfeasance have been significant enough to garner coverage in the L.A. Times, not to mention investigations by the District Attorney, the California Fair Political Practices Commission (the FPPC), and the School Board. The allegations involve the Santa Monica power couple of City Council Member Tony Vazquez and his wife, School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez. While it’s been well known that Tony Vazquez has made his living as a political consultant and lobbyist, it was always assumed that he was careful enough to keep his day job out of Santa Monica. Well, it turned out that companies that he lobbied for to get school contracts applied for work in Santa Monica, and he at least neglected to tell his wife, the School Board member, so that she would recuse herself from voting on those matters, which she didn’t do.

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From there the investigation snowballed to include another school board member, and allegations of unreported income and gifts. It’s all being investigated now, so, again—stay tuned.

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Then there have been violations of the Oaks Initiative, a law the voters passed about 15 years ago that prevents public officials from benefiting from people or companies who received contracts or other benefits from the City while the official is in office. It’s like a retrospective, rearview mirror bribery law, and the law is complicated because it’s hard to keep track of who received benefits and the time frame for the restrictions. In the past few years the law has ensnared a couple of Council Members, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day, who received campaign contributions from disqualified contributors.

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But the most drastic impact of the Oaks Initiative was not on a politician, but on Santa Monica’s former City Manager, Rod Gould. After retiring from the City Gould accepted a job with a company that the City had hired while he was in City Hall, and Gould really paid a price for that. He was sued by the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a watchdog group that pays particular attention to the Oaks Initiative. Gould, saying he didn’t have the resources to fight the suit, settled the litigation by quitting his job and paying the Transparency Project $20,000 to cover their costs.

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The most manifestly illegal and corrupt political shenanigans, however, came from the Huntley Hotel, which sits on Second Street across from the Fairmont Miramar. The Huntley opposes the Miramar’s plans to rebuild and in 2012 the Huntley poured money into an extensive campaign to stop the Miramar project. Parts of the plan involved making illegal campaign contributions to City Council candidates and organizing and funding a fake grassroots residents group. It turns out that the FPPC was investigating, albeit slowly, and last year the FPPC hit the Huntley with penalties of more than $300,000: the second largest fine in the history of the FPPC. The Huntley’s scheme also involved the prominent law firm of Latham & Watkins as well as a former Santa Monica Malibu School Board member, Nimish Patel, who had his then law firm conceal illegal political contributions made by the Huntley. The FPPC fined Patel’s law firm $10,000, the maximum fine available to the agency.

I hate to say it, but from the Huntley’s perspective, the money, including the fine, was well spent. It’s six years later, and the Miramar has yet to get a rebuilding plan approved. The Huntley’s financing, organizing and energizing of the campaign against the Miramar revitalized the anti-development movement in Santa Monica, which, after the 2008 defeat of the RIFT initiative, had been relatively quiescent. The 2010 General Plan update had been approved by all the council members, including those from the anti-development side, and even the backers of RIFT generally accepted it. The plan update was the basis for the Paper Mate plan that Residocracy defeated in 2012, after the Huntley had fanned the flames over the Miramar plan.

Meanwhile, although it may seem like nothing ever changes in Santa Monica politics, two major changes to how Santa Monica chooses its elected officials are in the works. I’m referring to district elections and term limits.

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As for district elections, School Board member Oscar de la Torre has sued the City under the California Voting Rights Act saying that the City’s at large elections violate the voting rights of minorities, who, because of historical segregation, live predominantly in the Pico Neighborhood. (By the way, like me De la Torre has been a losing candidate for City Council.)

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Then this year activists from the Santa Monica Transparency Project—yes, the same group that sued Rod Gould over the Oaks Initiative—began a signature gathering campaign to put a term limits initiative on the ballot.

When it comes to these efforts to change the City Charter, I’m torn. Usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts. I usually oppose term limits, since in general I believe that anyone should have the right to run for office, and voters are better served by having more choices, not fewer. Also, as we saw was the impact of term limits on the California legislature, term limits can result in too much turnover, giving us legislators who lack experience and knowledge about how to govern.

So those are my usual positions. But as I said, I’m torn, because in Santa Monica the fact is that incumbents can stay on the council for as long as they want. This is not a one side or the other side issue: council members of all political persuasions have remained on the council term after term. So I’m thinking about term limits in a more positive way than usual, although I haven’t made up my mind.

But what about district elections? As I said, I usually favor districts, but I’m not sure we need them in Santa Monica. Why? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.

Now that there is, at least for a time, less of a political focus on development, what are the issues, more or less real, that face our community?

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How about crime? Rising crime is the issue that Residocracy and its leader, Armen Melkonians (also like me a two-time loser when running for City Council), are trying to use now to gain political power given that development didn’t work. Reported crime, particularly property crime, is up in Santa Monica over the past few years, and there have been some particularly violent crimes, including a murder and a home invasion, in normally low-crime, upscale neighborhoods that have people in those neighborhoods rattled.

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However, by historical standards, even with the uptick crime rates are down in Santa Monica. But the historical levels were quite high: I’m speaking as one whose homes have been burglarized twice. Yet I for one don’t sense that people are fearful as they move about the city, not as fearful as the cities I lived in before coming to Santa Monica, namely Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. But maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t live in the Pico Neighborhood, where there has been gang violence going back decades. Significantly, however, gang violence has considerably decreased over the past four or five years, although in the past year or so there have been several shootings, including one murder, that have the hallmarks of gang violence although the victims are not necessarily gang members.

Let me make an aside here, which possibly ties local politics into national politics. Why is it that a political group that wants to gain power finds that it needs to focus on grievance? Residocracy is explicit that it’s looking for an issue that will motivate voters to vote based on fear. Yet by all measure, Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live — something the leaders of Residocracy will admit, given that they say they are trying to preserve Santa Monica the way it is. Let’s face it, the politics of fear and anger pervade our society, at all levels and, let me make this clear, all sides of every argument use the politics of fear, instead of promoting themselves on the basis of, dare I say it, hope and faith in the future.

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In any case, as for crime, the City has hired a new police chief, who was known to have reduced crime her previous job, in Folsom, and so stay tuned on that as well.

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Another issue is transit. In a certain sense, with the opening of the Expo line and its great success, this should be the new golden age of public transportation in Santa Monica. Those tens of thousands of Expo riders must mean that more people than ever are using transit in the city. However, those riders don’t count when the Big Blue Bus is tabulating its ridership, and that ridership is down.

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This is a regional issue, as the same thing is happening with Metro bus service, but I can’t help being annoyed still whenever I see Santa Monica’ artsy bus shelters (if you can call them that), one of which you can see in this picture. Whenever I see them, which is all the time, I’m reminded that one of our council members, when voting for this design, said it was more important for the bus shelter design to be creative and—quote—whimsical than utilitarian. If you want people to ride the bus, you have to treat them like customers.

Another big issue is the future of Santa Monica Airport.

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The City and FAA entered into an agreement a year ago to close the airport in 2029. This timetable disappointed many opponents of the airport, including many like myself who want to turn the land into a big park, especially because if previous agreements with the FAA had been written less ambiguously, the City could have closed the airport in 2015. But as a settlement of confused litigation the deal made sense.

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And because the agreement allowed the City to shorten the runway, jet traffic has been drastically reduced—down about 80% from a year ago.

And another 12 acres have been opened up to park expansion. Because the City has taken over leasing at the airport, the City is making a lot of money from rents that will pay for some park construction and ultimately operating costs for the big park.

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But let’s face it, the big issue confronting Santa Monica as well as the rest of the region is homelessness, and that’s not getting better.

The title of this talk includes the question whether, as the immortal Tip O’Neil once said, all politics are still local. There’s no question that with homelessness you finally get the answer, which is — yes and no. Yes, because the attitudes of most voters are still made up most of all with how they see their own daily reality. But no, because those realities, whether they are homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica, or abandoned factories in the Midwest, are products of decisions beyond the purview of any particular local government.

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Homelessness, which not only is a moral disgrace but also costs the City of Santa Monica millions in direct and indirect costs each year, is the product of a statewide housing crisis, state and national policies on treatment of, and funding for, the mentally ill, a catastrophic national policy on drugs, and other forces beyond the purview or pay grade of Santa Monica’s elected officials and staff.

Yet, the lack of ultimate power to effect change does not diminish our responsibility as citizens to continue to seek change. We need to solve the homeless crisis, or risk failing as a society.

Thanks for reading.

Election analysis: LV lost big, bigger than you think

I haven’t written here for a while. It’s easy for a little hiatus to become a long vacation, especially over the holidays, and especially, if you write a column about local news, when national news is all consuming. Yet given a national election where the electorate divided along the spectrum from urban to rural, has it ever been more evident that “all politics is local?”

Here in Santa Monica the November results are still resonating. The sensitivities of the losers of the election over Measure LV are raw, as evidenced by Tricia Crane, one of the authors of LV. Last week Crane, who is active in both Residocracy and Northeast Neighbors, criticized City Manager Rick Cole for identifying in an email “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development” as “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development.”

As reported in the Lookout News, Crane objected to Cole’s characterization of longtime vocal critics as longtime vocal critics because, “As one who believes that democracy depends upon the free exchange of information and ideas, I find the label ‘longtime vocal critics’ to be troubling.” This coming from someone who personally and through her organization has never found it troubling to call anyone who supports building anything in Santa Monica to be, if a politician, corrupt and, if not a politician, a tool of developers.

But wait, there’s more. Crane then told the Lookout that, “Measure LV was supported by 45 percent of Santa Monica voters.” This, as anyone who has studied the election results knows, is false. While LV received the votes of 45% of those voters who voted on the measure, a trouncing in and of itself, about 17% of Santa Monica voters did not vote on LV. As a result, far fewer than 45% of Santa Monica voters supported LV.

The numbers? The total number of ballots cast in Santa Monica in November was 51,662. The number of Yes votes for LV was 19,786. Divide the latter by the former and you get 38.3%. Yes, I know, only the votes cast for or against a measure count when it comes to victory or defeat, but consider the rhetoric that we’ve heard from the anti-development crowd over the years, about how they are the residents, and about how unhappy the residents are. Given that that’s been their mantra, and that’s why they put LV on the ballot, isn’t it their burden to show that that is true? (If you want to review the numbers yourself, click here to access a PDF of all the Santa Monica November results.)

To repeat: only 38.3% of Santa Monica voters supported LV. (By the way, the figures for RIFT in 2008 were about the same.)

About now LV supporters will tell you LV lost because of the money developers spent against it, but go ask the aviation industry whether money wins elections in Santa Monica.

Getting back to the results, there were only two precincts in the city where LV won, but even in those precincts (which are on the eastern edge of the city between Wilshire and Montana) the Yes vote was less than 50% of the total number of ballots cast.

What about self-appointed neighborhood associations that supported LV? They didn’t reflect their residents. Two of the most anti-LV neighborhoods were North of Montana, the home of historically anti-development NOMA and the base for the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), and the neighborhood between Wilshire and Montana west of 20th Street, the home of the WilMont Neighborhood Coalition. LV lost also in Sunset Park.

But the LV numbers tell only half the story. Any measure will get a certain number of votes just for being on the ballot, particularly one that promises to solve traffic congestion. Thirty-eight percent of Santa Monica voters voted for LV, but how many are truly up in arms about development?

We received an answer to that question in November, courtesy of Residocracy’s founder, spec-mansion developer Armen Melkonians. Melkonians ran for City Council on a hard anti-development platform. In past elections most serious candidates running on an anti-development platform (and all of them who have won election) have run with the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Melkonians, however, was an anti-development candidate who ran a strong campaign without a SMRR endorsement. Not only that, but (future write-in candidate) Phil Brock cleared the decks for Melkonians by not filing papers to run for council, and SMRR left an open seat by not endorsing incumbent Terry O’Day.

How did Melkonians do? He received 12,603 votes. Divide that number by 51,662, the total number of voters, and Melkonians’ tally was 24.4%. Meaning that not even a quarter of Santa Monica voters were angry enough about development to pay attention to local politics and then vote for the candidate who channeled that anger.

That doesn’t mean government shouldn’t continue to regulate development. Government regulates lots of businesses and industries. But we shouldn’t let the most extreme “vocal critics” set the agenda and control the debate.

These election results are, by the way, consistent with data from the City’s surveys over the years about the attitudes of residents. Most are happy to live in Santa Monica, and when asked (open-ended and unprompted) to name issues that concern them, only about a third mention traffic (and many fewer mention development).

Yet we have a political class that runs for cover whenever Residocracy or SMCLC say they speak for the residents.

Thanks for reading.

The local vote: preliminary post-mortem

Shell-shocked after the presidential vote, I’ve been slow putting my thoughts together on the local election. In fact, when analyzing local elections it’s a good idea to wait a few weeks until the final results are certified. The results rarely change (except occasionally in a close City Council race, as Ted Winterer will ruefully acknowledge), but until all the absentee and provisional ballots are counted, one can’t speak about important matters like total turnout, or how different neighborhoods voted.

But in the meantime I can make a few points.

The defeat of Measure LV. Again, the final numbers aren’t in, but it looks like LV, the “Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative,” performed the same as its predecessor anti-development initiative, the “Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) did in 2008. RIFT got 44% of the votes cast on it, and right now LV is also at 44%. RIFT got about 36% of all votes cast—we won’t know that number for LV until we have the final returns.

While there are Santa Monicans who want no more development, and many residents who will vote yes on anything that promises to do something about traffic (and in a certain sense who can blame them?), there is a solid majority that does not want to plan by ballot box and/or will not arbitrarily restrict future development based on arguments about traffic or community character.

The vote was consistent not only with RIFT, but also with past votes to allow the development of affordable housing (in 1999) and to adopt the 1994 Civic Center plan. The last time a measure aimed against development passed in Santa Monica was the 1990 vote on Michael McCarty’s beach hotel. In the meantime, despite opposition from some elements of the anti-development side, Santa Monica voters have passed many bond issues and taxes, including this year’s Measures GS and V.

They want to manage change intelligently, but most Santa Monicans are not afraid of it.

The LV side has already blamed their loss on the big money spent against LV. But the 2014 vote on the competing airport measures showed that massive expenditures do not persuade Santa Monica voters. The aviation industry spent almost a million dollars, outspending the anti-airport, pro-park campaign by about six-to-one, but still lost overwhelmingly.

Santa Monica voters are sophisticated. Once they have enough information to make up their minds (which takes a campaign because most residents don’t pay attention to local politics), they make up those minds. The anti-development side can’t have it both ways – they can’t claim repeatedly and vehemently that only they represent the residents, and then consistently lose elections. Not, in any case, without implying that residents are ignorant dupes.

Perhaps Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City will take these results to heart and start describing themselves as speaking for “many” residents, which is powerful enough. I doubt it. Speaking for others is a hard habit to break. One might also hope that they would stop describing people who disagree with them as corrupt, but what was startling in this campaign was how viciously the LV’ers attacked opponents who had long been slow(er)-growth standard-bearers. All of a sudden stalwart controllers of growth like Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer were the tools of developers, on the take. I tip my hat to them for taking the abuse; I hope that they are aware that they were only getting in the back what opponents of the no-change mindset get thrown in their faces everyday.

As for the City Council election, it was no surprise that the four incumbents won easily. The shocker was that Terry O’Day came in first. I assumed that since he was the only incumbent running without the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), he would be the trailing winner. In my recollection, neither Bob Holbrook nor Herb Katz, the council’s longtime non-SMRR members, ever finished first. O’Day also voted for the Hines project. He came in first nonetheless.

This year SMRR didn’t endorse O’Day and two years ago SMRR didn’t endorse Pam O’Connor. Both were elected. But for elevating the development issue above all other issues affecting Santa Monica, SMRR would now be in a situation where all seven members of the council owed their election to SMRR, or believed they did. Instead, now SMRR is back to where it was when Holbrook and Katz were the two independents.

I’ll have more when all the votes are counted.

Thanks for reading.

 

Truth and “The Truth We Know”

This week the Yes on LV campaign has distributed a flyer that itemizes the “lies” that the Yes campaign claims the No on LV campaigns have been saying about LV. The headline is “Don’t be Fooled by the Developers’ Lies!” The flyer has two columns, one listing the purported lies, and one listing the purported truths.

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The wording of the second heading, “The Truth We Know,” is interesting.

Why isn’t the heading simply “The Truth”? If something is true, does it have to be qualified with “We Know”? Is a truth more true depending on whether we (or anyone else) know it? The answer is . . . no. Truth doesn’t depend on who knows it.

The use of “The Truth We Know” says something about the entire campaign for LV. LV and the support for it is all based on what the drafters and proponents of LV know, regardless whether what they know conforms with reality. When confronted with data that shows, for instance, that Santa Monica has limited development for 25 years, or with plain evidence, for instance, that City Council members do not always give developers what they want, or with eleven years of community process developing planning documents that carefully channel and restrict development, the LV supporters shake their heads: they know that the City Council gives developers whatever they want.

“Forget the birth certificate, we know he was born in Kenya.”

As it happens, though, most of the back-and-forth over what’s true in the campaign has to do with issues that are peripheral to the mess that LV would create. Take the contentious issues whether LV would require public votes on rebuilds of taller than 32-foot buildings after an earthquake, or on construction of various public buildings. Clearly it was an oversight that LV does not include exemptions for post-disaster rebuilds, etc., but even if LV included them, LV would still be a terrible way to plan the future of Santa Monica. But the No on LV campaign has made a big deal about these oversights because, let’s face it, LV looks pretty dumb because it doesn’t have them.

(I know that the LV campaign has a letter from the lawyer who drafted LV saying that LV does not conflict with the City ordinance that allows for rebuilds after disasters, but I’ve read that letter and it’s a classic case of “oops, let me try to cover my ass.” The lawyer tries to use language referring to “new development” in the pre-existing zoning law to make the argument that LV doesn’t apply to reconstruction, but that language is obviously superseded by LV language that applies the requirement for a public vote to “any project that exceeds the Tier 1 maximum limits.”)

It all gets back to “The Truth We Know.” The lawyer who drafted LV and her clients at Residocracy presumably know that LV contains a clause that gives LV priority over any existing law, including the one that allows for post-disaster rebuilds. Was she lying in her opinion letter, and were they lying in their flyer, when they wrote that the existing law would prevail over LV? I don’t think so. “Lying” requires a positive belief that one is not telling the truth, and by now it’s fairly clear that the Residocracy folks know what the truth is without caring about it. They know that the existing rebuild law would not conflict with LV, and for them that’s the truth.

For the rest of us, at least for those of us who follow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, what they’re saying isn’t the truth or a lie, it’s bullshit, because they don’t care if it’s true or false.

But then, bullshit is not unexpected or even out of place in politics. I haven’t reviewed all of the No on LV arguments, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the No campaigns have pushed arguments that are just that, arguments. Politics is an art, not a science.

But the Residocracy camp, which is responsible for LV in the first place, can’t complain when their outrage provokes more outrage (and more than $1 million of spending). It was their idea. To bring this to the first-grader level where it belongs, “they started it.”

They also can’t complain because their campaign is entirely based—every signature they got is based—on a huge, steaming pile of bullshit, namely that LV is an answer to traffic congestion.

“Tired of Traffic,” their lawn signs say, and I can’t improve on what former Planning Commission Chair Hank Koning wrote in a Daily Press guest column yesterday in response to that slogan. As I’ve written before, LV won’t stop development, instead it will channel it into by-right, get-the-permit-at-the-planning-desk, office and retail projects that fit into the Tier 1 envelope. These projects will provide no community benefits and they will create more traffic than the larger residential projects that LV will prevent from being built.

Architects tell me that this is happening already, as their clients are tired of multi-year contentious permitting processes, and instead building two-story office and retail projects. For instance, here’s a photo of the retail and office building going up now at Fourth and Broadway; originally, a mixed-use residential project was planned for this site.

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As for how much more traffic commercial projects generate, when it comes to research, I’m lazy, but Koning isn’t, and here are the numbers from his column:

[T]he 2 story, all-commercial option generates more traffic than the 4 story, mixed-use housing over retail. How is that possible? Let’s look at the Santa Monica PM peak hour trip generation rates for different uses per 1,000 [square feet]: Multi-Family Housing, 0.33 trips; Retail, 3.01; Office, 1.08; Medical Office, 2.98 (Santa Monica Transportation Impact fee nexus study April 2012).

In terms of traffic generated, it takes 3.27 floors of housing to equal 1 floor of office, and a whopping 9.12 floors of housing to equal a second floor of retail.

And you know what? We all know that these data confirm our own experiences, as we know that that more people enter and leave commercial buildings everyday than enter and leave residences.

Koning goes on to point out that in jobs rich Santa Monica, many of the new residents will have jobs here, and having them living here will reduce commutes into Santa Monica. By definition, since they will be residents, even if they commute to jobs outside of Santa Monica they will not contribute to Santa Monica’s worst traffic—commuters coming into the city in the morning and leaving in the afternoon.

What people in the no-growth community don’t understand is that people in the pro-urban community hate traffic more than they do. We not only hate being caught in traffic, we believe it’s a crummy way to live to be encased in steel for so much of the day, isolated from the community. We’re trying to reduce traffic, not only traffic congestion. The old ways you cling to increase both.

Thanks for reading.

No denying: LV is anti-development

Last week I wrote about the disconnect from generally-accepted-progressive-urban-policies had by people who consider themselves progressive but who support restrictive development measures like Measure LV. These progressive policies, whether they come from the Sierra Club or the Obama Administration, promote “infill” development rather than sprawl, particularly in affluent urban areas like Santa Monica and the Westside where policies restricting multi-family housing and high housing prices have excluded low- and even middle-income households.

In reaction to this disconnect, supporters of LV who nationally support liberal politicians and progressive causes search for reasons to make LV fit into the progressive mold.

The most basic rationale is denial. Against all evidence, including the express intentions of Residocracy, there are people in Santa Monica who deny that LV would prevent development or, at least, deny that it would prevent good development (however that might be defined). This has been the basic argument of the “S.M.a.r.t.” group of (mostly) architects who now write a weekly column for the Mirror. They’re not against development they say, only “over” development that’s not “properly” planned, and they say there can be plenty of good development within the 32-36 foot height limit of LV.

This is usually expressed in hopeful generalities, such as this from a recent S.M.a.r.t. column: “For Santa Monica to continue to be a progressive, livable city, we must find a way to balance our priorities of growth and quality of life. Our transition to the future will be successful only if we can plan ahead properly and act with restraint.” (Apparently, the “way” to achieve this balance is to adopt an extreme measure that puts nearly all development over two stories to a vote.)

One problem with this argument, nice as it sounds, is that it runs up against Residocracy’s purpose, which to stop development. To my knowledge none of the key founders of Residocracy, Armen Melkonians, Tricia Crane, and Kate Bransfield, have ever supported any development other than single-family homes. Melkonians, going back to when he first ran for City Council in 2012, has argued that Santa Monica is a “full bucket,” to which nothing can be added. In May of this year, he told the City Council that Santa Monica doesn’t need additional housing.

no-yes-photo

Not all supporters of LV consider themselves progressives: many oppose affordable housing as “over-development.”

Another problem with the S.M.a.r.t. argument is that LV is the opposite of “plan[ning] ahead properly.” Instead, LV is a nihilistic, fearful and angry reaction to good, forward-thinking and highly restrained, planning.

Residocracy created LV in response to 11 years of careful planning that began in 2004. The first six years were spent updating the land use and circulation elements (the “LUCE”) of Santa Monica’s General Plan. The LUCE directed new development away from neighborhoods, toward about five percent of Santa Monica’s land, land located downtown, along the boulevards, and in old industrial and other commercial zones. Talk about restraint. When City Council passed the LUCE in 2010, the slow-growth community in Santa Monica largely praised it. The next five years were spent drafting the zoning ordinance, which further reduced the amount of development allowed in the city.

All this planning resulted int policies and laws that would effectively convert land zoned for commercial development into residential development, thus providing needed housing and at the same time reducing the commercial development that generates traffic congestion.

Those eleven years involved much careful analysis, even more public input, and ultimately compromises that nearly everyone involved in Santa Monica politics, including politicians who had based their careers in opposing development, accepted. The only politicians who did not accept the outcome of this long process were those associated with Residocracy.

Residocracy’s response to the LUCE and the new zoning: We’re going to ignore all that, draft our own law, and get it on the ballot by telling people that they can sign here and stop traffic congestion. That’s planning ahead? Properly?

The result, if LV passes, would be the opposite of the “balance” that the S.M.a.r.t. writers say they want. Yes, many square feet can, and ultimately would, be developed under LV. But rather than go to the voters to get approval for a three or four-story apartment building on a boulevard, or a five or six-story apartment building downtown, development that would balance our priorities and improve our quality of life (by improving street frontages, improving walkability, etc.), any rational property owner or developer would slap up, by-right, with no review to speak of, a 32-foot tall retail or office development that would make the developer plenty of money and attract more drivers all day long.

Next: why opposing gentrification is not a reason to vote for LV.

Thanks for reading.

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.

LUVE: What we don’t need now

When voters submit an initiative to enact a law, Section 9212 of the California Elections Code authorizes the relevant legislative body to commission a report analyzing the impacts the initiative would have, including, specifically, its impact “on the use of land, the impact on the availability and location of housing, and the ability of the city to meet its regional housing needs.”

The State of California considers those issues to be important, and so does the Santa Monica City Council. When presented last month with Residocracy’s “Land Use Voter Empowerment” initiative (LUVE), the council requested a Section 9212 report, which it received from city staff last week. The council will consider the report at its meeting tomorrow night.

The 65-page report is negative about LUVE, which would, in general but with some exceptions, require voter approval of new construction taller than 32 feet. The report finds not only that LUVE would have many negative unintended consequences, such as making post-earthquake reconstruction problematic, but also that LUVE would have a negative impact on its ostensible intended consequences, such as preventing worsening traffic congestion and gentrification.

The report also explains why LUVE, or most of it, would be unenforceable under state law, because state law does not allow voter approval of administrative decisions, and how legislation Gov. Jerry Brown is about to get passed streamlining approvals of certain urban residential developments will likely override much of LUVE.

For all that, the scope of the Section 9212 report does not extend to the two most damning arguments against LUVE: one, that there is no overdevelopment crisis in Santa Monica that requires the drastic solution of voter approval over development, and two, that it would be a nightmare to have to vote on development decisions.

As for point one, for more than 40 years, with little resort to ballot box government, Santa Monica has closely regulated development. Ever since the public rose up in the ’70s and elected new city councilmembers to stop the destruction of the Pier and the building of an island in Santa Monica Bay, there has been a consensus that the City needs to control development. While land use politics in Santa Monica can be remarkably bitter, the differences Santa Monicans argue over are small when looked at objectively, or regionally, i.e., compared to growth in the surrounding City of L.A., L.A. County or southern California as a whole.

Contrary to Residocracy’s rhetoric, Santa Monica has intensified its regulation of growth over the past 20 years. A recent analysis showed that since 2003 only about an average of 48,000 square feet of net new commercial space has been built in Santa Monica annually; compare this to the 9,000,000 square feet of office development that was approved in the ’80s and built by the mid-’90s.

Residential development has also been modest. Since 2003, Santa Monica has seen an average net increase of about 230 new housing units a year. Given that Santa Monica has nearly 50,000 units in total, this increase is only about half of one percent per year. This is not massive overdevelopment. It’s fear mongering to claim, as Residocracy does, that LUVE is needed to prevent future overdevelopment.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be controversies about development in the future. The City is in the process of making decisions for the next 20 or 30 years of development in downtown. Vigorous debate is healthy and to be expected. But based on the history, there’s no reason to suspect that planning staff and our Planning Commission and City Council can’t make intelligent decisions that balance the pros and cons of new plans and proposals.

As for the second crucial argument against LUVE, do we really want to vote on development proposals and planning documents? Is ballot box government a good idea?

Before you answer that question, consider that in November there will be 17 statewide measures on the ballot. Things aren’t yet settled, but it looks like there will be at least a dozen county, city, or school measures also on the ballot, including several crucial tax measures. It’s been a century since the “Progressive Era” reforms brought the initiative and referendum to California. Was it ever intended that voters would have a ballot with 30 measures to vote on?

For every great initiative like the Coastal Act, there are dozens of nightmares. It’s not that initiatives don’t sometimes respond to real problems, but the nature of an initiative is to remove the flexibility to respond to change that is one of the virtues of representative democracy. Initiatives also have a multiplier effect, since they typically require more and more votes on matters that used to be routinely left to elected representatives. California government, for instance, at all levels has been hobbled by the restrictions of Prop. 13 and 218 on the power to tax. Weakening government has not made government better or improved the lives of Californians.

LUVE wants to do the same thing with the power to plan. According the City’s Section 9212 report, currently there are 12 proposals to build apartments in Santa Monica and 10 of them would require voter approval under LUVE. Assume that even half the developers decided to brave the process instead of taking the easy way out and building low-slung retail or offices, which are quite profitable (but which, by the way, generate more traffic than housing). Would you want to vote on five apartment buildings in 2018? How many campaign mailers can your mailbox hold?

Let’s say you do want to vote on them all—are you ready, willing and able to review the hundreds of pages of documentation and plans necessary to conscientiously evaluate each project?

Thanks for reading.

A map from the Section 9212 report (fig. 4, page 26) showing all the buildings (residential in green, commercial in pink) in Santa Monica that would have required voter approval if LUVE had been in effect when they were built.

A map from the Section 9212 report (fig. 4, page 26) showing all the buildings (residential in green, non-residential in pink) in Santa Monica that would have required voter approval if LUVE had been in effect when they were built.