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.

Riel Politics, Part 4: Getting to $710,000

One question people keeping asking about the firing of Elizabeth Riel is why the City Council agreed to pay so much to settle her claim: $710,000, more than four times what would have been her annual salary. Don’t expect a definitive answer, since the council can make decisions about litigation in closed session, but the record gives a reasonable basis for trying to understand what the thinking was.

While the cost of litigation and similar factors can have an impact on settlement negotiations, given that the settlement would undoubtedly be embarrassing, which it was, it’s likely that the City agreed to pay Riel all that money only because her case was strong and a verdict could have cost far more that $710,000. No doubt the issue was punitive damages. Riel’s claim was for wrongful termination based on her being fired in violation of her First Amendment rights. That would be a violation of public policy, and terminating a job in violation of public policy, or in any way violating an employee’s constitutional rights, can leave the employer at risk of paying substantial punitive damages.

City Council and its lawyers didn’t need to guess whether Riel had a good case. Federal District Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell made that abundantly clear in her ruling in September 2014 denying the City’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint. Judge O’Connell acknowledged that government employers may in appropriate circumstances limit employees’ First Amendment rights, but in explaining what the standards were for keeping politics out of public employment she in effect told the City that its defenses were limited.

Public employees routinely give up First Amendment rights; consider the Hatch Act at the federal level. But there have been many cases involving the First Amendment rights of public employees, as it’s not a small matter to give up those rights. Legal standards have developed out of these cases, and Judge O’Connell reviewed those standards in her ruling.

Judge O’Connell held that Riel, as plaintiff, would first have to prove three things: that she suffered an adverse employment action; that she had engaged in constitutionally protected speech; and that her protected speech motivated the adverse employment action. Once Riel would have proved these three factors (which would, in fact, be easy for her to do), she would establish a prima facie case for wrongful termination. At that point the burden of proof would shift to the City, which would have to prove that its legitimate administrative interests outweighed Riel’s First Amendment rights.

In other words, there’s a balancing test, in fact one so well established that it has a name: the Pickering test. According to Judge O’Connell, the “balancing test recognizes that government entities have broader discretion to restrict a public employee’s speech than a citizen’s; nevertheless, any restrictions must be directed at speech that has some potential to affect the entity’s operations.” (Internal quotation marks, some punctuation, and citations omitted.) The public employer, however, cannot simply declare that its administrative interests outweigh the employee’s rights: the administrative interests at stake cannot be speculative. This is where Santa Monica got into trouble in the Riel case.

To step back for a moment, the job Riel was hired for, communications director in the City Manager’s office, requires interfacing directly with all the elected members of the City Council. It is a politically sensitive job, and the City should be able to require whoever holds the job to stay out of local politics. (One way we know this is that when Councilmember Kevin McKeown, whose campaign for reelection Riel had worked on in 2006, heard from City Manager Rod Gould that Gould had hired Riel, he immediately told Gould that he still had Riel’s photograph on his website from the 2006 campaign. McKeown asked Gould whether he should remove it; McKeown quite properly did not want anyone to think that Riel was partisan.)

So you ask, if the job was politically sensitive, why didn’t the City take the case to trial to show that, and to argue that Riel should have been disqualified because of her past partisanship? The answer to that question is also in Judge O’Connell’s ruling. Even if the job required political neutrality, the judge emphasized that the City still had the burden to prove, with evidence, that Riel herself couldn’t do the job: “[t]he allegation that [Riel] would not support, or at least would appear unable to support, the City’s leadership and management is speculative.” Riel had assured Gould that she could do the job; he couldn’t simply declare that she couldn’t.

Perhaps if when the City had advertised the job the notice had specifically stated that applicants had to be non-partisan, and had spelled out the reasons why, then the City would have been able to prevail. But the City hadn’t done that. Riel, who, based on her deposition testimony, no longer considered herself to be political (it had been six years since she had been politically active in Santa Monica), applied for the job and got it on her merits. Establishing criteria for a job in advance and summarily firing someone before she could prove herself are two different things.

I can only assume that after reviewing the evidence unearthed during the discovery phase that followed Judge O’Connell’s ruling (i.e., the emails and the deposition testimony), the City’s lawyers concluded that they could not prove that Gould when he fired Riel had real evidence that she could not do the job, and advised the City to make the best deal it could.

And that’s how one can get to $710,000.

Thanks for reading.

Riel Politics: the firing of Elizabeth Riel, a chronology

I didn’t plan it, but on a de facto basis I’ve taken a month-long, late summer vacation from the life and times of Santa Monica. I did a little traveling, but let’s face it: with the heat it was hard to think, let alone write blogs about local politics.

However, time, tide, and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) wait for no man, and while I was gone one of the juiciest political dramas in recent Santa Monica history kicked into high gear. I’m speaking of the fallout from the City’s firing of Elizabeth Riel in 2014 and the settling in July of her subsequent lawsuit for $710,000.

The political drama has focused on the role of Councilmember Pam O’Connor. SMCLC has demanded that O’Connor be prosecuted for violating the City Charter by interfering in a hiring decision by former City Manager Rod Gould, and according to SMCLC, as reported in the Lookout, the City is referring the matter to the District Attorney. (Section 610 of the City Charter provides that councilmembers shall not “order or request directly or indirectly the appointment of any person to an office or employment or the removal of any person therefrom, by the City Manager, or by any of the department heads in the administrative service of the City.”)

Meanwhile, Mayor Kevin McKeown has said that the City will review the matter, and O’Connor has said she welcomes the review.

Not willing to wait for the D.A. or the City and not considering SMCLC’s analysis to be definitive, I decided to conduct my own investigation. Through a public information request I obtained all the documents disclosed by the parties in Riel’s lawsuit and the depositions of O’Connor, Gould, Riel and Mayor Kevin McKeown. In this much longer than usual post I’ll summarize the facts as laid out in the documents and deposition testimony; in later posts I’ll try to make sense of the various issues that arise from the case. There are a lot of them: the politics, naturally, and even the philosophical, because the case has a lot to do with where government runs up against politics, but also the personal. Believe me, the personalities could be out of a novel, or a gritty TV drama.

The City hired Riel on May 6, 2014, and she was going to start work on June 2. Her job was to be the City’s Communications and Public Affairs Officer. The position is within the City Manager’s office and involves, among other duties, interacting with all the city councilmembers, particularly to prepare them when they would be representing the City in public events. Riel would be replacing the estimable Kate Vernez, who was retiring.

The crucial events that led to the firing of Riel took place over about 24 hours on Thursday and Friday, May 22 and 23, 2014, which were two days that preceded the Memorial Day weekend. Based on my reading of the relevant documents, principally emails among O’Connor, Gould, Gould’s staff, and Riel, and the depositions of O’Connor, Riel, and Gould, the following is the chronology of what happened.

On May 22, in the late afternoon or early evening, O’Connor, who was then mayor, sends her first email to Gould. She tells Gould that she will be “extremely hesitant to work with Elizabeth Riel especially during the campaign season” and that “if I need support on Mayoral things I want someone else assigned.” Gould, by the way, is in Canada at a conference when he receives this email. He remains in Canada until Sunday, May 25; one affect of this is that, as the lawyers in the case realized, it’s often difficult to know the exact time, in Santa Monica, that emails were sent, since people are emailing from different time zones.

In her first email, O’Connor doesn’t give much in the way of reasons for not wanting to work with Riel, simply saying that “in past elections SMCLC has attacked me.” “SMCLC” is, of course, a reference to the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. The only backup that O’Connor gives in this email for her not wanting to work with Riel is a link to a letter to the City Clerk in 2008 that Riel co-signed as of one of the proponents of SMCLC’s RIFT initiative, along with two other proponents, Diana Gordon, co-chair of SMCLC, and future councilmember Ted Winterer, who signed as President of the Ocean Park Association. Riel identified herself as “Past President, NOMA,” referring to the North of Montana Association.

Gould replied by email, asking O’Connor to give Riel “a chance to prove herself.” He tells O’Connor that he’d heard Riel speak “very respectfully” of O’Connor “and the issues for which you stand.”

Pam O'Connor's first email to Rod Gould about Elizabeth Riel, and his reply.

Pam O’Connor’s first email to Rod Gould about Elizabeth Riel, and his reply.

Gould’s response doesn’t satisfy O’Connor. She replies that Gould had hired someone with political ties to other council members, and that he’d put “a no-growth activist in upper management at City Hall.” But it’s clear that O’Connor considers the hiring of Riel to be a done deal; she tells Gould to “just give me the technical materials I need when I need them and I’ll do it myself” (“it” meaning preparing her presentations), and concludes the email with a cheery “Thanks!”

It’s not clear that either of O’Connor’s first two emails would have had any impact on Gould, but then O’Connor sends Gould a third email. Apparently O’Connor had been doing Internet research; she begins this email by saying that “I don’t think your background checking folks did much of a job,” and then quotes from and links to an article in the Lookout from 2006 about an attack mailer that SMCLC sent out in 2006 against O’Connor that Riel helped fund.

In Canada, Gould must have gone to bed by then, because he didn’t reply until the next morning, Friday, May 23, and it was on that day that the crucial developments that resulted in Riel’s firing took place.

In Gould’s reply to O’Connor’s third email, Gould is still defending Riel. He tells O’Connor that Riel “has grown very tired of all the complaining around town…. She wants to put the development issues in better light.” He says that he is “surprised by her earlier association” and that he will discuss it with her. Finally he asks that O’Connor “keep an open mind and give her a chance.”

We get more insight into Gould’s state of mind as the day began through an early exchange of emails between him and Elaine Polachek, his deputy. At 7:21 that morning, Polachek, responding to Gould’s forwarding of O’Connor’s email from the night before, states to Gould that Riel had not disclosed the matters brought up by O’Connor and says that it’s a “trust issue for Pam.” Polachek asks Gould if he thinks “it’s salvageable.”

Gould responds in an email by saying that he will speak with Riel “to be sure she can work with all members of the City Council.” Crucially he then says, “I think we made the right hiring decision, but am not at all sure Pam will give her a chance to prove herself.” This is important because it shows that Gould was not then expecting to fire Riel, but was worried that O’Connor would not work with Riel when she came aboard. Nothing that O’Connor had said to that point made Gould think that the solution was to fire Riel.

Polachek was of the same mind: she affirmed that she thought that Riel was the right choice, but said that O’Connor, when she sets her mind, “tends to be immovable.” Repeating a suggestion she had made in another email even earlier Friday morning, Polachek suggests that Kate Vernez (the staff member Riel would replace), might help “open the door a little” for Riel with O’Connor, but says that Riel will then “have to try to establish trust with her.”

Emails between Gould and Elaine Polachek Friday morning.

Emails between Gould and Elaine Polachek Friday morning.

These emails make it clear that at this point both Gould and Polachek expected Riel to come to work, and the issue would be getting O’Connor to work with her. As Friday began, Gould was expecting to speak to Riel to confirm that she could work with all members of the Council, but he was worried that O’Connor would not give Riel the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, it becomes apparent not only from the emails, but also from O’Connor’s deposition testimony, that she was getting deeper into the issue because she felt that Gould was not taking her concerns seriously. You never know what might have had happened if Gould had said something like, “don’t worry, I won’t make you work with anyone you don’t want to work with.” But as Gould keeps asking O’Connor to give Riel a chance, O’Connor keeps finding more about Riel she doesn’t like, and Friday afternoon O’Connor responds with a blistering email to Gould, saying that she does not and will not trust Riel. She says she will not work with Riel “not because she is a supporter of others but she attacked me directly by putting money onto (sic) a hit piece. There are very very few direct hit pieces done in Santa Monica and she was a leader in this effort.”

In the email O’Connor chides Gould for hiring “people who are political enemies of people elected to your Council,” but O’Connor still considers the hiring of Riel to be a done deal. There’s nothing indicating that O’Connor believes the decision can be reversed; she wants Gould to find someone else for her to work with.

As the afternoon goes on, O’Connor continues to ratchet up the pressure. In another email she tells Gould that she’ll be running for reelection—with the implication that that gave her even more reason not to trust Riel, who had worked for the reelection of Kevin McKeown in 2006 (McKeown would also be running again in November 2014). In another email O’Connor states that she’s sure Riel’s hiring will become a news story because of her political activity, implying that it’s going to be a public embarrassment, and possibly implying that she’ll make sure it’s a news story. When Gould asks her to have continued confidence that no one on his staff, including Riel, will prejudice O’Connor’s reelection campaign, O’Connor responds with, “I’m sure Kevin [McKeown] hasn’t lost faith!”

But again, there’s nothing where O’Connor indicates that Riel could or should be got rid of.

Returning to Gould’s actions, Friday morning he sent Riel an email asking her to call him. She tried to, but was told that he was in a lunch meeting. In an email she told Gould that she was going into a meeting herself, but that she would be available around 5:45. Gould replied by thanking Riel for trying to reach him; then he said it would be good if they “could talk briefly over the weekend if not today.” He told her that it was about “a small but gnarly political issue.” Gould did not reveal that the gnarly political issue involved her; and Riel responded, without any foreboding, “Ha – those are the best kind!”

Emails between Gould and Elizabeth Riel trying to schedule a phone call.

Emails between Gould and Elizabeth Riel trying to schedule a phone call.

The delay in connecting did not help the atmosphere for the eventual telephone conversation. As the day progressed, Gould became increasingly annoyed by what Riel had not disclosed during the hiring process. His annoyance became focused on four prior political activities that seemed particularly partisan: Riel’s financial contribution to the 2006 attack mailer on O’Connor; her being an active volunteer on McKeown’s 2006 reelection campaign (and donating to it); her being one of the founding members of SMCLC; and her being one of the leaders in the 2008 RIFT campaign.

Gould’s increasing frustration was reflected in two emails that he sent to O’Connor Friday afternoon before speaking to Riel. In them he first raises the possibility, if Riel can’t give him assurances that she’ll be able to work with all the councilmembers, of rescinding the job offer. (Gould always wrote as if Riel had only been offered the job, not that she’d accepted the offer and been employed). In the first email he writes, “if she insists that she can discharge the full duties of the position, then I must allow her to begin work.” He says that he will discuss the matter with City Attorney Marsha Moutrie to see what his options are; from the email it’s clear that he believed that Riel’s job was under civil service and that she might have job protections that could prevent him from terminating her employment.

The second email to O’Connor Friday afternoon came after he spoke with Moutrie. The City Attorney had apparently informed Gould that Riel’s job was not covered by civil service, but was rather an “at will” position meaning that her employment could be terminated at any time. Gould was still agonizing about what to do. He tells O’Connor that he is “depressed over this,” and “increasingly bothered that [Riel] shared none of this in the process. As a public relations expert, she of all people would have strong sense of how her previous activism would affect how she is perceived in this role.” He asks rhetorically, “does her previous political work disqualify her for this key position?,” and continues by telling O’Connor, “I will speak with her and think hard about this. I may have to reverse course and rescind the offer. Marsha and I have been discussing this option and she can help.”

O’Connor apparently didn’t see this last email from Gould until the next day when she was in Barcelona. Yes, while O’Connor was writing those emails that Friday afternoon, she was preparing to fly to Spain. She doesn’t respond to this email until Saturday, the 24th, after she got off her flight in the late morning Barcelona time, which was in the wee hours Saturday morning in Santa Monica.

In the meantime, it was all over but the litigating.

Gould and Riel finally connected late Friday afternoon; Riel was on her cellphone doing errands in her neighborhood. The conversation did not go well. While in their depositions and in court papers Gould and Riel differ on the tone of the conversation, the content is not materially in dispute. Gould began the call by asking Riel about the four incidents of partisan political activity that most bothered him. Riel, for her part, acknowledged that the facts as Gould had them were true. You might think, so far so good, but alas, instead of this acknowledgement leading to dialogue and an understanding that restored Gould’s faith that Riel could do the job, the conversation went downhill.

According to Gould, he lost faith in Riel because instead of going on from acknowledging that she’d engaged in partisan activities to a further acknowledgement that these revelations created problems, Riel gave Gould four of what he called “rationalizations.” The first was Riel’s saying, according to Gould, after she acknowledged the four partisan activities, “But I never hid it from you.” As Gould recounts in his deposition (page 239), that statement perplexed him, since she had not disclosed anything about political activities in the recruitment process.

More than anything else, this statement from Riel, that she had not hidden her prior political activities from Gould, seems to have been what cost her Gould’s confidence and her job.

In case you are wondering, as I am, what Riel meant by this statement, you won’t find an answer in her deposition, as the attorney for the City did not ask Riel why she told Gould that she had not hid the information. The attorney did ask her if she had disclosed the information in the recruitment process, and Riel admitted that she had not (page 278 of her deposition), and consequently it’s hard to understand what Riel was thinking when she told Gould she’d been open about her past. (Based upon something her husband said after the firing, it’s possible that Riel considered that she had disclosed enough about her political past by disclosing on her resume that she had been president of the North of Montana Association and that she had written a column for the Daily Press.) What’s unfortunate is that if, in the phone call with Gould, Riel had simply said what came out later, that after six years she’d put all of those politics out of her mind and didn’t think they were important (Riel deposition, page 74), the phone call might have had a better outcome.

Gould ended the conversation by telling Riel that they should both think about the issue over the weekend and speak again, but it’s clear from emails Gould sent to O’Connor and his staff that he had made up his mind based upon the phone call Friday afternoon to rescind the job offer.

Email from Gould to O'Connor and staff on Saturday regarding his decision to fire Riel.

Email from Gould to O’Connor, cc’ing Polachek and Moutrie, on Saturday regarding his decision to fire Riel.

For her part, Riel also believed that she’d lost the job. By the next day a sympathetic friend with whom Riel had confided was trying to find her a lawyer, and by Monday (Memorial Day), when Gould gave Riel the formal decision over the phone, she, anticipating legal action, took notes on what he said.

Suffice it to say that the phone call on Monday did not go well either. Gould was sad and apologetic, but his attempts to persuade Riel to agree to a joint statement, to spare her, he thought, embarrassment, only made things worse.

So that’s what happened. One can argue whether Gould fired Riel because of her political beliefs or because he no longer trusted her, or no longer believed that she could act impartially in her job, and O’Connor sure didn’t want to work with Riel, but there is no evidence from the record that Gould made his decision on orders from O’Connor or even on her suggestion.

Next installment—what can a councilmember say to a city manager, and what should a councilmember be able to to say to a city manager?

Thanks for reading.

Getting philosophical about water

In California it’s hard to stop writing about water once you start, and after I posted last week’s piece about water rates, more thoughts bubbled to the surface. (Sorry.)

For one, what about the fact that opponents of the rate increase persuaded about a quarter of the city’s property owners to file protests against the rates? Under Prop 218, if a majority of them had protested, the rate increases could not have gone into effect. What if the organizers of the “no” campaign had succeeded?

It’s frightening. The Water Division would have gone into deficit. What might have happened then? It’s like in Washington where people play politics with shutting down government. It’s nihilism.

By any measure, Santa Monica is a well-run municipality. Elected representatives have made responsible choices over the decades, particularly in connection with infrastructure and essential services, like water. Going back more than a century we have had a citizenry with admirable public spirit that has voted time and again to tax itself to pay for what the city (and schools) need. What’s with all this anger and spite? You’re telling me that because traffic is bad Santa Monicans don’t want to pay what it costs to keep their water running?

And no, it’s not about enabling development and yes, Council Member Sue Himmelrich was correct when she said that water was underpriced.

Another thing that I thought more about since last week is whether the City should borrow money, by issuing bonds, to pay for water system capital expenditures. This is a possibility that the City Council left open when it increased rates.

I support municipal borrowing for infrastructure, but debt is not always appropriate. It’s like with any enterprise. Borrowing makes sense when a city needs to make large expenditures, too large to be paid for with current income or accumulated savings, to build assets that will have a long lifespan. Santa Monica voters did the smart thing a century ago when they approved bonds to pay for buying water rights and for the initial building of the system, because they didn’t have the cash.

But that’s not the case now: the system is built and for the most part capital expenditures are needed only to maintain it. It’s not a good idea to borrow money for routine expenditures, and that includes maintenance. The current capital plan, according to a staff report to City Council from last June, is to spend about $3.5 million each year, about 11 percent of the Water Enterprise Fund, to replace aging water mains.

The City has about 250 miles of water mains. Some pipes, made of cast iron, go back to the 1920s. Old cast iron pipes not only might burst, but they also rust inside and that reduces water pressure and flow. Typically it costs $3.5 million to replace 9,000 linear feet of pipe, a little less than 2 miles, with pipes made of more advanced materials, such as ductile iron or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

This pace may not be fast enough. Water mains may last a century, but replacing less than two miles per year will not recycle a 250-mile system in 100 years. As the pipes from the system’s big expansion in the 1920s hit the century mark, the Water Division may need to pick up the pace. But even so, it’s unlikely that the City will need to spend tens of millions of dollars at any one time. Is it going to make sense to borrow? We’ll have to see, but I doubt it.

Last week the City Council was considering rates for the next five years, and chose not to raise rates in years two through five by the 13 percent that Water Division staff had recommended. I agree with those council members who expressed caution about spending $6 million over five years on new water meters, money that makes up much of the difference between 13 percent and the 9 percent increase that council approved. I suspect, however, that the realities of maintenance will mean that higher rates will be required in the future.

Some opponents of the rate increases who want the city to borrow to pay for capital expenditures say that it’s not fair for them to have to pay for infrastructure that will be used by future generations. I discussed this argument in my last column, but the more I think about it the question raises philosophical issues. I have to ask: what are we doing here, in this city (and in this world), if not to leave it (or both) a better place?

When I moved to Santa Monica more than 30 years ago I received the benefit of all the investments prior generations had made not only in our water system, but also in streets, parks, schools, etc. It’s our turn.

And so what if we leave better public facilities for future generations? In my view, that’s something I’d be proud of, not resentful about.

Thanks for reading.

Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica and the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration

For my last post I reread parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to give me some perspective on what’s going on today in Santa Monica with anti-development politics. As perceptive as Davis was, however, it was also interesting to see, in hindsight, what he missed. For all of Davis’ insights, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of the time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Immigration hardly comes up in City of Quartz, but the year the book was published, 1990, was the highpoint of a demographic wave that started in the early ’70s, accelerated in the ’80s, and then subsided in the ’90s. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County’s then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county’s population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but also about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of county residents are directly tied to what should be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era—even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises that massive demographic change caused, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc.—you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that things will get a bit chaotic if you drop millions of mostly impoverished and poorly educated immigrants (who don’t speak English for God’s sake!) into a place that wasn’t expecting them.

It didn’t have to be this way. A century ago it was the nightmare of the Lower Eastside and similar places that led to demands to reform and redesign cities, as well as massive investments in social services, infrastructure and education. But many here in southern California for different reasons wanted to act as if nothing unusual was happening. On one hand you had activists who acted as if it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate, and on the other you had conservatives who wanted to ignore the whole thing and who certainly didn’t want to spend any money to deal with the situation.

The region survived the immigration wave, and may even prosper because of the work force it left behind, but the wave left us with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the true middle class. The other is low wages for working people—a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis. The native-born children of the immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can’t find places to live. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, etc., but that model blew up in the Great Recession. Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so.

So how does this relate to Santa Monica, which, of course, is still overwhelmingly Anglo and native-born? Flash back to 1979 when young activists in SMRR joined with elderly renters, many with radical backgrounds from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to save them from eviction when in Housing Crisis I rents skyrocketed and there was huge pressure to tear down apartments to build condos and offices. This coalition brought progressive government to Santa Monica. The sad fact is that today, however, many of those same SMRR activists, now grown old themselves, instead of harking back to their youthful radicalism and idealism to join with today’s young activists to build housing for the next generation, have joined with their age and economic cohort of (some, by no means all) boomer homeowners to keep young people from moving into Santa Monica.

It’s particularly ironic because the anti-housers today use rhetoric like that which homeowners back then used against renters when renters awoke from their slumber and got involved in local politics. Yes, why should we allow the building of apartments for young “transients” without “roots” in the community? You wonder if people today who use “preserving community character” to block the building of apartments know anything about how that phrase has been so identified in the past with racial and ethnic exclusion. (Thankfully, I don’t believe they do.)

Thanks for reading.