In the midst of an election, candidates are answering questions about what actions they would take if elected to office. But events happening around the city suggest that the members of City Council have less effect on what happens than we might imagine.
Music & Discord
Recently, a gale of emails blew across town complaining that Mayor Richard Bloom and Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis are requesting something at the October 2nd City Council meeting that threatens to take away our constitutional rights. Because of complaints about a "party" house set up on La Mesa Road, they have proposed that the City look into having people secure a Temporary Use Permit for events held in the R-1 zone (1) that might involve more than a certain amount of people–say, 150–and (2) that would be to benefit or be sponsored by a commercial, political, or charitable entity or (3) that would impose a fee, contribution, or other charge for entry. Jerry Manpearl and Jan Goodman, who have held many political fund-raisers at their home, have expressed concern that this request could result in ordinances that would affect the right of free speech. Knowing that we have codes in place about noise I wondered why such a request was needed. I sent around an email raising Jan & Jerry's concern and expressing my own that what City Council members Bloom and Davis were proposing was so broad that it might have unintended consequences.
Turning off the alarm
Soon I received a reply from Gleam Davis saying she wished I had checked with her "first before sounding this alarm." She and Richard had no intention of curbing free speech. Rather, she explained, their request "is directed to what is happening on La Mesa where a company is running a party house that is hosting many events attended by hundreds of people. Unfortunately for the neighbors on La Mesa who cannot get into their own homes because the street is blocked by traffic and valet shuttles and who have endured threats and damage to trees and other property, it is 'broken.' The City Attorney's office has indicated that there is no regulation against running this party house in a residential neighborhood and so Richard and I have brought forth tomorrow night's item." In other words, the City Attorney's office is saying that the codes we have are not sufficient to deal with this problem. Having sent one email around, I felt the obligation to pass Gleam's response around to the same people.
Soon after that, I received an email from Diana Gordon of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. She liked what I had written and assured me that people had good reason to be concerned. She went on: "Likewise the policy question of whether it's a good idea to enact an ordinance for 1 house venue problem when there are laws on the books that can be invoked if violated is certainly a legitimate question too. These issues are properly raised WHEN the item is being discussed for exactly the reason you pointed out–unintended and perhaps unconstitutional consequences." Feeling validated, I wrote to Diana that I would send along her reply just as I had done with Gleam's email, but, first, I would be going to the League of Women Voters Candidate Forum at the library auditorium.
When a Bludgeon beats a Scalpel
After that event, I spoke to Gleam Davis and shared with her what Diana had to say. Gleam understood people's concern. But, the reality was that even though, as Diana claimed "there are laws on the books that can be invoked if violated," the City Attorney's office has been unwilling to enforce these laws for fear of suits.
As Gleam put it, "We are just legislators." The powers of the City Council are limited. If the City Attorney's office won't enforce the present laws, it is up to the City Council to pass laws that can and will be enforced.
When Blight beats Might
If the City Attorney's office won't enforce the laws for fear of being sued, that seems to be the problem that should be addressed. That seems more important than going into "overkill." Consider, in Santa Monica, blighted buildings have been allowed to remain standing for over 10 years because the City has refused to take action. A member of a county planning commission north of here who now has a second home in Santa Monica to be close to his children said that this was crazy. In other areas, the policy is clear. If blight exists, people have one year to correct the problem. If it isn't corrected by then, the city exercises its right of eminent domain, purchases the property, and sells it to someone who will deal with the problem and build something useful for the community. Instead, we see our City Council members unwilling to force the City Attorney's office to take such a stand. I thought of those candidates at the forum I had just attended, saying what they would do if they were on the City Council and wondered if they had any idea of how powerless they might be.
Not so Fresh and Not so Easy
My fear for them was compounded, though, by a meeting that started just an hour before the candidate forum, in which members of Northeast Neighbors, one of many neighborhood associations representing the residents of our city, were asking two City Planners how it was that Fresh & Easy, which had received such strong opposition from the community when they proposed to come into the neighborhood, were now being received with open arms.
Originally, Fresh & Easy, a store with troubling history in other communities, had requested variances to come into the building on Wilshire & Harvard formerly occupied by the Magnolia outlet. As a self-checkout store selling alcohol, in violation of new State-laws preventing such sale, a variance was required that the City seemed willing to give. Since that request, four suits have been filed in California communities where minors had bought alcohol. Another variance was needed because switching from a commercial retail selling audio-video products to a grocery store is a "change of use" requiring more parking than was available. Though Fresh & Easy said that it had arranged for parking for their employees at other locations, neighbors who had experienced their residential parking being taken over by employees and customers of other establishments feared more intrusion.
Fresher Deal Made Easier
So, how did this project go forward with so much working against it? First, Fresh & Easy decided not to sell alcohol, so no variance would be needed for that. Then, a portion of the old Magnolia store was being divided off from the store to serve as a storage warehouse for an entity other than Fresh & Easy. This would reduce the square-footage enough so that the parking spaces available would fit our present zoning code. Russell Bunim, the Associate Planner overseeing this project, had told all of this to Tricia Crane, the head of Northeast Neighbors, before Tuesday night's meeting took place. But he didn't tell her which entity was willing to pay for storage space in such a high-rent area. It was the City of Santa Monica.
Despite community complaints, the Planning Department decided to spend taxpayers' money (when cheaper space might be found elsewhere), forcing their decision on our community without involving the Planning Commission or our City Council. So much for democracy!
Who's in charge?
When I wrote to Bill Bauer about this, he replied, "Bob Holbrook told me years ago that 'staff runs the city, we don't.'" And, further, "Shriver told me that 'with 500 to 2500 pages of staff reports on each agenda, we don't have time to read everything and have to rely on staff.'"
Be Careful What You Ask For
As I wrote to candidates, when the Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors website was set up to share candidate information with the public and we committed ourselves to informing those on our mailing list about each event where the public was invited to meet candidates, listen to their ideas, and speak to them about their own concerns: "May the odds be ever in your favor." As the line spoken at the opening of The Hunger Games, it offers little hope to the contestants. But, now, I see it offers little hope to the winners, as well.