Fighting for Our Lives
The Capitol, in The Hunger Games, holds dominion over 12 districts, using each to enrich itself. Instead of allowing true representation for these Districts, the Capitol holds annual contests in which a Tribute is exacted from its citizens through a lottery, in which one male and one female are selected to be trained, celebrated, and trained as media stars before fighting to the death in a newly created environment that serves as an arena foe the games. While some see this as a critique of America's media culture with shows like Lost, Survivor, and American Idol, to me it captures the essence of our present election for City Council.
Each district pays some form of Tribute to the City:
• The increased parcel taxes make expensive homes even more costly for those in the North of Montana neighborhood;
• The airport that drops leaded fumes and metal airplanes on residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood;
• The loss of residential parking to the business interests in the Wilmont neighborhood;
• The contamination and degradation of the Pico neighborhood;
• The increased traffic along the busy corridors of the Northeast neighborhood;
• The neglect of homeless who could be employed maintaining the streets, parks, and alleys where they now live and affect the health of the Downtown-Bayside neighborhood;
• The lack of restoration, called “neighborhood preservation” in the Ocean Park neighborhood;
• The gridlock, disruption, and destruction of community, all by-products of the development now transforming the Mid-City neighborhood.
Why would Democracy lead to an Arab Spring?
None of these neighborhoods have a significant say in what happens to them. Instead, neighborhood associations have developed, some larger in membership than others, depending whether residents' emotional climate amounts to an Arab Spring. To channel citizens' frustrations, the City holds regular elections for seats on its City Council. This year, more than any time before, this contest resembles the Hunger Games fought in the dystopian Capitol of Suzanne Collins' novel.
Candidates Thinking Inside the Ballot Box
In that novel, captured well on film, those living closer to the affluent Capitol actually trained to win this contest and the honors it bestowed. Terry O'Day prepared at Stanford to enter the political arena, gained kudos from developers of Playa Del Rey for his participation in making them less of a threat to to Bellona Wetlands. Gleam Davis worked her way through Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) and worked with education support groups to gain acceptance on the Council. These incumbents have learned to think inside the ballot box. Gleam, in particular, talks to residents and tries to micromanage small benefits for residents from projects she has approved.
The Times May Be A-Changing
In any other year, with the money filling their coffers, funding ads filling newspapers and mailboxes, they would be sure to win. But, the climate has changed. The winds of an Arab Spring are blowing. Neither were endorsed by the Santa Monica Democratic Club, and Gleam barely won an endorsement from the members of SMRR.
Everybody's New Best Friend
Some people with backgrounds that have gained them support have been moving up. Top among them is Ted Winterer, the slow-growth Planning Commissioner who many people believe was cheated out of a Council seat in the last race. In The Hunger Games, we see that early gains are made by forming alliances with skillful combatants. Ted has been invited to join Meet and Greets with almost every other serious candidate running.
Strong Stances Win Favor
Richard McKinnon, Ted's cohort on the Planning Commission, was influential in developing Santa Monica's biking plan. He is noted for extracting greater community benefits from developers than they expected to pay. In The Hunger Games, those contestants who win favor with the public often have gifts parachuted down to them during the Games. Both Richard and Ted have won the endorsement of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) and the new pop-up group, calling itself Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (SMRG).
Candidates Thinking Inside the System
Ted and Richard, not having ever been voted into office, don't have the finesse that comes with thinking inside the ballot box, but they do have the knowledge that comes from thinking inside the system. So do a number of other candidates whose background have gained them support. Shari Davis was President of the Santa Monica PTA and a member of CEPS, the Committee for Excellence in Public Schools, that has supported ballot initiatives and has negotiated with the City Council to secure greater funding for the SMMUSD. Some wonder why Shari did not run for the School Board, but she has a strong ally in Gleam Davis, who has helped her campaign gain support.
His Own Man – Or is he?
Frank Gruber, whose selection as speaker at the farewell party the LUCE architect Eileen Fogarty led many at that event to speculate that he had won the support of architects and Land Use lawyers for this present race. A long-time contributor to the Lookout, Frank has been giving out autographed copies of Urban Worrier, a collection of the columns he has written over the years. The issues he wrote about then he talks about now, especially a plan to improve bussing and the areas where people wait for public transport. He was also a strong advocate for the building OPCC at Olympic and 26th Street that many believed would draw the homeless into the Mid-City area. It didn't. Frank presents himself as an independent thinker, a bit of an ideologue, as demonstrated when he was the only candidate who refused to ask the Santa Monica Daily Press to include all candidates in their Squirm Night forum. As an advocate for free speech, despite his wish for their inclusion, he said freedom of the press gave the SMDP the freedom to exclude whomever they pleased. The question remains, though, in many people's minds whether he would be independent of the developers who support him. And, since I understand that he, Shari Davis, Gleam Davis, and Terry O'Day each contributed $325 to each other's campaigns, that also suggests an alliance, much as the most practiced contestants made at the start of the battle in The Hunger Games.
Strong Ties to the Past
The last of those thinking inside the system is former City Council member Tony Vasquez. Tony crossed the police over matters related to their policing of the Spanish-speaking community in the Pico neighborhood. Since losing his seat, Tony worked with other politicians who showed him the ropes. Now, he says he is pleased with the community policing approach being used since Chief Butts left town. Tony is also a strong opponent of the Santa Monica Airport. When SMRR was unable to get its members to endorse a full-slate for City Council, the Board decided to back two they had backed before–Terry O'Day, the incumbent, and Frank Vasquez, with strong ties to the latino community.
Candidates Thinking Outside the Box
For those readers who want someone with experience working the system, that's a good number of people to choose from. But, The Hunger Games did not win its popularity because of its battle scenes. At the heart of the story is Katniss Everdeen, a reluctant contestant who, when her young sisten was chosen in the lottery, volunteered to take her place. Bob Seldon, one of the original organizers of Northeast Neighbors, entered the race with the same hesitance as Katniss entered the Hunger Games. This speaks to his sanity. But it also explains why, when the race started, he was the only candidate without a website. Bob was further handicapped by problems with his email provider. The company had been recently sold and the service was no longer reliable, unbeknownst to Bob. This is why he never received requests from the Santa Monica Daily Press to respond to their questionnaire which was soon to be published as their Voters' Guide. Because Ross Furukawa, the publisher, thought Bob wasn't behaving like a serious candidate, Bob along with 5 other candidates who did not meet criteria they were never told about were eliminated from participating in that event.
The Squirmy Worm Turns on the "Santa Monica Six"
Squirm Night was so Hunger Games, it was hard to believe. Because the Hunger Games are being viewed by members of each District in the country, it is important to manipulate the games to force combatants to reconsider their alliances and their strategies. If candidates had won before but not gotten more than 5% of the vote, they were excluded from Squirm Night. That eliminated Jon Mann, who had run 11 times for City Council. It also knocked out Terence Later, whose signs “Vote Now for Later” were left over from an earlier campaign to be recycled this time around. It also wiped out Jerry Rubin, whose self-description as a Peace Candidate was not permitted by the Elections Board. These three would have been wiped out by the next criterion, as well. Candidates had to have had over $1,000 in their war-chest to be considered serious. Roberto Gómez, a resident of Mountain View Trailer Park, clearly had no such funds to put into his campaign. Armen Melkonians, a civil engineer working out of an office in Beverly Hills, certainly had the money to loan himself but was never told he needed to in order to participate in Squirm Night. Bob Seldon had $1,050 in his campaign, but still didn't know about the paper's questionnaire when he was eliminated. These victims of the “Squirm Night Massacre” were the 6 outsiders struggling to get back into the race. Neighborhood groups, blindsided and sidelined by the Daily Press, withdrew their funding from the event (except for the Ocean Park Association whose board members were unable to confer quickly enough to withdraw). Some association members picketed outside the auditorium. Others wore green t-shirts to show their solidarity with the excluded candidates. Jon Mann sat in front of the stage with a sign and black tape covering his mouth. It was an impressive event.
Bob Seldon's difficulty getting a good start was shared by other slow-growth candidates who could well be described as people who are thinking outside the box. John C. Smith, whose tag-line is “Common Name, Common Sense,” made a critical misstep at the very beginning of his race by adding his name to a transparency letter started up by Frank Gruber and circulated to Terry O'Day, Gleam Davis, Shari Davis, Tony Vasquez, and Jerry Rubin who had all signed, saying that they refused to turn in a questionnaire for possible endorsement by a new group they knew nothing about. The group was Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth, started by Ivan Perkins and friends from Northeast Neighbors. Bob Seldon quickly condemned the letter as an attempt to keep residents from gathering funds to support a candidate of their choice. This made Bob look terribly savvy and John, the Emmy-winning local news producer for KNBC, look like a newcomer to Santa Monican politics.
When is it Wrong to Question the Source?
Several ironies were at play. One, the SMRG questionnaire asked candidates whether they supported the LUCE. Though Bob finds great fault with the LUCE, it is like the Constitution governing our growth. A more proper question would have been, “What parts of the LUCE do you believe might be subject to an interpretation that would work against its overall intention?” That's the kind of question one might pose about the Constitution. But SMRG leaders had not attended the long series of meetings that hammered out the LUCE. One sign of how unrepresentative they were of neighborhood groups was that they timidly followed step with SMCLC, endorsing only Ted Winterer and Richard McKinnon. Bob Seldon, who eventually put up his signs saying, “It's Time to Take Back Our City,” was passed by. So much for being savvy.
Community Candidates Suffer Disadvantages
Armen Melkonians, whose tag-line could be “Uncommon Name, Uncommon Sense,” also did not sign that letter. Nor did he get noticed. But his lack of funds shows the problem inherent in the Daily Press's criteria for what signifies a “serious candidate.” Non-profit neighborhood associations are not allowed to endorse candidates, nor can they hold events to raise funds for them. This means that some candidates could be widely supported by their members but would be excluded from Squirm Night because money from a couple of developers speaks louder than a chorus of community voices.
Special Skills for a Difficult Job
What makes Armen special is his training as a civil engineer. As has been pointed out in forums, the LUCE is the Constitution; zoning is the law. Armen is an expert at zoning. He also knows budgets. He was the first to point out that the budget short-fall of $1.3 million was due to increasing the City's contingency funds from 10% to 15%, a total of $5 million. He also understands the funding tricks developers use that allow them to seem as though they have sufficient funding when they don't. Civil engineers are problem solvers, not ideologues.
A Family Man's Got to Do What a Man's Got to Do
Steve Duron acting on behalf of his family and the future seeks clear skies, solar panels, neighborhood parks, and creative venues as necessary if Santa Monica is to be an authentic city. A lawyer with young children, Steve is an "everyman" candidate, speaking with great clarity about things we say we care about. In some ways, he stands for the spirit of this campaign, where people step forward to right wrongs and do their part to improve the city.
Thinking on Top of the Soapbox
Those candidates that many decry as taking away votes from the "real" candidates are part of the entertainment. Besides, they represent our frustrations how things are going.
Jon Mann has run 11 times, calling for a Virtual Town Hall that can be found on his website at . When he pulled the tape off his mouth at the end of Squirm Night and took a seat beside me, he said, "Those candidates who claimed that SMURF was buying the votes of those they endorsed were wrong. Developers aren't buying votes. They already count on these people to favor them."
Jerry Rubin, when candidates were asked how many City Council meetings they had attended got the biggest laugh-line of the evening when he said, "I attend more City Council Meetings that the Members of City Council do." And, he does. While some see Jerry as favoring every project that comes before the City, he really favors both sides coming together to make this a better city. More than any other candidate, Jerry provided me with information about events I needed to know about. In that way, he is already a leader.
Terence Later, is the nostalgia candidate, calling us back to better times when bungalos were sustainable housing, when Nativity Kitch lined the Palisades, when Chez Jay's was the hottest place in town. He values the city we were that we may never be again. Perhaps his sign should say, "Vote Now for Later to Get What You Had Before."
Roberto Gómez, who entered this race because he felt that a handicapped woman, living in Mountain View Trailer Park, had been abused by the City. At the first event he attended, he announced that he had no platform but that he would speak out against what was wrong. He admonished the crowd at his last forum, saying, "You are not the slaves, and they are not your masters. Throw the bums out." He repeated this each time it was his turn to speak. And, each time, the next person to speak was Terry O'Day, who announced himself with some humor, "I guess I am one of the bums he wants you to kick out." Terry's response along with everyone's growing sense of camaraderie made this final forum sponsored by Northeast Neighbors the crowning event of the campaign. After that came the shock and awe onslaught of the SMURF mailer campaign. Now the contest is not so much about the candidates as it is about how money poured into an election can reduce candidates and democracy to a Hunger Games spectacle–fun to watch but irrelevant to the outcome.
Real Problems Call for New Solutions
Community problems often call for community solutions. In the last forum, the question arose as to what to do about the shortage of parking for teachers at Franklin Elementary. Most candidates considered what rulings would be needed to address this problem when efforts had been made to restrict parking in the neighborhoods. Bob Seldon offered that the problem might be addressed more simply by asking neighbors to donate their "Visitors Preferential Parking" tags to specific teachers so they could count on having a parking space close to work.
Special Knowledge May Be No More than Hearsay
Gleam Davis has been working hard to negotiate for neighbors being given preferential parking, even free at meters, on the streets adjacent to Saint John's Health Center. When the issue of her vote to release Saint John's from their agreement to provide on-site parking comes up, she says that Saint John's is struggling to survive. Terry O'Day says much the same. Meanwhile, neighbors of Saint John's think the special inside knowledge council members believe they have may just be propaganda designed to fool them.
Special Education Needed to Solve City's Problems
Two weeks ago car was knocked over at the crossing of Broadway and Harvard Street. A neighbor said he observes an accident there every week and hears brakes squeal every day. He thinks it is because thick diagonal lines fill the crosswalks at all four corners, causing drivers on Harvard to think that this is a 4-way stop. It isn't. I called my Neighborhood Resource Officer, who connected me with the right department to explore how many accidents have happened across the city over the past 5 years. They promise to report their results soon. But, then, I got to thinking: How many accidents take place that aren't reported? People just call their insurance companies. That means that this city has no true assessment of the impact of development on traffic and the problems that arise from that. Perhaps we need to consider whether neighborhoods should have a greater role in exploring problems they see every day.
The Hunger Games come to an end
As the campaign comes to an end, several writers for local papers have endorsed Ted Winterer, Bob Seldon, and John C. Smith–with, maybe, Richard McKinnon thrown in for good measure. Who knows which will have the greater effect, newspaper editorials or the ads that newspapers carry? And, who is to say that resident-oriented candidates will be any more diligent than those who are already experienced at doing the job? But, as Katniss Everdeen discovers at the end of the trilogy, more important than leaders are those who participate in governing their communities. New models may be needed. Perhaps the time has come for us not to rely on those who are "in the know." All I know is that the future is ours. We should make the most of it.