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Council Distributes Control Over General Plan

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

October 28 – A potential power struggle among City officials to control a plan that will shape Santa Monica’s future fizzled into a seemingly happy compromise at Tuesday's joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission.

Separate documents prepared by City staff and the commission prior to the meeting were at odds over who should control the upcoming overhaul of the development and traffic plans that regulate everything from the height of buildings to where housing can be developed to the City's plans for public transportation.

The commission's document quoted a portion of the Municipal Code that says it is responsible for preparing the plans "with the assistance" of staff, while staff's document stated that the "most important" law was the City Charter, which gives staff power to write the plans.

A final compromise approved by the council with little push-and-pull allows staff to draft the new land use and circulation elements after receiving extensive input from the public, consultants and government bodies.

Under the compromise, the commission will monitor the details of the public process and make general recommendations to staff and the council, which will hold final decision-making power.

"I think we're on the same page," Commission Vice Chair Darrell Clarke said. "We're seeking to exercise our appropriate oversight of the process."

Council Member Ken Genser, who was on the Planning Commission 20 years ago when the City first created the land use and circulation portions of the general plan, said the commission played a hands-on role in 1984, working directly with consultants and staff to draft the plans.

"I think that in effect the Planning Commission should be molding this (first) version," he said.

Genser agreed with staff that it should have responsibility for actually writing the plans, but objected to staff's proposal to hold focus groups with select residents and then filter the input back to the commission and council.

"It starts to indicate to me that staff and consultants are going to start molding this without the options being considered in the public light, and I think that really is the role of the commission and the council," Genser said.

"I hope we can transcend what may appear to some, and what somewhat appears to me, to be an effort on the part of staff to hold on to control," he said.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the compromise was an appropriate way to "harmonize" the apparent conflicts between the Municipal Code and City Charter.

"The council's always in charge, ultimately," she said. "It's ( the commission's) job to give recommendations; it's ( the council's) job to make ultimate decisions. It's staff's job to give you their best professional opinion."

The council voted unanimously to accept both the staff and commission documents in light of the consensus reached at the meeting.

All three parties agreed that the most important component to the plan updates would be public input.

Consultants, being paid over $1.5 million by the City for the first year of the two-year process, will be holding public workshops and meetings with neighborhood groups and conducting surveys by phone, in schools and on the internet to find out how residents envision the future of Santa Monica.

Chairs of two different neighborhood groups attended the meeting to urge the City to consider their input.

"There has been a failure of public process with respect to neighborhood organizations recently," Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition Chair Rob Rader said. "I am deeply concerned that the input of the neighborhood organizations is going to be merely lip service."

Rader suggested that each neighborhood group be consulted two or three times during the process to give ongoing feedback.

Ana Jara, co-chair of the Pico Neighborhood Association, which represents an area of the city that has never had one of its residents elected to the council, called on the officials to remember Santa Monica’s poorest and most diverse neighborhood.

"The Pico Neighborhood Association has a long history of systematic exclusion from the decision-making process,” Jara said. “I call on you to make sure that does not happen in my neighborhood or anywhere else in the city."

Planning Director Suzanne Frick said meetings would be held in each neighborhood to make it as easy as possible for everyone to give input.

"We're not asking people to come to City Hall," she said. "We're going to them."

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