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It's About Power    

By Frank Gruber

June 30, 2010 -- My first impression watching the Santa Monica City Council's hearing last Tuesday on the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" (RIFT) is that the initiative is more about power than traffic. ("Council Places RIFT on Ballot," June 26, 2008).

My second impression is that the politicians on the council understand what matters to residents of the city a lot better than the City's staff does.

First, power. The proponents of the initiative at the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) are not stupid. It's impossible to imagine that they believe that their measure, which will at most have a trivial impact on the amount of development in the city, will have a discernible impact on traffic congestion (which is the product of many more factors than the amount of development).

So why go through all this? Watching Diana Gordon of SMCLC sputter in annoyance at the council at the hearing Tuesday night reinforced my view that RIFT is about power. The proponents don't have it, they don't like not having it, they resent the people who do have it, and they know they can't win it in council elections.

Simply put, SMCLC wants to put Santa Monica's political class in its place.

Since its inception, SMCLC has been all about intimidating the City Council and the City's staff, with litigation, hit-piece politics, and now RIFT. Yet for all its allegations of corruption, for all its fishing expeditions, SMCLC has yet to make any charges that stick.

What is ironic to the point of eeriness about using RIFT against the local power structure is that development-skeptics have run Santa Monica for 20 years. Maybe you can't comprehend that if you exist in a NIMBY cocoon, but in particular the idea that Ken Genser and Richard Bloom need to defend their manage-development-(almost)-to-death credentials is hilarious to anyone who such as myself supported Susan Cloke in the 1998 election and then got dumped from the Planning Commission for my pains.

Tuesday night Council Member Bloom said that the initiative was aptly named "RIFT" because it would drive one through the community, but he underestimated its effect as a unifier. I mean, Ken Genser and Tom Larmore on the same side of something? Let's all sing Kumbaya.

Council Member Robert Holbrook pointed out, speaking of the RIFT proponents, that "some people are never satisfied." In this case the motives of the great unsatisfied are particularly suspect because they didn't wait to see how the land use and circulation element update process (LUCE) played out.

As Council Member Genser emphasized at the hearing, the process is not over. The Planning Commission and the City Council are still digesting (and changing) the LUCE framework, and after that there will still be environmental analysis and the new general plan documents themselves to vote on.

Council Member Kevin McKeown in supporting RIFT may believe that RIFT and LUCE can work together, but the RIFT proponents clearly fear the LUCE update and the enthusiasm Planning Director Eileen Fogarty has garnered for it even from many growth skeptics.

The RIFTers argue that the public that showed up at the LUCE workshops was not representative (a statement that is always true of public meetings), and that Ms. Fogarty's staff and consultants manipulated those residents who were foolish enough to show up. But, as council members pointed out, SMCLC drafted RIFT -- which as opposed to a general plan, can't be amended by future city councils -- in private.

I attended numerous LUCE workshops and I was always surprised by how many residents I heard speak who were new to me. Yet whenever people speak against LUCE, they are the same (never satisfied) people I've heard before.

The RIFT proponents counter that the 10,000 signatures they collected for the initiative are evidence of popular support for it, but signatures don't mean much. Santa Monicans live to sign petitions, but initiatives thus qualified for the ballot here seldom pass. Recall, for instance, the Tom Hayden-supported challenge to the Civic Center Plan in 1994, the "VERITAS" initiative in 2002, or the "Homeowners Freedom of Choice Initiative" in 2003.

Back when the LUCE process began in 2004 Council Member Pam O'Connor warned that opponents would use delay to kill the process because they feared change. Sure enough, a process that was supposed to take two years is now in its fourth. But Ms. Fogarty is turning LUCE onto the homestretch, and Santa Monicans Fearful of Change realize that delay won't work forever. They have to kill LUCE by making all the planning for change it contains irrelevant.

The RIFT proponents make one good point, and it is one that is easy for me to commend them on, because I made the same point about LUCE in my column two weeks ago. Which is that the City of Santa Monica has plenty of revenue, and plenty of sources of revenue, and the worst reason to promote development in Santa Monica, or to oppose limits on development, is to enhance those revenues.

This is a political point that I don't believe the City's staff understands; I base that on the amount of data about and analysis of revenues that the staff had consultants provide last Tuesday night in the evaluation of the possible impact of RIFT.

I am tempted to wonder whether this emphasis comes from City Manager Lamont Ewell's experiences in San Diego, where huge budget problems ran up against a conservative, tax-adverse electorate. That's speculation on my part; in any case the politicians on the dais at the meeting Tuesday paid little attention to the issue. I hope that means that the opposition to RIFT will be smart enough not to make that argument.

What argument(s) to make?

Perhaps something more positive and hopeful about our town?

I am writing this Sunday evening. This morning my wife and I took a walk to the Farmers Market on Main Street. Then in the afternoon we walked from downtown to Adelaide for an event -- up the Promenade and then out Wilshire and up Palisades Park.

Afterwards we walked back to downtown where we sat in a crowded theater and saw a first-run movie. The people sitting next to me in the theater -- a grandmother and two little kids -- were speaking Italian.

Everywhere we went I saw happy people. This reminded me of our city's motto, which I'll loosely translate as "happy people in a happy city."

No doubt I am wrapped in the glow of this glowing day, but I suspect that Santa Monicans are sophisticated enough to realize that happy cities don't stand still.

* * *

The event on Adelaide we walked to was a reception the Santa Monica Conservancy organized in honor of artist Don Bachardy at his home -- the art-filled house overlooking Santa Monica Canyon that he shared for many years with Christopher Isherwood.

The hour or so I was in Mr. Bachardy's house was overwhelming. The house is covered with art, and every piece had a story -- which Mr. Bachardy graciously shared.

A city is not just sticks and stucco, and a city is a lot more than how fast it takes to drive through it. A city has history and is a locus for culture. Santa Monica has had a lot of both.

Don Bachardy answers questions in his house on Adelaide Drive. (Photo by Frank Gruber)

(This Friday night (July 4) a documentary, "Chris & Don: A Love Story," about Isherwood and Bachardy and their relationship is opening at the NuArt. I understand that the filmmakers and Mr. Bachardy will be at the theater to answer questions after the 7:30 showings both Friday and Saturday.)



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