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How Progressive is Santa Monica?

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

Feb. 2 -- Santa Monica is run by "technocrats" more interested in building "monuments" that benefit the business community than in preserving the values that put the city on the political map as a bastion of liberalism.

That was the key prognosis of two veteran Santa Monica liberals asked by the local Democratic Club to determine if Santa Monica is still progressive after voters recently shot down the living wage law and the City Council cracked down on the homeless.

Retired Judge David Finkel, a former City Councilman, and former City Attorney Robert Myers, who was fired for refusing to author an anti-homeless law a decade ago, took the issue head-on Wednesday night in an old fashioned town hall setting at Franklin Middle School.

The two urged the 40 members of the city's oldest political institution to "be the force [they] were in 1981" when, together with Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the Democratic Club helped pass the landmark rent control law, which gave birth to the City's now endangered progressive legacy.

It was the passage of rent control, Finkel argued, that gave the progressive label to a once conservative beach town. But that, of itself, did not make the City progressive when compared to the likes of Berkley, which has an established history of championing liberal causes.

"One could argue that Santa Monica became an issue-oriented City that made a very progressive move in a limited area," Finkel said. But the City, he added, failed to build on that "potential."

Progressives failed to seize the opportunity the morning after SMRR took control of the city council in1981 and elected its first member to serve as mayor. "We immediately made a fundamental major error, Finkel said. "We did not build strong grassroots political mechanisms for building a strong progressive democracy in our town.

"What we did was we took some of the people we thought were responsible, we put them in political office and then we referred to them the responsibilities of handling the progressive matters of the day."

Myers disagreed and fired off a list of anti-war resolutions approved under his 10-year stint. Over the years, he said, the once progressive City Council has gradually become "conservative," while SMRR and the Democratic Club have gotten lax to the point of now electing "technocrats to the run the City.

"What we have in Santa Monica is a bunch of technocrats running this city who don't care about the values of the Santa Monica Democratic Club," said Myers. "So why have you spent so much money and time over the years electing City Council members who are technocrats to run this city?"

Myers said the council's evolving conservatism parallels the complacency of progressive voters who don't hold their candidates accountable.

"You can say SMRR is a majority on the City Council, but when many of you pleaded with them last year not to pass an anti-homeless ordinance, they ignored you. They passed it anyway. You need to hold them accountable."

Myers asked the club why they would reelect Mayor Richard Bloom after he voted for the "anti-homeless" ordinances that banned handing out free meals in public parks and sleeping in Downtown doorways. "I don't understand how you can do that," he said.

Finkel agreed with Myers's prognosis that City Hall is growing more conservative and linked the ideological shift to the moment council members embraced the "flow of the market and the natural evolution of the economy" as their guiding philosophy.

The shift, Finkel said, came after California voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 13 in 1978. The measure reduced property taxes, forcing cities to depend on local sales revenue to fund their budgets.

"All too often we stepped back from making political judgments as to what we should fight for because we thought whatever we did, it wouldn't work if it went against the flow of the market and the natural evolution of the economy," Finkel said.

"And so we thought that we had to go along with that, and the nature of the debates that we had in the council became narrower and narrower in their scope, and less and less imaginative in their reach. Until we got to a point at which we were just monitoring activities being engaged in by others. So we turned into a bureaucracy without a theme."

The unfettered "flow" of the market, Myers warned, is "ultimately going to result in the end of rent control in this community."

The former City Attorney cited the council's penchant for building "monuments" that only profit the business community. Among them is the proposed plan to add more than 1,700 parking spaces Downtown - the "most frightening project" - as well as the City's acquisition of most of RAND's property to develop the Civic Center.

The Downtown parking plan, Myers said, "is a major corporate welfare program for Downtown businesses. It's the public paying for parking for businesses so we can have more stores on the Promenade selling more sweatshop-made goods.

"It makes this a wealthier community. It puts incredible pressures on the housing stock. More people will want to live in the expensive condominiums that will be built when rent control apartments are torn down."

Finkel painted a grim picture of the future by highlighting a hike in the average income of a four-member family in Santa Monica from $10,500 in 1980 to $55,000 in 2002 (The numbers are not adjusted for cost of living increases). The increased income, he said, is an indicator of a "fact that can't be escaped" -- affordable housing is fast becoming unaffordable in the City.

"Life is more expensive in this city, and fewer and fewer working people, single mothers, college students, seniors living on fixed income can afford prices which we call affordable," said Finkel.

"So what was affordable according to a rule of law is not affordable for many in reality" and "what that has done is initiated a chain reaction which inevitably will change the character of this city," Finkel said.

Finkel pointed out that this trend will hurt not only low-income residents, but also the economically stable "yuppies" who moved here for the cultural excitement and diversity. "The very things they came here to get, they're losing too. We're going to lose what we have now unless we do something about it"

If Santa Monica may not have been a progressive city yesterday, Finkel said, "the question is -- can we be a progressive city tomorrow?

"Tell that government that it's not enough just to be a neutral monitor of bureaucracy," said Finkel, "but that you have to do so thinking globally and acting locally with a theme." And that theme, Finkel added, must be articulated by the community.

"I urge you to become the force that you were in 1981," said Myers.

After opening the floor to members of the club -- including Planing Commissioners Arlene Hopkins, Jay Johnson, Julie Lopez Dad and other SMRR members - a relative newcomer stood up from the crowd of mostly seniors.

Todd Flora, a five-year renter in Santa Monica, apparently sparked a ray of hope above a wave of nodding heads.

"No one is getting out there knocking on doors saying, 'Hello this is who we are,'" he said. "We really need to get out there and find a new generation of SMRR activists."
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