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Activist Wants City Attorney Chosen by Santa Monica Voters

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

February 22, 2016 -- AIDS Walk Los Angeles founder and 32-year Santa Monica resident Craig Miller’s recent victory in his long dispute with the local government over nonprofit advertising on the Big Blue Bus has not persuaded him to call off another fight.

Miller says he will continue with his effort to make the city attorney an elected position to make the office more accountable. That the current city attorney, Marsha Moutrie, is not accountable, Miller says he determined through dealing with her on the bus ads issue.

“We currently have a city attorney who refuses to meet with constituents, is woefully out of step with our community’s values and is apparently accountable to no one,” Miller wrote in an email to The Lookout.

He added, “These harsh realities have demonstrated themselves to be true on a wide range of issues affecting our city, including overdevelopment, traffic gridlock and unethical behavior inside of City Hall. Santa Monicans deserve better.”

Miller has produced a measure calling for an elected city attorney and begun collecting signatures to qualify the proposal for the November ballot.

Moutrie was appointed to the job in late 1993, nearly a year before the longest-serving council member, Pam O’Connor, was elected.

She disputed Miller’s claim she is accountable to nobody because the council has the ability to fire her and in effect serves as her "boss." Residents with concerns about her performance, Moutrie said, can tell the council.

“Given that all City workers are responsible to their bosses, including me, it seems unnecessary to reorganize local government to address one City employee’s performance,” Moutrie wrote in an email.

Regarding Miller’s other claims, she wrote:

As to concerns about “overdevelopment” and “gridlock”, many Santa Monicans share these concerns. However, Mr. Miller’s claim that I am somehow personally responsible for any such conditions is difficult to comprehend. As to development, this office does not set land use policy; nor do we generate or control traffic. As to communicating with city residents, I do so every day, though it’s usually by email because of time constraints and less often through personal meetings. As to the accusation that I am responsible for unspecified unethical behavior in City Hall, it is simply unfounded.

In the vast majority of California municipalities including Santa Monica, the city attorney is appointed. Of the handful of cities that hold an election, most including Los Angeles and San Diego, are much larger.

There are three cities with populations similar or smaller to that of Santa Monica that choose the city attorney through an election, according to The Lookout's research. They are Redondo Beach, San Rafael and Compton.

Proposition Y was placed on Santa Monica’s November 1990 ballot to make the city attorney an elected position. It lost when nearly 60 percent of voters rejectedthe measure.

The group behind Proposition Y was frustrated with then-city attorney Robert Myers’ leniency toward homeless people, according to an article from that year in the Los Angeles Times.

The City Council fired Myers over the homeless issue two years later.

Nobody on the current council has publicly stated an interest in having the city attorney determined through the ballot box.

The Lookout contacted all the council members and heard back from five. Of the four willing to comment (Kevin McKeown, Gleam Davis, Pam O’Connor and Terry O’Day), none said an election was the way to go.

Davis, who is a corporate attorney, noted it would eliminate the council’s ability to evaluate the city attorney and dismiss her for poor performance.

“It only would be possible to evaluate her performance every four years and in the context of an election,” Davis wrote. “Elections are not a good way of appraising an attorney's job performance.”

She added, “The city attorney position would become a political position that might not be filled by the most qualified attorney. In addition, the legal advice that the council receives almost certainly would be influenced by the political reality that the city attorney would have to run for reelection based on the giving of such advice.

O’Connor, O’Day and McKeown accused Miller of taking a personal grievance too far.

“Santa Monica voters have proven time and again to be thoughtful and deliberate about governance structure,” O’Day wrote. “They typically do not let minor grievances or anomalies dictate sweeping changes in City government.”

McKeown said he had personal experience with refusing to use a grievance as reason to change the City Charter.

“When I had been denied the mayorship for many years, despite being top popular vote-getter in multiple council races, some well-meaning residents suggested a ballot measure to mandate a directly elected mayor,” McKeown wrote. “I refused to encourage that.”

Miller does not need the council’s backing to get this measure on the ballot and for it to pass on Election Day. He just needs voters’ support, which Miller says exists.

“Everywhere we turn, residents are expressing their enthusiastic support for reforming the office of the Santa Monica city attorney,” Miller wrote. “And we’re very pleased to be receiving so many offers from concerned citizens to help in gathering the signatures.”

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