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Top Santa Monica Stories of 2016


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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

December 23, 2016 -- Even years are always eventful in Santa Monica because they feature City Council races. But for the first time in recent memory, the council contest was a dull affair. Did that mean 2016 was a total dud for the Santa Monica political scene? Not even close.

The usual battles on airport and development took place--arguably in even more heated fashion than in past years. Santa Monica's city attorney of more than 22 years stepped down, and the school district's chief went off to the desert. The Expo line finally opened--bringing trains into Santa Monica for the first time since Eisenhower was president, and commuting in and out of the city became easier with the return of the new-look Santa Monica Incline.

Plus, Santa Monica has a new minimum wage that will continue to grow each year through 2020

It was an eventful year, and here (in no particular order) are some of the top stories:

LUVE Is an (Election) Battlefield
With the City Council election being strangely quiet and mostly uneventful (more on that shortly), the slow-growth Measure LV took center stage during the local campaign season. Proposed by the activist group Residocracy as a method to reduce what it sees as unchecked development in Santa Monica, the measure also known as LUVE would have made voter approval a requirement to finalize most projects taller than 30 feet and documents that establish rules and guidance on planning.

LUVE had many obvious opponents, including developers with projects in the pipeline and those owning existing structures who worried about remodeling (both the planned and the unplanned due to earthquakes). But it was also rejected by traditional slow-growth leaders such as Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer who said it created too many unintended consequences. Nearly all the major endorsements from various groups were for a "no" vote.

This opposition combined with a seven-figure-dollar campaign against the measure led to LUVE's defeat ("Backers of Defeated Santa Monica Slow-Growth Measure Blame Development Money, Claim Success," November 10, 2016). But with LUVE defeated, the battle over development issues continues in Santa Monica. And something similar to LUVE could even be on the ballot in the near future ("Santa Monica City Council Reconsiders Public Vote on Development," December 8, 2016).

Council Gets Serious About Airport Closure, and the FAA Doesn't Like It
Although it was no secret, the council members already felt this way, the City's governing panel went on record that it wants Santa Monica Airport closed soon ("Santa Monica Council Votes for 2018 Airport Closure," August 25, 2016). Not surprisingly, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not care for this move and has begun an investigation ("FAA Opens Probe of City Plans to Close Santa Monica Airport," September 28, 2016).

Meanwhile, the City attempted to evict its two major aviation tenants, and neither Atlantic Aviation nor American Flyers Flight School are accepting this action without a fight ("City in Holding Pattern As Two Santa Monica Airport Tenants Defy Eviction," October 18, 2016). All parties are expected back in court in January. The FAA has also ordered that the evictions be temporarily halted.

While the various legal fights pile up, the City continues to make serious plans for what the public property could become if the airport ever closes ("Santa Monica Embarks on Environmental Study of Airport Park Expansion," August 10, 2016). And one other thing that could add a new wrinkle to this seemingly never-ending conflict is the announcement by the company JetSuiteX that it would offer inexpensive flights in and out of Santa Monica Airport beginning in February ("Promise of 'Affordable' Flights from Santa Monica Airport Angers Activists," December 19, 2016).

Expo Opens to Excitement
A new Santa Monica era kicked off in May with the arrival of the first train via the Expo light rail ("All Aboard Santa Monica's New Light Rail Line," May 20, 2016). This marked the first time in more than 60 years that trains were operating in this city, and their arrival was celebrated with a big party and government encouragement ("Santa Monica Greets Train's Arrival with Festivities, Campaign," May 20, 2016).

Early numbers show people are taking advantage of the trains that take passengers from Downtown Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles with many possible stops along the way. But there has been some concern, including a report of increased crime along the route ("Theft and Similar Crimes Jump More Than 50 Percent Near Santa Monica Expo Line," December 6, 2016).

City Attorney Resigns After 22 Years
After more than two decades at the helm of a legal department that makes national headlines, Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie announced in September that she was stepping down at the end of the year ("Santa Monica City Attorney Announces Retirement," September 26, 2016). She had been in the position since 1994, before the arrival of all seven council members.

While her predecessor many years ago was fired, Moutrie's exit was much less dramatic. Her reasons for leaving were to spend more time with her family and to travel. At just shy of 70, she decided the time was right. Her final meeting was full of tributes ("Retiring Santa Monica City Attorney Bids Farewell," December 15, 2016).

Veteran School Officials Step Down
Jose Escarce's decision not to run for another term on the school board brought an end to his 16-year Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) career. There was also a major leadership change on the staff side, with Superintendent Sandra Lyon announcing her resignation after five years on the job ("Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Superintendent to Leave Post," May 3, 2016). She left to take the top post in the Palm Springs Unified School District.

Lyon was credited with various actions, both actual accomplishments and for setting the path toward possible positive changes for the district in the future. But some observers say that like her many predecessors, she was unable to do much about the achievement gap. A diversity expert from UCLA issued a damning report in the spring saying two decades of efforts by the SMMUSD had not made much of an impact ("Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Get Failing Grades in Closing Achievement Gap," April 20, 2016).

In November, the School Board appointed Dr. Ben Drati from Santa Barbara as the District's new superintendent. ("Drati Appointed Santa Monica-Malibu Schools Superintendent," November 4, 2016).

Iconic Road Connector Gets a Makeover

After 17 months of closure for reconstruction, the Santa Monica Incline was back in business just in time for Labor Day weekend ("Santa Monica’s Iconic California Incline Reopens," September 2, 2016). There were some delays in the $17 million project, and people were happy to see the return of a 1,400-foot stretch of California Avenue that connects Ocean Avenue to Pacific Coast Highway. A big crowd turned out for the festive reopening, which included a Big Blue Bus doing the ribbon "cutting" with a drive through and people testing the new road on foot, bike and, in the mayor's case, on horseback.

Low-Wage Workers Get a Raise
Santa Monica joined a growing list of cities that are giving the lowest-earning workers a so-called living wage ("Santa Monica City Council Votes to Hike Hourly Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour by 2020," January 14, 2016). While the council's attempt to do this a decade and a half ago led to a bitter election, this time the Chamber of Commerce was on board, and various stakeholders worked together to finalize the details of something that passed with relatively little controversy ("Council Makes Tweaks to Santa Monica Minimum Wage Law," April 29, 2016).

The first step in the path toward the $15-per-hour minimum salary went into effect July 1, with the bottom hourly salary for most workers rising to $10.25. It will rise to $12 next year.

The City Council Election That Barely Was
All four City Council incumbents were re-elected in November. That's not unusual in Santa Monica, but what was out of the ordinary was that the incumbents had almost no competition. Only one of their opponents raised any money and active campaigning from non-incumbents was almost non-existent.

But at least the council had an election. The SMMUSD board didn't have one because there weren't enough candidates. This has not happened in modern local school board history. Incumbents Maria Leon-Vazquez and Ralph Mechur as well as newcomer Jon Kean earned board seats without needing to run a campaign.

Council Updates Anti-Corruption Law
The City Council's longest-serving member, Pam O'Connor, took some verbal jabs from her colleagues on the dais at an April meeting with an independent ethics review on the agenda ("Santa Monica Council Member Criticized by Colleagues," April 28, 2016).

Although the report from consultant John Hueston stopped short of accusing O'Connor of ethics violations in her role in the Elizabeth Riel hire/fire affair, it did say she was "not mindful" of the City's anti-corruption law when she contacted then-City Manager Rod Gould numerous times about Riel shortly before her firing ("Offer Rescinded to Political Activist for Santa Monica’s Top Communications Job," May 29, 2014).

Councilmember Ted Winterer said O'Connor's actions had "tainted" her accomplishments in other areas. Others also had harsh words. But the council would not censure O'Connor as some activists wanted. Hueston's report led to the council making changes to the anti-corruption law to strengthen it. These amendments went before the voters in November and were passed with no active opposition campaigning against them.

Santa Monica Remembers
There were several major deaths this year of people who lived in Santa Monica or at least had a major influence on the city. Among them were newspaper columnist Bill Bauer, former police chief James Keane, former Santa Monica College president Richard Moore, former Westside Councilman Bill Rosendahl and famed peace activist/former legislator Tom Hayden.

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