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Santa Monica City Manager's Comments Anger More Community Activists  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 10, 2017 -- City Manager Rick Cole on Sunday was under verbal attack for the second time in a week, this time for what community groups say are comments meant to “deride” and undermine their credibility.

The dispute stemmed from a January 4 appearance Cole and City Council Member Sue Himmelrich made before the Wilshire Montana (or Wilmont) Neighborhood Association, in which the talk was mostly about high compensation for City employees ("'Serious Community Discussion' Needed on Santa Monica Employee Compensation, City Manager Says," January 7, 2017).

Although the session itself was not always friendly, what irked a leading critic most was Cole’s follow-up email to the City Council and City staff.

In the email, Cole characterized the group as “not a typical cross-section of Santa Monica residents,” but instead “longtime vocal critics of city government, particularly on the controversial issue of development.”

Breaking a silence since the November 8 defeat of slow-growth Measure LV, Tricia Crane, who co-authored the initiative, said Cole’s characterization was an attempt to “deride” those with points of view that differ from his and the City’s established political powers.

"As one who believes that democracy depends upon the free exchange of information and ideas, I find the label 'longtime vocal critics' to be troubling,” said Crane, who is also the chairperson of Northeast Neighbors, another neighborhood association.

Cole said Crane "has not raised concerns with me" about his public comments about City critics.

"Tricia calls herself a longtime critic," Cole told The Lookout in an email Monday. "I simply noted (in the email) some of the people in the audience were longtime critics and that accounted for the somewhat critical tenor of the neighborhood group meeting."

Cole was scheduled to meet with the group Monday night. Crane said the topic will be employee compensation, a longstanding issue that re-emerged in recent weeks with a report by a statewide watchdog group that found City pay and benefits were some of the highest in California ("Santa Monica Defends High City Salaries as Key to Quality Services," December 6, 2016).

“We are the residents, voters and taxpayers of Santa Monica and we have a right to voice our concerns,” Crane said. “It should not be forgotten that despite a $1.3 million developer funded campaign against it, Measure LV was supported by 45 percent of Santa Monica voters. And we have not packed up and moved away.”

Had it passed, LV which would have forced a public vote on most developments taller than 32 feet -- or almost all the 3.8-million square feet in new projects now in the City’s development pipeline ("Nearly 3.8 million Square Feet of Development Await Approval in Santa Monica's Jammed development Pipeline," November 3, 2016).

That power now resides mostly with the City Council.

Crane and others from the pro-LV camp have been mostly quiet since the election. But her rebuke of Cole is much the same as the criticism he received January 3 from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), another leading group of activists and City Hall watchdogs that also supported LV.

SMCLC verbally pounced on Cole after he wrote in his “The Long View” City blog that a consensus had been reached in the community on the proposed Downtown Community Plan (DCP) ("Slow-growth Activists Question City Manager's Claim on Santa Monica Downtown Plan," January 4, 2017).

SMCLC joined the grassroots group Residocracy (of which Crane is also a leader) and the city’s longtime neighborhood associations to form the core of support for LV and the leading opposition to the Downtown plan.

The battle, however, is not over. Most of the projects that would have been impacted by LV are in the City’s draft Downtown Community Plan, which could pave the way for taller, larger developments.

They include the Fairmont Miramar Hotel redevelopment project, which is being redesigned after original plans calling for a 320-foot tower drew heated opposition, and the “Plaza,” a 420,000-square foot mixed-use project on City-owned land that is being scaled back after facing opposition from slow growth activists.

City planning commissioners are expected to look at another modification of the draft DCP in the next few weeks. A final vote by the City Council is now scheduled this spring.

Meanwhile, critics of City employee compensation and associated costs, such as pensions, are pushing for an independent audit.

The City is sending the issue to its Audit Subcommittee, although in his internal email after the neighborhood meeting Cole noted that the decision to rely on the subcommittee "evoked a cascade of derision that anything less than an audit completely 'independent' of the city could not be trusted."

The subcommittee, which includes three members of the Council and two volunteer citizens who are certified public accountants, will take up the issue at its next meeting, on January 17.

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