When someone challenged a City Council vote, during Paul Rosenstein’s run as a Councilman, he was wont to say that the voters elected Council members to speak for them, and that’s what they were doing.
Well, yes and no.
We elect people to represent us on the Council, but there seems to be some disagreement as to what that means. Perhaps naively, Santa Monica voters assume that the people they elect to the Council will, at the very least, do the things they said they would do when they were running for office, and that the decisions they make will not only reflect the views of the electorate, but will be in the best interests of the community. That, they reckon, is the point of representative government.
But, like some of the Council members who came before him and most who followed him, Rosenstein seemed to believe that Council members were not elected to represent the voters, but to lead them.
The difference is crucial.
As our leaders, rather than our representatives, Council members are not obliged to listen to us, much less reflect our views, but are free to do, well, whatever they want to do. After all, as they are fond of saying, they are the “policy makers,” the elite, out there on the cutting edge, designing our future.
Well, yes and no.
The current Council majority has not only codified Rosenstein’s theory, but taken it a step further, and acts regularly now as if its primary allegiance is to the City staff and its primary responsibility is to speak for the City, meaning City Hall, rather than the city, meaning the residents.
This seismic shift was probably inevitable, as, under the City Charter, City Manager Susan McCarthy and her cohort of Department heads have more power than the Council does, and, most of the time, most of the Council members incline toward power.
Under the Charter, the Council has the authority to hire or fire the City Manager, the City Attorney and the City Clerk, but the City Manager, not the Council, has the authority to hire or fire any or all of the other City officials. Since the Council hired McCarthy without even interviewing anyone else, it is not apt to fire her.
She was former City Manager John Jalili’s assistant, after all, and he was, and still is, the pivotal figure in local government. During his extended run, he played City Hall, and the city, like an accordion, squeezing everything he could out of them. He saw the City as a business, himself as its CEO, and the Council as his ever-pliant board of directors. Near the end of his run, he said with no little pride that the City had become the biggest developer in town.
During his reign, one of the longtime lessees on the Santa Monica Pier told us that Jalili “hated” the pier because it lost money, and swelling City coffers was his principal priority.
It is the unintended consequences of all the Jalili initiatives that dog us today, but Jalili is not the villain of this piece. He was just a hired gun doing his job the way he thought it should be done. The City Council could have bucked him, or fired him, or vetoed some of his cruder notions – like making Santa Monica a “regional shopping center.” It didn’t, because, by and large, it not only approved of his policies and projects but its members enjoyed their new role as self-anointed leaders, rather than mere representatives.
Given the Council bias, the court of first resort for residents has become the boards and commissions, which actually listen to and seem to respect the people who appear before them. But, of course, if commissioners are too responsive or sympathetic to residents or too demanding of staff, the Council inevitably refuses to reappoint them, as it did with former Planning Commissioner Kelly Olsen.
The current Council has only been in office for seven months, but residents are already restless, as the majority seems content to follow the staff’s lead on issues great and small.
Who are these people who are in charge of this old beach town’s destiny? All of them have lived here for many years and are middle-aged. Six are Council veterans, one is new. Six are men, one is a women. Four are married, three are single. Three are consultants, one is a retired pharmacist, one an architect, one a lawyer, and one a lawyer/businessman.
In these ways, they are a fairly typical group of Santa Monicans – except only one of them appears to have spent any time on or have any affection for the beach.
But why are most of them in seemingly perpetual thrall to City staff?
Because, in the Jalili tradition, they agree with the staff that bigger is not only better, it’s more profitable. In government circles, bigger and more profitable are virtues, even though, in real life, they are often problems – as when “bigger” shows up on our hitherto quiet streets in the form of daily bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the bulk of the City revenue comes directly out of residents’ pockets – in the form of the utility users’ tax, property taxes, business license taxes, sales and use taxes, licenses and permits, charges for services, fines and forfeitures, and so on.
And residents are restless because, as was shown in the City’s own initial survey, we’ve had more than enough of “bigger” and want to focus on “better,” and City Hall not only continues to push “bigger,” but has rigged its more recent surveys in its favor, as documented by Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City.
Unfortunately, this perversion of representative government is the rule, not the exception in America today. At every level, it’s less government of, by and for the people, than government vs. the people.
But the fact that it’s happening at the federal and state levels doesn’t make it any more acceptable here.Unless or until the Council majority begins to represent the people again, we are all in for an increasingly bumpy ride, and this extraordinary beach town will devolve into an utterly ordinary beach city.