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A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

— opening lines, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Here and now, Dickens’ words come frequently to mind. For, in the last two decades, Santa Monica has become two towns – the legendary beach town that so many residents cherish and strive to preserve and refine, and the bigtime regional commercial center and haute tourist mecca that City Hall seems bent on building on the bones of the beach town….best and worst, wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, Light and Darkness…the town we want and the town City Hall is determined to impose on us…

Opportunities and Challenges – I

Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, last week, Santa Monica found itself awash in opportunities and challenges.

The City issued “Opportunities and Challenges,” the “second milestone report on its Shape the Future 2025 Motion by the Ocean project,” otherwise known as the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the City’s General Plan.

“Opportunities and Challenges,” the book, is almost as big and dense as the first installment, “Emerging Themes.” Several hundred pages long (the pages are not numbered consecutively for reasons we don’t understand), it was prepared by the City’s Planning and Community Development Department and seven of its favored consultants.

About the same time, City Manager Susan McCarthy announced her resignation – after 24 years with the City and six years as City Manager. She plans to make her final exit in November.

Her upcoming departure offers a whole other set of opportunities and challenges.

The City Council has asked current mayor Pam O’Connor, and Councilman Bob Holbrook, who will take the gavel in November, to devise the means by which McCarthy’s successor will be found. Will a headhunter be employed to round up likely candidates? Will ads be run? Will Council members be asked to nominate likely successors?

What will the criteria be? Will current City employees be considered, or will the emphasis be on fresh faces and new blood?

It’s been more than 20 years since the Santa Monica City Council actually went looking for a City Manager.

The man they found was John Alschuler and he came to Santa Monica from West Hartford, Connecticut.

He looked something like Richard Gere, wore Armani suits and he set the course that the City is still following, though his tenure was as brief as it was emphatic.

Alschuler left the City to join a firm of consultants, Hamilton, Rabinovitz and Alschuler, and, of course, his first client was the City of Santa Monica. The firm still does work for the City, and was one of the consultants on the aforementioned “Opportunities and Challenges.”

We haven’t seen Alschuler in years, but we liked him. He was politically radical, full of ideas, irreverent, smart and funny, and we spent many nights at West Beach arguing about his plans to put Santa Monica on the bigtime tourist map in order to generate major revenue that the City could invest in a whole range of worthy and innovative social programs.

Having fled Aspen just before it became a grotesque caricature of itself, we knew a lot more about the bad things tourism does to good places (such as Aspen’s “smile committee” and skyrocketing real estate prices that ultimately forced all the working people out) than Alschuler did, but he was sure he could control it, rather than allowing it to control the city.

We’ll never know whether he could have, or would have, as soon after he put it all in motion – the new million-dollar a year Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Hotel District, and so on – he took off.

As far as we know, the ascension of deputy City Manager John Jalili to the City Manager’s office was virtually automatic.

Jalili once told us, in a rare moment of candor, that he had never aspired to be anything more than Deputy Top Dog. Nevertheless, he slid smoothly into the manager’s office, ruled City Hall with an iron will and cold smile and, near the end of his run, said with considerable pride that the City had become the biggest developer in the city.

When Jalili retired, after nearly two decades as City Manager, the Council didn’t even interview anyone else, but simply promoted McCarthy, who had been Jalili’s deputy – to the dismay of many residents who thought the Council should have at least talked to other candidates. But, by that time, the blowback from years of hyper-development – including ever-increasing traffic congestion, escalating real estate prices and a simultaneous decline in reasonably priced housing – had made residents increasingly restless, and unhappy with City Hall.

In the view of many, City Hall had elevated its own interests over the interests of the people it was created to serve, and the staff, not the Council, was running the game.

During McCarthy’s run, Council members have become increasingly docile – unwilling or unable to buck City staff, and, more often than not, following its lead, rather than acting on behalf of the people who elected them.

Now, even if the Council were to promote assistant City Manager Gordon Anderson to City Manager, in what has become the prevailing tradition, the Alschuler line would finally be breached, as, unlike Jalili and McCarthy, Anderson wasn’t here at the beginning, though he has played a key role in several of its more problematic offshoots.

We have long since reached the tail end of a clearly bankrupt policy. It isn’t working, and the only people who don’t know it are the inhabitants of City Hall.

So here we are, 23 years beyond Alschuler — 70 percent of Santa Monica residents are still renters, and, in the midst of the boom, there are fewer market rate places to rent, traffic is a nightmare, but the operative words in City Hall are still UP and MORE, as it continues to crank out more and more major developments, aka redevelopments, aka rehabs, aka restorations and, that new favorite, “revitalizations” – the Civic Center, Santa Monica Place, the Fisher Lumber site, the $80 million Big Blue bus yard expansion, the seismic retrofit of downtown parking structures, the new Airport Park, and the assault on the northern reaches of Ocean Park between Main Street and Neilson Way, where two mega-projects are now rising, and several smaller projects are in the works.

Alschuler was an avowed progressive, but whatever else he triggered, it wasn’t progress. Indeed the Alschuler line has worked more like a seismic fault that’s shaking this old beach town to pieces.

Challenges and Opportunities – II

Who in his or her right mind would sign on to pick up the pieces and try to put this old beach town back together again?

Someone with a taste for adventure. A brazen young person? A very smart old person? A genius?

A fool? All of the above? None of the above?

The majority of the Council has got very used to having City staff do its thinking for it, but, in this instance, they can not, in good conscience, let the staff choose its own new boss.

Well, actually they could, but they bloody well shouldn’t.

In the best of times, which this, by any definition, is not, choosing a City Manager is not unlike casting the lead in a controversial movie…if he or she isn’t dead on right, nothing will work.

It’s a profoundly important decision, and an enormous responsibility, and, as we have learned to our continuing frustration, the Council isn’t good at enormous responsibilities.

The Council must find someone who is capable of understanding what has taken place in the last 20-plus years in City Hall and the city at large, excising the hubris that currently infects City staff, rejiggering priorities, canceling some of the more dubious projects, and, probably, liberating some staff people.

He or she must not only understand Santa Monica, but like it, rather than seeing it simply as a stop on the way to the job he or she really wants.

By definition, a beach town is contrary, made as much by time and circumstance as by design, fragile and tough all at once, unlike any other sort of town, and endangered. It offers unique opportunities as well as challenges of the make-or-break variety to the next City Manager.

Life here on the western edge of America is different in virtually every respect from life on the east coast or in the so-called American heartland. The next City Manager should understand the difference and how it works on terrain and people.

In this instance, character, experience and brains are far more crucial than credentials. Someone who knows the world’s great towns and what makes them great is preferable to someone who may have advanced degrees in urban design and public administration, but has never been anywhere.

For his or her sake as well as ours, the next City Manager will have to act quickly and decisively to take charge of City Hall and cure it of itself. Insolence flourishes now in the upper echelons, while a kind of chronic exhaustion seems to afflict the lower ranks, and neither insolence nor exhaustion are useful qualities in allegedly public employees.

Opportunities and Challenges – IIIAnd so, after decades, we finally have an opportunity to put someone at the helm who can free Santa Monica from City Hall and undertake its resurrection. The challenge, and it may be insuperable, is in making Council members understand that, in this instance, they must finally represent the residents rather than truckling once again to City staff.

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