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Difference of Opinion:

In recent weeks, the City’s Planning Staff has twice supported appeals of Landmarks Commission designations of landmarks to the City Council, and, in both instances, suggested that the Commissioners had overstepped their authority and engaged in politicking – advocating for affordable housing on the one hand and against development on the other.

In both instances, as is its habit now, a majority of the Council obediently followed the staff’s lead, upheld the appeals and, in that way, sandbagged its own Commission.

As they should have been, the Commissioners were miffed by what appeared to be rank power plays by the staff — challenging their integrity and ascribing political motives to them. City Manager Susan McCarthy appeared at last week’s Landmarks Commission meeting to make peace…sort of.

It was a simple difference of opinion, she told the Commissioners, though she admitted that the language in the staff’s reports was “inelegant.”

A difference of opinion?

We don’t want to know nor do we need to know what the staff thinks; we want and need to know what it knows.

Santa Monica has never suffered from a shortage of opinions. Indeed, there frequently seem to be more opinions than there are residents, and, on any given issue, they range from idiotic to brilliant, utterly selfish to grandly generous. If there is anything we are not in need of from City staff in this time and place, it is opinions.

We have always assumed, perhaps naively, that the City hired people for their knowledge, ability and experience to do jobs that require knowledge, ability and experience, people who know how to do the things that need doing in Santa Monica, but, clearly, we were wrong, as, obviously, McCarthy and her staff not only have opinions, but assume they have weight and value and thus don’t hesitate to express them.

If, in fact, people are hired as much for their opinions as for their knowledge and experience, how are their opinions measured? Must they hold the prevailing opinion in City Hall? Is there an opinion test that potential City employees must pass? Or an opinion profile they must fit? And what is the prevailing opinion in City Hall? On the basis of its record, growth is good and bigger is better seem to have eclipsed small is beautiful and less is more.

Whether or not City Hall measures and rates its own opinions, it has lately begun to hype its seemingly endless round of community outreach/input/workshop/survey/questionnaires that ostensibly measure residents’ opinions on a whole range of current and pending projects and issues, including the revision of the land use and circulation elements of the General Plan.

Though staff alleges that the surveys, workshops and questionnaires are proof of its effort to insure that every City undertaking faithfully reflects residents’ aspirations and ideas as well as responding to their needs, there is very little concrete evidence that residents’ opinions have any weight at all in the development of City plans, programs and policies.

In fact, many residents, notably the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), who have taken part in the surveys and workshops, have concluded that the surveys, etc. have been deliberately designed to give the City the answers it wants. SMCLC had to go to court to secure City documents that should be part of the public record and available to anyone.

The City’s effort to manipulate public opinion is reflected in its vocabulary, too. In the last seven months, for instance, Macerich’s plans for Santa Monica Place have been downgraded from a “redevelopment” to a “revitalization” to a “reimagining.”

It’s not just “a difference of opinion,” then, it’s a war of ideas and staff is currently winning because it not only controls the municipal machinery, it has won the hearts and minds of a majority of the Council members, and whatever knowledge it has, collectively and individually, is now in service not to the people of Santa Monica, but to its own agenda.

And so, the City staff sabotages good calls by the most scrupulous board in town, with the blessing of a majority of Council members, manipulates public opinion shamelessly and now, in the face of common sense, history, the wishes of many residents, and the City’s much-bruited commitment to “adaptive re-use,” is overseeing the demolition of the former RAND buildings.

Crucial American policies were forged at RAND, history was made there, and the buildings have years of use left in them, but, for no good reason – except that staff wants them gone, they are being torn down.To say that staff is out of control is to understate the case, but now there is…

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