It’s altogether fitting that Santa Monica’s new city manager, Lamont Ewell, began his career as a firefighter, as our town is currently suffering a surfeit of political/ideological wild fires that must be extinguished before he and we can deal with the plethora of real issues — the revision of the General Plan, homelessness, overdevelopment and chronic traffic congestion, and so on.
It’s also ironic, as some of the people who are responsible for the wild fires are members of the City Council, which approved Ewell’s appointment. Unanimously.
But, perhaps, like the “psychologically challenged” villains on TV melodramas, they were saying, however inchoately, “Stop us before we make more havoc for our beset, bothered and bewildered constituents.”
In any case, Ewell has his work cut out for him, as they say.
To save this old beach town from itself, Ewell must first take control of the current inhabitants of City Hall, who have got far too used to having their own way, and are afflicted with the BOOM mentality that has dominated in City Hall since the ascension of John Jalili to the City Manager’s chair some 23 years ago, and has been the cause of so many big bad blots on our townscape.
By the mid-1990s, it was clear that City Hall had come to see itself as the boss, rather than the servant and elevated its own interests over the interests of residents. From that time to this, residents have found themselves in a Rhine battle with City Hall for control. And City Hall is winning.
Residents and City Hall are currently at odds over just about everything — the General Plan revision, traffic, the proposed Civic Center Specific Plan, the quantity and quality of both commercial and residential development, code enforcement, historic preservation, tourism, as well as the character of the place.
In the last two decades, City Hall has focused on turning this legendary beach town into a regional commercial hub/tourist mecca, while residents have struggled to preserve the beach town.
Curiously, though the members of the City Council are elected by residents, they tend to rank City staff’s priorities higher than residents’. Sometimes, their antipathy to residents’ proposals and ideas seems based in nothing more than contrariness or ego run amuck. At other times, it seems a bizarre variation on the Stockholm syndrome. But, whatever its basis, it is the primary cause of the current incendiary climate.
Further complicating things, the local ideological schisms are less political than they are philosophical.
The majority of residents would probably describe themselves as politically liberal. Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), which has held a majority of seats on the City Council for 23 years – except for two years in the mid-’80s — is still seen by some people as radical, verging on un-American. Yet it has, in conventional conservative fashion, backed the “Growth is good. Big is better” policies that are deplored by residents of all political stripes.
Things are no simpler, but clearer on the philosophical front. Most residents love this old beach town and oppose the City’s efforts to turn it into a money mill – especially since the primary beneficiaries of those efforts are not the poor or the working poor or even local businesses, but City Hall itself, along with a handful of out-of-state mega-corporations.
Because the 1984 General Plan was the blueprint for the boom, the new General Plan (“Shape the Future 2025”) has become both the latest battleground and the prize. Based on its initial reports, City Hall seeks to extend and enlarge on the 1984 Plan, while residents want to craft a new plan that will restore and preserve the beach town and the way of life they love.
Can Ewell put out the wildfires and rein City Hall in?
His credentials are formidable. The young Compton firefighter rose through the ranks there, went to Prince George’s County, Maryland as chief of its emergency medical services and, then, an assistant fire chief. He returned to California in 1991 and became Fire Chief of Oakland — 13 days before the devastating Oakland Hills fire. He was subsequently named assistant City Manager and then acting City Manager of Oakland.
In 1997, Ewell returned to the east coast to become City Manager of Durham, North Carolina, where he remained until he was recruited by San Diego in 2001 as its Assistant City Manager. In that post, he was responsible for day-to-day operation of all city departments. 19 months ago, he was elevated to City Manager after his predecessor was forced out in the midst of a fiscal debacle that included a $2 billion pension deficit, investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Security and Exchange Commission and the filing of criminal charges against six pension board members.
In 2004, San Diego voters approved a change from the city manager/council form of government to the more conventional strong mayor system that will take effect next month. Last June, Ewell announced that he would resign in advance of the change.
Oakland has a population of 399,884 and measures 56.1 square miles. Durham’s population is 187,085, and it’s 94.6 square miles. The second largest city in California, San Diego has 1,223,400 residents, an annual budget of $2.4 billion, measures 324.3 square miles.
In comparison, Santa Monica with 85,000 residents on eight square miles, and an annual budget of $397 million, is toytown, and, coming here from the turmoil in San Diego, Ewell might justifiably feel as though he has, almost literally, stepped out of the fire, over the frying pan, and off the stove.
That would be a mistake. Santa Monica may be small, but, as we have noted, it is at war with itself, and the stakes are very high.
And Ewell’s first public comments, made immediately after his appointment was announced, suggest that he not only understands the problems, but has already determined how he will approach them.
He said, “Santa Monica addresses issues head on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an extension of transportation modes, whether it’s looking at traffic congestion, trying to protect the integrity and uniqueness of our neighborhoods, attacking affordable housing so everyone has the opportunity to live in the community which they deserve to live in, as well as addressing homelessness.
“It is because you are willing to address these issues that I am elated with the opportunity to join you to find solutions. … I’m up for the task. I’m committed to working seven days a week joining together with my co-workers to find ways to translate your policy objectives into day-to-day practices. I will do everything I can to be an attentive listener and meet with the community as they desire and always make sure to fashion ideas and solutions that reflect the sensitivity and needs of this community before we bring them to your attention and ask for your support.”
In an interview with the Mirror the same night, he said, “Homelessness is the number one issue for me and that’s what attracted me as I read about some of the issues here. It seems to be number one for the community. That’s the good news. We can coalesce together and seek ways to find a solution …We can have balanced housing and do that and not erode the quality of life of the community.”
He also said, “Education is a top priority of mine because my mom was an educator and my grandmother was an educator so I have a passion for it. One of the things I bring with me is the hometown/gown relationship issue …back east we worked very closely with Duke University to develop a strong working relationship that flourished and I’m hoping to do the same with Santa Monica College, given some of the issues I’ve heard about.”
Ewell’s pledge to be “an attentive listener and meet with the community as they desire and always make sure to fashion ideas and solutions that reflect the sensitivity and needs of this community” is as vital as it is wise.
Indeed, he would be well advised to spend at least as much time outside of City Hall as inside.
City Hall has been anything but an “attentive listener,” since it decided more than a decade ago that it, in fact, was “the City,” and the rest of us were merely “the city.”
With few exceptions, City staff members spend little, if any, time actually looking at the city they are charged with managing, and no time at all listening to residents.
As countless residents have alleged recently, the city’s so-called community workshops are rigged. City Hall hears only what it wants to hear from speakers at Council meetings. And its scorn for “anecdotal” information is almost palpable. We assume staffers talk to each other, as almost every time we call a department head, we are told that he or she is in a meeting, but they do not talk to residents, preferring to base policies on theories, data from other cities, concepts and consultants’ reports and analyses.
The trouble with that approach is that Santa Monica is not a theory or a concept, it’s an actual town with a long rich history and it is inhabited by actual people, and the place and its residents are unique and cannot be explained, much less contained in theories or concepts.We hope that Ewell spends a lot of time going around Santa Monica – on foot and in a car, and listening attentively to residents – singly or in groups, formally and informally, and, in that way, comes to know and love this old beach town as much as its residents do. If he does that, he will know what to do next – because this legendary beach town is not the problem, it’s the solution.