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City Council Report:: Historic District and Special Ed Issues

The City Council authorized expenditures of $4,021,861 at its Tuesday, April 22, meeting, and then authorized the Redevelopment Agency to obtain a $50 million line of credit (with an option to increase the line by an additional $25 million). And that was all before the controversial items on the agenda were taken up.

Those latter items were (1) the question of whether the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) had met the conditions regarding the use of confidentiality clauses in “settlements agreements” employed in the special education program, which conditions were placed by the City Council in June 2007 regarding its $530,000 increase in City funding to the District, and (2) the appeal of a Landmarks Commission technical denial of a remodel/addition in the Third Street Neighborhood Historic District.

In other action, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had sent a letter to Santa Monica Airport Manager Robert Trimborn demanding that he retract a notice that the City’s ban on the larger, faster “Category C and D” aircraft would be enforced beginning April 24; the Council decided in closed session conference with legal counsel to go forward with enforcement of the ban.

And a recommendation that the Council appropriate $395,000 for the removal and replacement of approximately 300 declining carob trees and the pruning of an additional 330 carob trees was pulled from the agenda by the City Manager to be heard in a month.

The Expenditures

The more than $4 million in expenditures was the total of various items on the “consent calendar,” which consists of items thought to be not controversial, all of which are passed without discussion in one motion unless any councilmember asks that an item be “pulled” for separate consideration. Among the items approved April 22 were a $2,790,000 contract for parking citation processing services, a $447,840 contract for implementation of a computerized maintenance management system, and the acquisition of a dozen police cars.

The Redevelopment Agency line of credit is designed to accelerate affordable housing production. In a memorandum to the Council prepared by Housing and Economic Development Director Andy Agle and Director of Finance Carol Swindell, they explained that “[t]he Agency’s current affordable housing finance model is based upon a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis, which provides approximately $10 million annually” from revenue the Agency collects each year.

That revenue stream “can support a line of credit of significantly more than the amount recommended at this time,” and the line of credit proceeds would allow the Agency to build or purchase/rehabilitate more affordable housing units sooner so as to “take advantage of opportunities as they arise” and act before acquisition and construction costs escalate. “A $75,000,000 line of credit represents a balance between creating new affordable housing finance opportunities and the cost of the bank commitment fee associated with a line of credit,” the memorandum said.

The SMMUSD Matter

Unlike most cities, Santa Monica makes a direct transfer of city funds to the school district to supplement its budget. Last year, the City increased that contribution by about $530,000, but withheld the delivery of those funds pending an audit of certain school district practices involving special education students and their families. That audit was recently completed by an independent consultant and is reported to be critical of the district’s use of confidentiality clauses in “settlement agreements” that are sometimes used to resolve differences of opinion between the district and the students’ families as to the nature and amount of special services provided to the student.

When the City Council withheld delivery of the additional funds and required the audit, it ordered a moratorium on the use of confidentiality clauses unless they were requested by the parents. At the April 22 meeting, the Council considered whether the district had abided by that moratorium and so whether the withheld funds should now be paid over to the district.

SMMUSD Superintendent Dianne Talarico reported that of the 37 settlement agreements executed since the Council imposed the moratorium, 28 included confidentiality clauses, and she had been informed by her staff that they had all been requested by parents. She acknowledged that she had heard “through the rumor mill” that some of those parents now contended they had been coerced into agreeing to the confidentiality clauses.

Talarico asked the Council to hold the funds for another 30 days while she investigated further and would therefore be able to make a solid recommendation to the Board of Education. The Council ultimately accepted that suggestion, but not before Talarico and her staff came in for considerable criticism by both the Council and the public, who made it clear that there was a lot more than “the rumor mill” to support claims that confidentiality clauses had been included in settlement agreements in violation of the Council’s moratorium.

After Talarico’s presentation, she said she would stay for as much of the Council discussion as she could, but that she had “oodles of work” to get back to. Councilmember Pam O’Connor later commented from the dais that she thought Talarico was “good hearted,” but that she (O’Connor) would never have said she had “oodles of work” and miss any part of the Council consideration. Councilmember Bobby Shriver added that Talarico’s comment was “completely unbelievable. (As it turned out, Talarico stayed.)

Mayor Katz was more blunt. Speaking of special ed families, he said, “They don’t trust you, and they don’t trust your staff.”

During public comments, parents repeatedly urged the Council to release the additional funds to the district only when the district presented a solid plan to implement changes recommended in the audit together with a timetable. PTA President Rebecca Kennerly referred to the “climate of intimidation and fear” that special ed parents labored under.

Councilmember Shriver suggested to School Board President Oscar de la Torre that the School Board consider directing Talarico to strike all the post-moratorium confidentiality clauses from the settlement agreements before this item comes back to the Council in 30 days.

Third Street Neighborhood Historic District

Property owner Mark Woollen applied to the Landmarks Commission to build a 1,213-square-foot addition to a 1940s non-contributing structure at the back of his lot at 2617 Third Street in the Historic District. A turn-of-the-century contributing structure, which he is restoring, is on the front of the property.

At the last of three Landmarks Commission hearings on the project, the Commission voted 3-2 to approve the project, but since two commissioners had recused themselves, the vote fell short of the four-vote majority of the entire commission needed for approval, and so the application was “technically denied.” Woollen’s appeal to the City Council was heard April 22.

After a presentation by City Director of Planning and Community Development Eileen Fogarty recommending approval of the project, and the applicant’s presentation by Woollen and his architect Michael W. Folonis, FAIA, Mayor Herb Katz announced that over 60 cards had been completed by persons wanting to address the Council during the public comment period. As it turned out, that comment period went well past midnight, and a more or less equal number of persons spoke in favor of and in opposition to the project, including several members of the Landmarks Commission who were also divided in their opinions.

In the end, the Council carried the matter over to a future meeting for Council discussion and voting, Councilmember Shriver having left at midnight and Councilmember O’Connor at 12:30. But the course of the debate raised an interesting issue, similar to that presented by the 2642 2nd Street project which was recently “approved” by the City Council on a 3-3 deadlock vote February 12.

Woollen’s proposed addition is clearly “modern,” in the most popular sense of that word. It does use wood siding, stucco, segmented windows, and other exterior features common to the historic district, but its overall design is modern. Proponents of the project say that it avoids “false replications” or “faux historicism” and praise the fact that “the new addition is clearly differentiated from the historic structure.”

Legally, the question is whether such a building complies with Santa Monica Municipal Code section 9.40.030 (c) (3) as representing “reasonable effort…to produce compatibility with the District character as set forth in Section 9.36.290, and with the scale, materials, and massing of the contributing structures within the District.” (Emphasis supplied.)

On a more visceral level, some argue that the question is whether the building violates what Bea Nemlaha called “the character of the District – a sense of time and place.” Nina Fresco, who chairs the Landmarks Commission, spoke against the project, but conceded that “most of the commissioners felt a modern building could comply” with the District requirements. It was clear from the public comments to the City Council that many of the District residents would take issue with that sentiment.

In Other Action . . .

The Council gave final approval on second reading to the expansion of the outdoor smoking ordinance, the living wage exemption for banks doing business with the City, and the modifications to the green building program. And, having proclaimed April to be “Month of the Young Child” at its last meeting, this week it proclaimed May to be “Older Americans Month” in Santa Monica.

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