Phil Brock for SMa.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commissioner, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner
It would be appropriate to write about crime and death in today’s SMart column – about the stabbing on 4th and Santa Monica Boulevard in broad daylight last Friday, the tragic shooting death of a 28-year-old mother of a 2-year-old child early Saturday morning, a beating on the Promenade that night, and the sad Expo train fatality on Monday morning. The rise in criminal activity over the past two years has become ubiquitous in our town. However, the increases in crime, as well as the increases in traffic incidents, are mere symptoms of a more significant problem in our city.
Many residents feel that City Hall is not paying enough attention to the double-digit increases in crime and stifling traffic in our city. In fact, much of the uproar is due to the persistent feeling that our city council can easily ignore residents. We can trace a significant part of that problem to the election of November 5, 1946, when voters approved a new City Charter, which decreed that each city council member would be chosen by a vote of the entire city. The city had tried districts (wards) and a Board of Commissioners system over the years since the City’s founding, and now a City Council/City Manager form of government would rule. The writers of the charter were concerned about the significant ethnic population in the Pico Neighborhood. The Evening Outlook stated that the drafters wanted to be sure that the city council was “homogenous”. That translated to a “white” city council. On the same ballot was California Proposition 11, which would make it illegal for employers to discriminate because of race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry. The precincts that voted overwhelmingly for the new charter in Santa Monica also voted against that anti-discrimination measure while minority precincts voted in favor of Proposition 11. We can extrapolate that the new charter codified that the Caucasian majority would control the council by design. In that same election, Santa Monica residents voted to continue racial discrimination by helping to defeat Proposition 11.
Since the Charter became law in 1946, only three council members of color have been elected. The California Voting Rights Act, adopted in 2002, is now being used as a cudgel to break up the at-large city council composition. In 2015, Pico Neighborhood resident Maria Loya and the Pico Neighborhood Association used the California Voting Rights Act to file a lawsuit to force district elections. The rationale is simple. District elections would allow people to have a voice in their neighborhoods. Each district would be smaller, allowing for elections that are less expensive for candidates and diluting the power of big business and one-party rule. It is more likely that a multicultural district would be able to see a true representative of their neighborhood on the city council. Having district councilmembers would affect neighborhood planning decisions, street lighting, community policing and more. Councilmembers would have to be responsive to the voters in their district, concerned about the cleanliness, upkeep, and future of the neighborhoods. Development decisions that affect the city would still be made. However, the voters in each district would be able to influence these decisions closely. Today, it often appears that all seven council members are only concerned about commerce in our rapidly expanding downtown. And, with all of the council members hailing from the same political “club,” diversity of opinion is not encouraged on the dais.
Many cities have already changed from at-large to district elections, after receiving a legal request from ethnic residents alleging underrepresentation. The number of cities that have acquiesced far outnumbers the three towns that have fought back. The City of Highland came out swinging but later folded and now has district elections. The City of Palmdale spent 7 million taxpayer dollars on an ill-fated fight to keep their council white and from the same side of town. During the trial, Mayor Jim Ledford gave a deposition in his effort to keep Palmdale’s at-large system. Information that was obtained in this deposition led to his being charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of conflict of interest and three counts of perjury. He may be removed from office. Palmdale lost the court case, exhausted their appeals, and their scheduled election was scrapped. The plaintiff and the court created districts and ordered a special election. The first ethnic council member in Palmdale history was elected. The district system is successful.
Our City is resisting the lawsuit brought by Loya and the PNA and has hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as its outside counsel. To date, at least $2.5 million in legal fees have been racked up, as our city keeps fighting its own residents. The total legal fees in this case could exceed $8 million. The case goes to trial in June 2018, and there should be a verdict by mid-August. The Voting Rights Act has been the sledgehammer to force over twenty cities to provide direct representation to their residents. Why does Santa Monica feel it can win when other cities have been unable to? Is the City Council trying to cling to power at any cost? Why is our City Council pursuing a frivolous defense of an outdated type of representation? Is the city’s one political party afraid of losing the absolute power it wields?
If Maria Loya and the PNA win, public safety, neighborhood noise, traffic, and planning decisions will become neighborhood-centric. By dividing our city into voting districts, we will foster real neighborhood cohesion. We may also conquer the one-party system that has kept dissenting views off the council. We will create a city where every resident truly has a representative in the decisions that impact their neighborhoods, and through that, the entire city.
More next week!