City Council Elections Help Shape the Future of the City
City Council Elections Help Shape the Future of the City
Oscar De La Torre
It’s 8:00 a.m. and the city is bustling with activity. Early riser restaurants and artisanal cafes dot the promenade with hundreds of patrons in line to buy their morning coffee. Buses, trucks, and cars rushing by the boulevards to reach their respective nine-to-fives.
Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen in navy collared shirts and orange-yellow vests patrol the roads removing the refuse that the yester night has left behind.
The busy drills and hammering of heavy iron frames echo far and wide as buildings are constructed to house the merchants and denizens of the city of Santa Monica. “If the residents of the city knew what was going on, they would recall the entire Santa Monica City Council and replace them with candidates that support the goals of the residents,” said candidate John Mann.
Mann is addressing the increasing desire in today’s political climate for increased transparency and resident civil engagement in local and national government. Running for a seat in council, his campaign claims that the city is no longer accountable to the majority of its citizens, and instead has become subordinate to special interest groups. To address this issue, Mann has advocated for more than a decade for the creation of Virtual Town Hall: a web-based forum to help create legislation and stimulate resident civil engagement. The Virtual Town Hall would function as an internet hub allowing the city’s residents to engage in dialogue and discourse about city policy and events. By providing the medium, it further allows residents to connect with town hall administration, city employees, and fellow citizens, all while creating beneficial legislation for Santa Monica.
With the City Council elections coming up on November 8, Mann’s words provide a strong wake-up call to Santa Monicans. While it may be an alarming and hard-hitting hyperbole to some, it should be worth noting that the city’s executive powers are vested in seven acting members. Votes are counted pluralistically as compared to a system of proportional representation. With four of the seven total seats up for election on the ballot this contest and ten people running, each candidate is running at full pace to win a spot in governing this vastly interconnected city by the sea. Within reason, each council member serving the community could be seen as a medium for the hopes and dreams of the many who imbue them with faith and finances.
Residocracy is one grassroots organization that has been dedicated to informing the public and motivating the resident voters in relation to Santa Monica public policy. Its founder, Armen Melkonians, said, “I urge students of SMC and young people to really research the issues...Most people care, they’re just unaware. If more people are aware, we’ll have a better turnout in every election to follow.”
Each candidate is representing vital interests as well as essential perspectives of Santa Monica’s inhabitant. If elected to council, they take on definitive roles in refining and reforming the reigning vision that determines the ongoing destiny of more than 92,000 people and growing.
What is the vision and how does it affect the people living in Santa Monica? For the time being, the political climate has made it so that the city council assume roles of appointed delegates. As a result, organizations such as Santa Monica Renters’ Rights (SMRR) have made it so that officials representing their group’s interests get elected and enact policy that benefits their concerns. Six out of the seven council members are SMRR elected officials, as well as all of the members of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees.
Political action committees too, such as Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth and Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future, have been known to provide the essential financing and publicity to help ensure a chosen candidate’s election.
Santa Monica’s interest group phenomenon has even extended to its civil servants. Through endorsements and campaign contributions, employee associations like the Santa Monica Police and Fire Department have also consolidated reliable voting blocs and become key players in prioritizing their collective agenda to ensure that the council represent them effectively. If this is the trend, then which residents are needing to be better heard?
“Our seniors are the treasure, our youth need a future, and all of us residents here need to be a priority to all matters concerned,” said candidate Terence Later. A local entertainment consultant with popularity amongst the arts community and Santa Monica residents alike, he supported the Prop T initiative in 2008 with council members Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer. The measure would have limited commercial development to 75,000 square feet a year for 15 years and allowed voters to have more of a say in large development projects. Terence Later also advocated increased government accountability through the Oaks Initiative, a bill formed in 2000 with the purpose of prohibiting public officials from receiving personal benefits from persons or entities in exchange for goods, services, and land use approvals that benefited them. According to the candidates, the council has had a history of public officials accepting financial contributions that could lead to potential conflicts of interest in the process of city planning and management.
“We’ve had city council members that were getting money from developers and then voting for their projects. After voting for their projects, the developers were turning around and relieving their campaign debt,” said candidate Oscar De La Torre. A board member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and proponent of equal opportunity, De La Torre has worked extensively in community outreach programs for youth; working to reduce violence in Santa Monica residential neighborhoods and increase student achievement. In 2014, the Santa Monica Transparency Project claimed that Pam O’Connor had repeatedly accepted batched campaign contributions while serving as mayor. When accused of misconduct, she returned the money and an investigation was not undertaken.
“People have to be engaged and have to be civic-minded…to have a community based idea and know who their neighbors are... Our voters have to understand that you can’t just vote for one guy, you’ve got to vote for four in order to prevent having more of the same business as usual,” said candidate Mende Smith. An internationally acclaimed writer and journal editor that has worked with the Green Party, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, Smith has advocated residents to adopt local policies that could aid in implementing investment in education, limited-equity housing co-ops, and police demilitarization.
“It’s important to have voices on the city council who listen to everyone, that can build bridges between the various groups within the city,” said Gleam Davis, one of the council members running for reelection. Davis has advocated the Living Wage Ordinance to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 and to support the building of more affordable housing to fight increasing gentrification. She also has called for the approval of Measure V to update SMC facilities. “Santa Monica College is a tremendous asset to our community. The fact that more than fifty percent of the people who live in Santa Monica take advantage of the wonderful programs offered by the college, I think is a testament to the vital role it plays in our community,”
As it shows, many of the candidates agree that the city of Santa Monica benefits when more residents are well informed and when its council members are willing and able to respond to them. When a properly educated populace increases their civic engagement, city hall will better address the community’s expressed interests and the interests themselves will better fit the citizens. As for now, the future of Santa Monica is still unclear, but it will be more certain once the voters decide November 8.