There is a great scene in the movie “Casino” where Robert DeNiro’s character, Sam Rothstein, is appearing before the Nevada Gaming Commission which is considering his application for a license. At their table, he and his lawyer are surrounded by boxes, binders, and folders full of papers they intend to use to make their case. A few sentences into Rothstein’s lawyer’s opening argument, a senator cuts him off, speaks into the microphone, and says, “Pardon me, counselor. Before you continue, this commission is prepared to act on a motion denying the Rothstein application. Do I hear a motion seconded?” The motion is quickly seconded, of course, three fast “aye” votes are offered by the seven-person panel, and the senator declares, “The ‘ayes’ have it. This hearing is adjourned.”
That’s basically what happened last week when the Santa Monica City Council filled the seat left vacant by the passing of Herb Katz by appointment, and not via a special election. It wasn’t quite as bad as Rothstein’s plight, but it cannot be called “democratic” in any way, shape, or form. Truth be told, it wasn’t an appointment as much as it was an anointment — with the role of God being played by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (which held four of the six seats on the council). When it was all over and SMRR filled the seat with one of its own, it became clear that anyone who wishes to serve our fair city on the council has to kiss that organization’s proverbial ring. What SMRR probably doesn’t realize yet is that it has called much more attention to itself than it wants, has exposed its disproportionate influence in city politics, and played itself in the process.
The irony of this situation is that SMRR was born out of the City Council’s inability or unwillingness to respond to the needs of Santa Monica’s tenants back in the ‘70s when real estate was booming, rents were climbing, and people were being forced to move out in order to make room for condo conversions. The legend goes that local neighborhood groups, tenants, and other political organizations got together to form this Voltron-esque (pre-1980 Reagan-esque?) coalition with the mission of passing rent control laws in this town. And they’ve done well. Eleven of our past 12 mayors and, until recently, every member of the Rent Control Board have come from the ranks of the group. From humble (borderline noble) beginnings 30 years ago, SMRR has morphed into the monster we know today. And now it must be stopped.
As we’ve seen through the filling of Herb Katz’ seat, neither the supposedly open appointment process, the democratic electoral process, or the will of the people of Santa Monica are nearly as important to SMRR as making sure they control as many aspects of city government as possible. It was a move so blatantly ambitious that it would have made Machiavelli proud. But I hope they don’t spend too much time patting themselves on the back because once a group gets to be so full of itself that it can’t see the forest of its own mission statement for the trees of its conflicts of interest, the only way to change it is from within. That’s exactly what I plan to do and what I advise my fellow Santa Monicans (especially the 20-and-30-somethings) to do: join SMRR, get active within the organization, and build a coalition of support for your potential candidacy. Since the road to city government runs through Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, there is literally no other way to effect policy change on a local level.
Nobody votes for a candidate based on his or her support for SMRR’s agenda in any local races with the possible exception of Rent Control Board commissioner. And even then, the election of Republican landlord/real estate investor (and good guy) Robert Kronovet could be seen as a direct protest of the group’s inexplicable hammer-lock on the levers of power in this town. At least when you vote for someone in the GOP, you know you’re getting a person who believes in smaller government, lower taxes, and the power of the individual to solve his or her own problems. With SMRR lately, you don’t know what you’re getting — and all I’ve seen is hypocrisy.
For an organization that claims to support “ensuring the continued prosperity of our local economy while protecting the community from excessive development and the traffic it generates,” and that’s “committed to protecting residential neighborhoods from intensification of nearby commercial development” to not take an official position on Proposition T — or worse, to work to defeat it — is indefensible. And for the organization to claim to be “committed to public participation in all aspects of community life, including its political life” while engaging in the public farce that was the “open” appointment process for Katz’ seat is so dishonest that it insults our collective intelligence. You can bet it’s an issue I will be bringing up at meetings, if my application for membership is approved.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider and future SMRR member living and renting in Santa Monica who is shopping his book, “Word In Edgewise: The Collected Opinions of America’s Smartest Columnist” to forward-thinking publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.