MAIN LIBRARY – The residents have spoken and what they said was, “Booooooo…”
If Residocracy’s first-ever City Council candidate forum, held Monday night at the Main Library, was any indication it’s going to be a heated campaign season.
The recently formed political party, founded by Armen Melkonians, successfully challenged the controversial Hines development project through a referendum earlier this year. The group invited all 14 people who, as of Friday, had filed candidacy paperwork to answer questions about what they would do if they were elected to fill one of the three up-for-grab council seats. All but one paper puller showed.
The place was packed; a line wrapped around the outside of the library before the doors opened. Residents quickly filled the 146-seat Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium and many were turned away.
Two incumbents were in attendance: Kevin McKeown and Mayor Pam O’Connor. Councilmember Bob Holbrook has not yet decided whether he will seek reelection.
McKeown, arguably the most slow-growth candidate on council, received the loudest round of applause, promising to continue to fight out-of-place development.
O’Connor stood by her decisions and beliefs that – in a room full residents opposed to almost any development – were unpopular. O’Connor, who voted in favor of the Hines development and abstained when the decision was ultimately overturned by council, was jeered when she suggested that more could have been learned about what Santa Monicans really want had the development been allowed to go before voters.
“I’m straightforward with folks,” she said. “I think that’s one reason that I get some grief because I don’t just say what you want to hear. We’ve heard a lot of candidates tonight saying what you want to hear.”
The three Planning Commissioners, Richard McKinnon, Sue Himmelrich, and Chair Jennifer Kennedy, stayed cordial and on-point throughout the night, promising to say “no” to large development and fight traffic in the city.
All three were critical of the Hines development project when it came in front of the commission. They each suggested amendments that would have significantly reduced or essentially gutted the project but they were not able to rally support from the other members of the commission.
During the “Tough Questions” portion of the debate, McKinnon was asked how he justified his slow-growth platform with his views that development should placed near stations of the incoming Expo light rail station or in Downtown.
“The train line is the key transforming element in Santa Monica going forward,” he responded. “That’s the place, if there is to be development, that it has to go. However, I’m not in favor of an 148-foot building on the Fifth and Arizona site. I’m not suggesting that we have out of control (floor area ratio), which allows density and height to swamp our city.”
Himmelrich was asked to respond to Residocracy’s claim that the prospect of new affordable housing, which she supports, is used as a scheme to justify large developments.
Himmelrich agreed that, in some instances, affordable housing is used as “a pawn in a game.” Near public transit, however, she supports affordable housing, claiming that low-income residents are significantly more likely to use transit. Kennedy, as a former member of the Rent Control Board and a leader at Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, was asked why renter protection is “failing in this city.”
“Developers have Santa Monica in their crosshairs and it’s this kind of speculation and the increase in land-prices that is forcing tenants out of their units when landlords harass them out,” she said.
She vowed to fight to stop this.
Recreation and Parks Commissioner Phil Brock, who has worked closely with Residocracy, was the most combative candidate at Monday’s event. He directly attacked O’Connor for her decisions on development and – though the order in which candidates spoke was drawn from a hat – Brock was consistently selected to speak before her, leading to numerous awkward microphone-handoffs.
Brock promised to “demand a City Manager and City Attorney who will actually work for our residents.”
Former Mayor Michael Feinstein told the crowd he was happy to be back. He decided to run for the first time since he was unseated in 2004, he said, because he questioned development decisions, like the initial approval of the Hines development project.
“I’ll say ‘no’ to development that’s out of scale, that doesn’t fit our needs, that has bad impacts,” he said, “but it’s also important to be able to say ‘yes’ and a good council member gets involved early in the process to make sure that neighbors are heard so that when projects get to us it’s something that they can actually support.”
Frank Gruber, a longtime advocate of closing the Santa Monica Airport and former Planning Commissioner, told the crowd that he didn’t have a lot to lose based upon the positions he’s taken in the past. Gruber has been supportive of some development, although he was critical of the Hines development project.
“I think that I’m the best candidate up here to take a realistic view about what can happen in our city and what will happen and how we can shape that to be better for all of us,” he said.
The audience booed fiercely when local activist and perennial candidate Jerry Rubin defended decisions made by city employees. The 70-year-old man, who is present at nearly every City Council meeting, looked shocked at the wave of jeers that washed over him.
Nick Boles, who’s not worked on any of City Hall’s boards of commissions, promised to keep Santa Monica affordable for the next generation.
Whitney Scott Bain advocated for the continued operation of the airport.
Regular candidate Jon Mann framed himself as an outsider, noting that he doesn’t accept campaign contributions. Another regular candidate, Terence Later, promised to protect the city’s landmarks and support responsible growth.
Candidates agreed on few things but, during the “Lightning Round,” in which candidates held up “Yes” or “No” signs to answer specific questions, consensus was reached: Everyone dislikes the new Big Blue Bus stops.
Residocracy’s appointed board plans to make endorsements, using feedback forms filled out by attendees as a guide.