CITY HALL — Every second and fourth Tuesday, the City Council sits down with a stack of staff reports to debate and decide the issues facing Santa Monica.
Seated directly opposite them is an audience, usually composed of people armed with passion and rhetoric about topics that will greatly impact their lives. To their left is City Manager Rod Gould, whose job it is to cut to the heart of the matter and support the council to make the best possible decision for the city.
Gould took over the post in 2010 from outgoing City Manager Lamont Ewell. He came from Poway, a small community north of San Diego to take over what some call the “biggest little city” in the nation.
It has not been an easy time to be in the business of government.
Although Santa Monica’s diverse economy and enduring international popularity has shielded it from the devastation that has wracked other communities, Gould and his staff have contended with shrinking budgets, negotiations with all municipal bargaining units and, most recently, the loss of the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency.
At the same time, the City Council embarked on a series of initiatives that drew the attention of the nation, including a ban on smoking in apartments and condominiums and an ill-fated attempt to guide air traffic away from Santa Monica Airport — and its angry neighbors — to other airports nearby.
The Daily Press sat down with Gould to hear his take on managing Santa Monica and the successes, challenges and missteps along the way.
(Questions and responses were edited for clarity and space.)
Daily Press: Why did you decide to be a city manager?
Rod Gould: It seemed to me that cities were where all the innovation was occurring in terms of culture and art and science and engineering and manufacturing. I saw cities as the future of the human species to put it very broadly. And if you look at human history that has indeed been the case. So the nurturing, the stewardship, the development the sustainability of cities is awfully darn important, and in the council-management form of government, which represents about 70 percent of the governments in the United States and increasing shares overseas, there’s an appointed administrator who gets to do just what I told you: advise the elected officials on the best policy and then carry that out with efficiency, effectiveness and equity. To me that was an awfully rich job and one that would never be boring, and it also helps to make local representative democracy work and improve the lives of tons of thousands of people that you’ll never meet.
DP: How are you liking living in Santa Monica?
RG: My wife and kids and I love living in Santa Monica. We think it is by far the most go-go, hippest, coolest, funnest city that we’ve been in … When most people in the country have no time for government or are really annoyed with government or think that government is the root of all their problems, the people in this town can’t get enough of it … I joke all the time that in Santa Monica politics and policy is more important than sports, pets or sex, and that’s the truth. That’s the value system in this community.
(Santa Monica’s residents are very engaged, and have been vocal on a number of recent issues including the use of parking meters that zero out the value left on the clock when a car leaves its space and the attempt to divert traffic from SMO. Here’s what Gould had to say about those two issues.)
DP: What was your response to how the public reacted to the parking meters, and what do you think could have been done differently to soften the blow?
RG: And yes, [people] have opined against this and felt that this was a poor choice. I think that it’s the tiniest subset of our overall parking management strategy, and if this is what worries people, then fine if the council wants to, they can direct us to go back to the old days and not reset.
DP: Should we turn it off?
RG: I don’t think so, but I’m just the administrator. I think that the larger issue is how we are dealing with parking in general. When you look at the issues that are of greatest concerns to Santa Monicans, I would suggest that parking is number two or number three on the list any given day — with traffic and development in the first and second slots.
Going back to the general issue of parking, whether or not you zero-out the parking meters, the issue is, “How do you manage the scarce resource effectively and efficiently?” And you have to do it both on the supply and demand sides.
(On the supply side, City Hall is increasing the parking supply by doubling the capacity in Parking Structure 6, adding spots at Fourth Street and Arizona Avenue and working with corporations to buy back parking that workers are not using, Gould said. Rate hikes in Downtown structures, beach lots and parking meters take care of the demand side.)
DP: So you guys have already been able to get some feedback?
RG: Yes, we are, and we have real time information about how our parking is being used because we have those sensors in the ground now. So it’s telling us that that policy is working.
DP: The flight schools have obviously received a lot of attention. Is there anything you can do besides closure that’s going to satisfy some of these folks who are really anti-airport?
RG: We are absolutely clear that the majority of residents who live around the airport, predominantly Sunset Park and, to a lesser extent, Ocean Park, would like to see a reduction in both jet and propelled plane activity overhead. No question. We’re clear on that. That isn’t an issue. The issue is, “What can you do accomplish that?”
(Staff brought forward one solution, a six-month program that would have paid flight schools to practice certain maneuvers at other airports. Communities with airports became alarmed and protested the idea. Santa Monica residents also objected to paying “blood money” to flight schools.)
DP: How much vetting did you do with other cities?
RG: Maybe this was a case of misjudgment on our part. We thought that this being characterized as a six-month pilot project with a fairly limited number of flights would not rise to the level of concern. Unfortunately, some of our residents made darn sure that those other communities were quite aware of this and made sure that they were properly threatened by it.
DP: I bet with this issue you’re glad you’re not on the dais.
RG: We worry a lot about trying to provide the best policy prescription for the council. And the best policy is the one that also makes good political sense. At this point, we’re trying to figure out what’s the best policy that’s practical and doable in this federal and local framework. And then what’s politically advantageous … I can’t tell you where we’ll be in 2015 (the year that Santa Monica’s obligations to the Federal Aviation Administration expire and it will have more control over operations at SMO).
(The sensors and pilot program exploded onto the national news. Other issues like smoking bans also caught attention, garnering a scathing editorial from the Los Angeles Times.)
DP: Is there something about Santa Monica that brings this (attention) upon itself?
RG: If you look at any one of our agendas … we are doing more policy on more issues than any city of 100,000 in the country and that’s just part of who Santa Monica is … So, as you say, this is the little city that roars.
We’re constantly trying to address homelessness, and improve mobility and be the most sustainable city in the country, use technology in really innovative ways, press the bounds of traditional municipal services, provide human services where cities generally don’t go. I’m happy we don’t have foreign policy and that we’re not Berkeley. That’s good. But we’ve strayed into that end historically as well. This city is more ambitious in its policy and its political goals than most cities and hence it attracts attention.
(It might roar, but Santa Monica is facing many of the same challenges as its fellow California cities. Here are Gould’s thoughts on the loss of redevelopment dollars which would have been used to pay for infrastructure.)
DP: What’s our strategy moving forward with key infrastructure projects?
RG: We’ve completely revamped the way we do our capital improvement budgeting this past year, and we’re getting a lot more specific and we’re cutting way down so what’s less important is what we’d like to do, but what must we do to maintain the critical infrastructure? So we’ll have much less ambitious and lengthy capital projects to complete in the future, and we’re going to scramble a lot harder for grant funds and other funds and we’ll take a hard look at any project that has maintenance and opportunity costs associated with it because we don’t want that to compound our general opportunity budgetary challenges.
We’ll look at public-private partnerships a lot more than we have in the past. In the past, Santa Monica was in the enviable position of being able to pay cash in whatever it built. In the future, we’re going to have to find partners to do things if we really want to. That involves tradeoffs; that will take more public discussion.
DP: So you were saying before it’s really exciting to be at the city management level. Were you expecting all of this?
RG: Well I must say that I’ve been in this business 26 years and during that period there have been economic cycles, there have been changes of politics in the state, there have been changes in local priorities, there have been natural and man-made disasters, but the one community threat throughout all this period has always been the state. Until our state stabilizes, until our state can pay for its programs and its promises, every community in California is threatened.
We have many more things to be thankful for in Santa Monica than in any other city I can think of right now. Many of the problems that you write about are problems of success. There’s too much traffic because everybody wants to be here. There’s too much development because everybody wants to develop here. There’s too little parking because everybody wants to come down and see what’s going on Downtown, on the beach, at the pier and be in this milieu, there isn’t enough housing because everybody wants to live here. All these are signs of success that we don’t see in the majority of cities in California and across the country right now. They’re fighting the opposite. So I’ll take our problems any day over those of my peers.
Editor-in-chief Kevin Herrera and news intern Sean Fitz-Gerald contributed to this story.