CITYWIDE — In a town known for its often exuberant degree of public participation, another group has appeared on the scene with an aim to influence the style of development in Santa Monica.
Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (SMRG) is a new coalition of approximately 15 to 20 residents from throughout the city that plans to begin advocating for what they feel is reasonable development, said Ivan Perkins, a Santa Monica resident and member.
The group is organized as a political action committee, an organization that can line up for or against candidates or measures in local elections, but it sees itself more as a neighborhood organization, Perkins said.
SMRG doesn’t have current plans to do major fundraising or get “huge gobs of money together,” Perkins said.
Accumulating “huge gobs of money” is one strength of a political action committee, particularly after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Citizens United that threw the door open to donations from corporations and other groups with relatively few restrictions.
“I think that the basic goal that we have is to make sure that new development projects adhere to the Land Use and Circulation Element and that if there are departures from the LUCE to make sure that they benefit the city in various ways rather than just be a plan or project that most benefits and maximizes the developers’ bottom line,” Perkins said.
The LUCE, a document adopted in 2010 to help guide growth and development in Santa Monica, was formed during a seven-year process of public input and planning.
It creates a basic framework that will be fully fleshed out by 2013 when City Hall plans to have completed a new zoning ordinance, a document that will spell out exactly how the broad goals of the LUCE can be achieved.
Perkins said members of SMRG have taken issue with projects approved by the City Council or which are currently going through the public process, including the hotel at 710 Wilshire Blvd. — which was approved by the City Council earlier this year — and the proposed remodel of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel.
The group doesn’t want to position itself against all development, Perkins said, just that which they feel runs counter to Santa Monica’s aesthetic and planning interests.
The Fairmont Miramar Hotel is an example of development which has gotten many people riled.
It was an issue that coalesced a group of counter-candidates in a much-debated election in the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, and those against it have been accused publicly of being organized by the Huntley Hotel, another luxury hotel immediately adjacent to the Fairmont Miramar that has come out strongly against the proposed renovations.
Perkins denied any association with the Huntley Hotel, saying that he had met the other members of the coalition through “all sorts of different contexts.”
Santa Monica elections have a history of being influenced by groups that claim to be grassroots. There was Santa Monicans for Change, Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities and Santa Monicans for Quality Government. Each was backed by those in the hospitality industry or developers looking to defeat candidates that backed slow growth policies.
Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities went so far as to run cable television ads targeting Councilman Kevin McKeown, the first time such ads were used in a local election, political observers said. The group claimed to have hundreds of members, but never presented a roster to the media.
SMRG, which was created three weeks ago, may still be forming its identity in many ways, but it’s already approached candidates for the City Council on their views on growth and development in a five-part questionnaire that grills them on city services, transportation and infrastructure, the LUCE, development and their “general vision.”
The current goal is to get that information out to the public so that voters can make informed choices, Perkins said.
“Those … people are going to make decisions on how development is going to go forward,” he said. “We want to know what their general perspective is — what they want to see, what they like and dislike — and communicate that.”
Community-based organizations can aspire to have a major impact on local elections, said Terry Cooper, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Cooper has not studied political action committees specifically, but he has spent the last 37 years examining community groups and how they attempt to participate directly in the governance process.
Those kinds of organizations, which SMRG represents itself to be, can take on multiple forms that influence elections, either by withholding funds from candidates or by organizing a large number of people to vote or not vote for a certain candidate or issue.
“In small numbers amongst the right kinds of people, they can have an impact,” Cooper said.