My first two A Curious City columns laid out the results of a three-month investigation into why the basketball and tennis courts at two Santa Monica parks were very often not open when they were supposed to be. I began by writing, “You know who says you can’t fight City Hall? Someone who’s tried.”
Well, I’m here now to say it isn’t necessarily so. You can, and you can even win — with a caveat or two.
I had some notes all ready for my presentation at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Recreation and Parks Commission, which had placed the matter of the early, sundown locking of the well-lit basketball courts at Joslyn Park on the agenda. But I left them at my seat as I stepped behind the podium because as the meeting addressed these issues I saw that almost everything I had asked for was being done.
So instead I used my three minutes to sincerely praise the commission for all their work to make Santa Monica a better place to live, because I discovered in interacting with commission chair Phil Brock, and doing a bit more research, that indeed that was the case, and as I said that night, I’m sure many 30-year residents like myself hadn’t a clue.
I also praised Karen Ginsberg, director of Community and Cultural Services, for looking into the question of why basketball was prohibited at Joslyn after sundown. She ordered lighting measurements there as compared to other lit courts where playing was allowed until at least 10 p.m., and came to basically the same conclusion I did in taking similar light meter measurements, that there wasn’t a significant difference.
I separately praised Facilities Maintenance Manager Devin Starnes for apparently getting all the locked-gate issues I addressed in part two resolved, testifying that every single time I had driven by since the columns were published in January and Febuary, when the courts were supposed to be open, they were. That has remained true since Feb. 21.
Brock admonished me to report that this was proof that you can get things changed, that the city listens, and acts. And so it would seem, and so I report.
Now, those caveats.
I still say, good luck citizen. I don’t think anything would have changed if it had not been reported in the Santa Monica Daily Press. Maybe the problems at Los Amigos, which I spoke with maintenance head Starnes about. In 15 to 17 years of getting the runaround over those issues, he was the first one to listen and seem sincere about addressing problems he admitted he didn’t know existed. (He’s fairly new to the position.) He never put me off or said an issue was closed, never took an attitude.
But for the three months I was talking with him, nothing happened. Most promises were not kept, most questions not answered. I kept getting sucked into this “it’s gonna happen!” cycle and delayed submitting the column many times. After it appeared, bingo! Everything’s good now. All it took was 15 years plus three months and a published exposé.
As for the lights at Joslyn, same thing. Nothing happened until the columns were published, and I got an e-mail from Brock. He immediately put the issue on the agenda for the commission. If he had not gotten involved, I’m pretty certain nothing would have changed at Joslyn, even with what I wrote.
To the very end, with me, Community and Cultural Services head Ginsberg was adamant that the lights at Joslyn were not the required “basketball court lights,” even though no one else among several supervisors I contacted thought there was any such thing as “BCL.” She was certain nothing could change without an impossible procedure and expenditure of at least $8,000. She had no concern that the change of decades-long policy in 1999 was arbitrary (or engineered, as I had evidence of).
Until the column was published. Then she was doing her own lighting readings, and accepting Brock’s proposal meekly and throwing all her arguments and resistance aside like they never existed. I was pleased, and grateful. But not deluded. Even with the column, I feel she might have stood her ground without the intercession of Brock. He’s very well respected, and opposing his position without good reason may have been untenable.
So what is the solution for you, good citizen, who may not have the power of the press behind you?
Unless you get lucky, I believe phone calls and City Hall’s website may not get you anywhere. Putting names of city officials into the search window gets you zilch. They’re not listed, as far as I could find. No e-mails. No visibility, responsibility, accountability.
What’s the solution? I say City Hall needs an ombudsman, someone who knows how things get done, how the different departments and commissions and personalities interact. We can’t all expect to luck onto a Phil Brock.
By the way, since the change of policy Feb. 21, the baskets at Joslyn were still being locked at sundown. An official e-mail informed me Feb. 28 that the change would take place sometime in mid-March. What in the world could possibly make this simple action take so long to implement? I dashed off an e-mail to many of the involved parties on a Friday, asking for an explanation and mentioning my upcoming column, and — bingo! — last Monday night the courts were open until 8:30 p.m., per the Feb. 21 decision.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.