BERNIE SANDERS GOT NOTHIN’ ON RICK COLE.
They both trod into the lions’ den in the last week, but I think Santa Monica’s new City Manager got the worst of it. Bernie knew what he was getting into but I don’t think Cole fully did.
Sanders spoke to 12,000 evangelical students at the tremendously conservative Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. Hardly friendly territory for a declared progressive let alone a democratic socialist. And a Jew to boot, so he doesn’t even accept Jesus. He got a smattering of applause on a couple of points but was mostly handed stone cold silence, indicating he hadn’t changed many hearts and minds. But they listened, respectfully, and that was a big win for Sanders.
Cole spoke to a couple dozen at the Monday meeting of the Northeast Neighbors (NN) at the Montana Library, and for nearly an hour he was lucky to be able to string three sentences together. He was met with derisive remarks, shouted and angry interruptions and downright juvenile asides.
I would have loved to have witnessed such a roasting of our recently departed City Manager Rod Gould. In my opinion he deserved it because he served and abetted the pro-overdevelopment majority on our City Council, at the expense of residents. His goodbye wave to Santa Monica was the lawsuit brought by Elizabeth Riel over his firing her as our communications and public affairs officer, at the behest of former Mayor Pam O’Connor, and the settlement will cost us almost a million dollars.
So Cole is walking into a job where there is a lot of residual anger among some residents, over years of feeling like they haven’t been listened to, or respected. He knew that. But give the guy a break, at least until he’s done something wrong. He’s not Rod Gould. He’s been on the job less than three months. For now, he’s got a clean slate.
Yes, I know, he has the reputation of being an outspoken proponent of high-density building along transit corridors, and that is seen by some here as just another excuse for the kind of development our city can’t handle. But that was then. Cole has shown over his career to be a creative thinker who tries to stay ahead of the curve, and just maybe he has in mind for Santa Monica‚Ä¶something different. Let’s not discourage that possibility. And let’s also remember that change takes time.
He also has the reputation, as a city manager, of demanding accountability from department heads. Excuse me? I didn’t quite catch that. We don’t use the “A” word much around here. Many say he lost his city manager job in Ventura because he was cutting staff. We can only dream. It’s the Holy Grail for many here, the obvious first answer to our budget woes and bloated, intransigent city staff.
But Cole bears some responsibility for the embarrassing display Monday night. There’s an awful lot of homework to do to understand Santa Monica, but he must have had a pretty good idea of the history and views of the Northeast Neighbors. And if he didn’t, I was told he received several emails from them since coming on board that outlined things pretty clearly.
WITH THIS BACKDROP, I think Cole could have been more sensitive and proactive and, as Sanders did, inject often, with sincerity and genuine empathy, “I understand your views and history, and how strongly you feel about these important issues. I may not share all those positions, but let’s talk to each other.”
Instead, he rolled out what sounded to the crowd like the same old same old. “Those priorities were the exact same words Mayor McKeown threw at us more than once,” Taffy Patton, longtime NN member and chair of the Residents Coalition, told me after the meeting, with clear upset. “For three years we came before the Planning Commission and Council representing the views of 450 residents on the zoning process, as did every neighborhood group, and they didn‚Äôt listen.”
I heard it more as him attempting to answer the question put to him, but the room obviously felt he was trying to throw them the party line as though they weren’t completely familiar with the issues. He was shouted down by several people: “WE KNOW! WE KNOW!”
When he tried to make the point “this city provides the widest range of services‚Ä¶” he was met with, “WE DON’T WANT IT!” When he attempted to speak of bringing City communication into the 21st century through technology like Twitter and Instagram, some interrupted with “WE DIDN’T ASK FOR THAT!”
Despite his 30 years of experience in public policy and administration, one woman was adamant about knowing his academic qualifications, even, specifically, which courses he took. His master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, considered perhaps the best university there is for that field, was met with derisive sound effects by several. Inexplicably, to me, when she pushed to find out his specific graduate studies and he said his master’s thesis was on housing, in New York, that too was met with negative noise. He studied housing, and that’s bad?
When he talked about getting unbendable height standards, rather than the uncertainty of development agreements, someone loudly commented, “YEAH, WHAT, 12 STORIES?” And‚Ä¶ha ha ha ha ha.
I consider Northeast Neighbors to be an invaluable asset to the community, with some of the smartest, hardest working community activists imaginable. Give me just the trio of Patton, chair Amy Aukstikalnis and vice chair Tricia Crane, and I think I could win a Supreme Court case without a single lawyer.
I cornered Aukstikalnis and Patton after the meeting and asked them about Cole’s reception, saying, “Your group complained that some pillars of the community have stopped speaking at City Council meetings because of the disrespect they get – don’t you think Rick Cole was treated that way tonight, by your group?” After just a moment’s thought Patton said, “You know, Charles, you may be right,” and Aukstikalnis soon nodded agreement. My already high respect for them shot up a couple of notches.
But if the natives are restless and angry, the chiefs have to remind them that dialog can be valuable and recrimination a waste of time.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” – Mark Twain
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org¬† ¬†