CITY HALL — A popular series of neighborhood-centric budget meetings with City Manager Lamont Ewell will return for a fourth round on Monday when issues of parking, traffic and development are sure to make their way into discussions yet again.

The annual “Can We Talk” meetings began when Ewell was hired in 2006 to determine the community’s priorities when developing City Hall’s roughly half-billion dollar budget, whether it’s improving tree maintenance, widening sidewalks or adding traffic control measures.

The Ocean Park Association will co-sponsor the first meeting Monday at the SMASH/John Muir School auditorium, followed by another meeting a week later at the Ken Edwards Center, co-sponsored by the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition. After a two week break the meetings will resume on Dec. 1 at the Montana Library, which will be co-sponsored by the North of Montana Association. The Pico Neighborhood Association will host the final meeting at Virginia Avenue Park on Dec. 2. All meetings will begin at 7 p.m.

The meetings can draw as many as 50 people, depending on the neighborhood.

“Some are not as full but we hold the position that whether it’s one or a thousand, we’ll be there,” Ewell, who will retire at the end of this year, said.

The meetings will cover the current state of the city’s finances followed by an update on the progress of the 2010-11 budget. Ewell will also discuss the status of community priorities identified at meetings the previous year. All department heads are also expected to attend the meetings.

Despite a conservative projection for revenues in the current budget, the actual figures are currently down by 2 percent, which equate to about $4-$5 million.

“The economy continues to cycle downward,” Ewell said.

He is planning on meeting with department heads starting next week to address the declining revenues, taking measures that could include continuing the selective hiring freeze to keep vacancies and pushing back projects in the Capital Improvement Program that have been earmarked for funding this year.

Residents have praised the meetings for changing the way City Hall interacts with residents when it comes to having public input in the budget.

“Before Mr. Ewell arrived, residents had to go to City Hall and wait for hours to speak to City Council for a couple minutes after the draft budget was presented by staff,” Zina Josephs, the president of Friends of Sunset Park, said. “With the ‘Can We Talk?’ meetings, the City Manager brings city staff to the neighborhoods, and residents have the floor for about an hour and a half — all of this a month or two before the draft budget is presented to council.”

The Friends of Sunset Park is expected to once again raise issues of traffic through the neighborhood, continued growth at Santa Monica College, and noise, pollution and safety issues at Santa Monica Airport.

For the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood, parking and overdevelopment are anticipated to be the key issues mentioned during the meeting.

“We’ve had extremely negative responses to the plan to change parking downtown and the sky-high parking ticket rates,” Jeanne Dodson, the Wilmont chair, said.

Dodson said that she believes the neighborhood groups have been impressed with the annual meetings.

“Just the symbolism alone is important, signaling to the community that City Hall is interested in listening to residents’ concerns,” Dodson said. “People have expressed to me that they really appreciate being able to have direct access to department heads and decision makers and we certainly hope the new city manager will continue this tradition.”

The Pico Neighborhood Association is hoping to see a new branch library closer to home.

“We want to make sure we provide (youth) with the necessary resources so they can succeed,” Maria Loya, co-chair of the association, said.

She added that one of the biggest issues this year will be to address youth violence, ensuring that there will be no cuts in youth and intervention services. The most recent act of violence took place earlier this week at Virginia Avenue Park in a suspected gang-related shooting that left a recent Olympic High School graduated dead.

For the Pico Neighborhood Association, there’s also the issue of the light rail maintenance yard on Exposition Boulevard.

“We want to make sure that it’s being addressed and we’re ensured that the city is doing all it needs to do in order to protect residents from pollution,” Loya said.

A number of issues raised during these meetings have made their way into the budget, including a long-sought after project to beautify Ocean Park Boulevard from Lincoln Boulevard to Main Street and improvements to Longfellow Street in the Borderline Neighborhood.

“That is one of the reasons we go back to let them know what has been done in hopes that we are demonstrating to them that we are moving toward a direction they would like to see more of,” Ewell said. “Sometimes a new issue comes out we hadn’t heard before.”

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