(photo by Brandon Wise)

MAIN LIBRARY — Who are these people who think they should be responsible for making the biggest decisions that affect Santa Monica and its public school system?

Some of them have been in the public eye for a decade or two; others are making their first forays into local politics.

All of them (at least all of them who qualified to get their names on the Nov. 2 ballot) got an invitation to Squirm Night, an election season candidate forum put on by the Santa Monica Daily Press that was held Monday night. Also sponsored by several neighborhood groups, the three-and-a-half hour event attracted several hundred curious voters to the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium at the Main Library.

Most candidates turned up for the festivities. All were subjected to a few rounds of pointed (and sometimes squirm-inducing) questions posed by SMDP Editor Kevin Herrera.

With less than a month left to go before voters have their say at the polls, it was a chance for residents, who were invited to submit questions, to put candidates on the spot and pin them down on the most contentious local issues.

Though most questions focused on specifics, forum participants also were given an opportunity to speak directly to voters — and engage in some old-fashioned political elbow throwing.

Some of the more confrontational moments came early, during the school board portion of the event.

Challenger Chris Bley accused incumbents of doing too little to cut the district’s costs, presenting himself as a crusader against wasteful spending by questioning line items in the district’s $100 million-plus budget.

Newcomer Nimish Patel said there was an “idea deficit” on the current board and spun his lack of endorsements from local political organizations and education advocacy groups as proof that he “doesn’t care about local politics” and will bring an independent perspective to the job.

Mostly, though, candidates praised each other as eminently qualified and avoided confrontations over their disagreements.

Candidates for the City Council were grilled in two groups: one for those seeking two-year terms, and one for those in the four-year race.

Issues covered in the discussion included the Santa Monica Airport (Should it be shut down in 2015, when a contract requiring City Hall to run the facility expires?), the proposed sales tax hike known as Measure Y (Does City Hall need more money, and should a portion of potential new revenue be directed to local schools?), and City Hall’s vigilance when it comes to enforcing development agreements (Why didn’t officials hold developers’ feet to the fire sooner?).

Testy exchanges were few and far between, with possibly the most pointed back-and-forth occurring when City Council challenger Robert Kronovet said opponent Terry O’Day was “clearly in the pocket of developers” and questioned his environmental record. O’Day fired back by criticizing Kronovet’s plan to ask the federal government to revive a New Deal-era public works program in order to deal with homelessness in Santa Monica.

In between the school board and City Council candidate discussions, proponents and opponents of Measure Y, the proposed half-percent sales tax increase that will appear on the ballot, had a chance to duke it out. The same team that opposed the failed school district parcel tax earlier this year — Matt Millen and Don Gray — spoke against the initiative, while real estate attorney Tom Larmore and City Councilman Kevin McKeown made up the pro-Y team.

“How many of you in this community ever thought you’d see Tom Larmore and me sitting together?” McKeown, known as a progressive on the council who regularly argues for scaled-down development projects, quipped at one point.

The discussion also covered Measure YY, an advisory measure that, if passed by voters, would urge the City Council to dedicate half of the estimated $12 million that would be raised to public education.

Millen argued the advisory measure has “no force of law” and wouldn’t compel the council to pledge the money to the school district. With rising pension costs, a future council could easily spend the money on obligations besides funding education, he said.

Larmore and McKeown countered that leaders have pledged to fully honor the public’s wishes regarding YY and plan to follow through. They said the money that would be raised is vital to protect services and schools in Santa Monica as the state budget crisis threatens programs. They denied the tax hike would hurt business, with Larmore predicting it could even keep more money in Santa Monica by encouraging school supporters to shop locally.

For those who missed the action, a video of Squirm Night will be posted on YouTube by the end of the week. Check www.www.smdp.com for updates and a link.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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