DOWNTOWN — Santa Monica’s mayor will continue to be selected by the City Council after a motion to allow voters more influence failed to gain support Sunday from a majority of those currently sitting on the dais.
Councilmember Bobby Shriver pushed for his colleagues to change the current system in which they nominate and ultimately cast votes for mayor, and instead have the decision made by voters. Shriver introduced a motion during the council’s annual retreat at the Main Library to have the councilmember who received the most votes in the most recent municipal election be automatically selected to serve as mayor.
Doing so would lend more legitimacy to the position and could increase political clout in the region and in Washington, something critical for a city as active as Santa Monica, Shriver argued.
“Having been the mayor, I could get movement on things because I said, ‘I’m the mayor,’” Shriver said. “What they are responding to is their belief, whether we like it or not that, that I was elected by the people and therefore I am exercising the people’s authority. … There is political power in that. … They have to pay attention to you in a slightly different way if you are elected than if they know you’ve been appointed. That’s power and a power that the city charter is missing.”
His motion, which included an opt-out clause in case a councilmember did not want to be mayor, was supported by Councilman Bob Holbrook. The measure failed 4-2. Councilwoman Pam O’Connor was not present for the discussion; however, she said Sunday that she was not in favor of changing the status quo. The motion would not have required a change to the city charter and therefore would not have had to been approved by voters.
The debate over mayoral selection was sparked by the council’s decision in December to select Councilman Richard Bloom to serve a third term as mayor while Councilman Kevin McKeown was denied the opportunity even though he received more votes than any candidate in the most recent election. McKeown has never served as mayor during his 12 years as a council member. Shriver received the most votes each time he has run for council.
Some in the community complained, saying the process has the potential to create animosity amongst council members and is not equitable. What made the most recent round more controversial was Bloom’s decision to announce he would seek a seat on the California State Assembly in 2012 when Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) will be termed out. The title of mayor could provide a boost for Bloom’s campaign. He told the Daily Press in December that did not factor into his decision to serve.
While the mayor is mainly a ceremonial post, those selected are responsible for running council meetings and they work with the city manager to set the council agenda. They do not have veto power. The mayor also earns slightly more than council members. According to City Hall, the mayor pulls in $15,467 annually, while a council member makes $12,888. Bloom and Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis were opposed to Shriver’s motion from the outset.
Davis was concerned that changing a system in place since the city charter was adopted in 1946 could give the mayor a false sense of superiority over other council members and the belief that their priorities come first. She also didn’t agree with Shriver’s contention that the mayor would be taken more seriously outside of the city if elected.
“People return my phone calls,” she said.
Bloom said the move could negatively impact local elections by creating a greater incentive to launch dirty campaigns. Voters may also decide to bullet vote, Bloom said. Bullet voting is a tactic in which the voter only selects one candidate, despite the option to indicate a preference for other candidates. Santa Monica’s voters can select three or four candidates for council depending on the election cycle.
McKeown, the one council member who would seem to gain the most from Shriver’s motion, voted against the measure because he felt the system is not broken, but instead is being corrupted by certain council members who have either personal problems with him or political differences, and he was not prepared to make a significant change just because of “behavior quite common in junior high school.”
“[C]hanges to the mayoral system should be made based on principals and not personalities,” said McKeown.
Creating a separate race for mayor could lead to qualified candidates for the council dropping out in favor of a run for mayor, McKeown said, and he feared it would alter the spirit of proportional representation in Santa Monica where council members are elected at large and therefore set priorities based on community needs as a whole and are not dictated by one elected official.
The debate over mayoral selection may not be dead. Holbrook said residents could collect enough signatures to place a change to the system on a future ballot. He believed the measure, if it simply asked voters whether or not they should have the power to chose a mayor or leave it in the hands of the council, would pass overwhelmingly.