By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 06, 2015

The recent State of the City hosted by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce was the first big post-election, civic event of the New Year. A wide cross-section of Santa Monica was there, and new Mayor Kevin McKeown gave the ‘State of the City’ address. As such, it was a good place to get a sense of where we may be headed.

Chamber President/CEO Laurel Rosen started out in her usual positive, firm, and no-frills manner to connect economy and community: “Business and sales taxes contributed more than $76 million to the City’s general fund in 2013. This money goes directly to pay for the first-class services we all value: parks, libraries, cultural services and public safety.”

Rosen has long argued for fact-based dialogue in local politics. In some ways, this event was the roll out of that approach, to be followed in the next few weeks by a major Information Item from City Staff to the City Council about local development history.

Next came McKeown’s address. For the debate about whether McKeown should be Mayor, this was a big early test — made even more so, given the narrative that the November election was a referendum on development, and that as a matter of personal policy “in order to level the playing field on land use input”, McKeown “declines invitations from developers for special personalized presentations on proposed projects, preferring to see the plans and hear the arguments for them in a public context.”

If the multiple numbers of times McKeown was quoted by business leaders who spoke after him is any indication, he passed this test with flying colors. It was truly incredible to watch given so much history, from past living wage wars to a well-funded independent expenditure campaign to defeat McKeown in 2006, to McKeown’s own stressing so forcefully that he is for residents, that at times some in the business community feel intentionally excluded by inference.

But when speaking in official capacity as Mayor, its different than being a Councilmember, because now you are representing the entire City; whereas as a Councilmember, you are one of seven advocates, each for their own positions.

McKeown doubled down on Rosen’s economy/community connection, arguing that the local economy is so robust, that it allows Santa Monica “to go so much further into realms that other cities can only discuss and debate: sustainability, technology, affordable housing, support for schools, human services, mobility, art and culture, and now well-being.” With a nod to those concerned about the new Council’s approach to business and development, McKeown said, “local business is critical to safety, quality of life and sustainability. We must not take it for granted, and we must be aware that local business is changing.”

McKeown spoke to trends shaping Santa Monica arising out of the business community, like the growth in technology and the rise of millennials. But he also went ‘off script’ to focus on two of his own core issues, ‘achieving housing affordability and stability’ and ‘the rise of residents.’

I say ‘off script’ somewhat tongue in cheek. When you speak as Mayor on behalf of the City, the City Manager’s office will produce a draft for you, researching key facts and summarizing relevant City history and positions. You then amend it as you see fit — something your colleagues trust you to do well when they vote for you as Mayor.

When McKeown added ‘affordable housing’ and ‘resident voice’ to Staff’s draft, he struck the right balance. As Mayor, you don’t lose your individuality. But you do have a responsibility to express it within the context of being accountable to the entire community, and not hijack the Mayorship to advance a personal agenda. McKeown respected the hosts, connected to their issues and spoke factually about the State of the City. That made it easy and appropriate to also focus on issues he wanted.

Next came outgoing City Manager Rod Gould, who detailed a series of economic, education and public safety-related indicators on why Santa Monica is thriving. He playfully noted “the last biannual resident satisfaction survey noted that 92 percent of residents rate Santa Monica as a good place to live. This fact may not have been completely evident in last year’s election season.”

How do we reconcile this 92 percent, with McKeown’s statement about the rise of residents (which he illustrated with an image of ‘Simpsons’ characters wielding torches and pitchforks), and the 13,500-plus petition signatures on the Hines/Bergamot Transit Village referendum petitions?

Part of our high quality of life in Santa Monica is that we live in a place where there is meaningful opportunity to be heard, whether through community and civic organizations, community meetings, City Staff, our boards and commissions, elected officials and when needed, via initiative and referendum.

Perhaps more challenging to reconcile, was an indicator both Gould and McKeown referenced, but for different reasons. Indicating a strong local economy, Gould cited far higher than regional averages in commercial activity, land prices, rents, and hotel occupancy/room rates. Rising land values are a testament to Santa Monica’s desirability, McKeown argued, but we also risk losing our socio-economic diversity, if people are priced out of the local housing market.

Both of what Gould and McKeown said is true — and that is the State of our City.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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