By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. March 31, 2015.
We have a new Planning Commissioner in Santa Monica — Carter Rubin — as last Tuesday night, the City Council filled the vacancy created by the election to the City Council of former Planning Commissioner Sue Himmelrich last November.
Not to be confused with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (made famous by Bob Dylan’s 1975 classic “Hurricane”), the 28 year-old Carter Rubin was elected by what started as a 4-3 vote, that became 6-1 when two Councilmembers changed their votes in a good faith gesture after it was clear Rubin had the votes to be appointed. Rubin’s appointment came as somewhat of a surprise to many.
If you are a member of the public trying to understand how these appointments come about, there is no scorecard or game program. Many differing philosophies come into play when such appointments to city boards and commissions are made.
Carrying forward the sports analogy (go Lakers!) — when its draft time, sometimes you go for the best talent available, regardless of position. Other times, you draft to address a specific need/fill a specific slot in your roster. Sometimes you look at the existing members and consider who would best complement them. But when it involves the Planning Commission, sometimes it comes down to a crude, simple political calculus: “What is the existing voting balance on development, does ‘your side’ have at least four votes, and what do you do to get it or keep it?”
In 1999 when on the Council, I was one of four votes to replace sitting Planning Commissioner Frank Gruber (who was up for reappointment) with former Councilmember Kelly Olson, because I wanted to shift the Commission towards “slow growth.” The Commissioner I thought was excessively “pro-development” (who I really wanted to replace) wasn’t up for another year or more. So I voted not to reappoint Gruber instead, even though his views were closer to mine than the person I wanted to replace, because I still felt it would help advance my change. What I hadn’t anticipated was the law of unintended consequences. Olsen’s appointment “incentivized” fellow Commissioners Ken Breisch and John Zinner to soon resign. This deprived the community of what I thought would be a great creative planning tension between them and Olsen, whose strong voice I envisioned as a counterpoint to the then prevailing views on the Commission.
Four years later, I made an even more controversial vote, as one of four Councilmembers voting to replace Olsen with Terry O’Day. At that time, the Commission’s majority on development had swung far in the other direction, leaving no strong non-slow growth voices, and a less diverse debate. (Both of these were really tough votes, especially in a small community where you know the people involved.)
This year, those supporting Rubin have cited his regional planning experience, cycling advocacy, local Housing Commission membership and youth. Councilmember Tony Vasquez, who is seen as the swing vote in appointing Rubin, specifically embraced the “young blood” perspective in explaining his vote, and of “grooming a new generation.”
By contrast, some in the slow-growth community felt that the appointment would go to longtime neighborhood and historic preservation activist Nina Fresco, who has roots in the local slow growth movement. Fresco received three Council votes, and would presumably have continued the slow-growth orientation of a seat held by Himmelrich since 2012, and before that by current Councilmember Ted Winterer since 2009.
Furthermore, one of the policy debates during the 2014 City Council campaign was whether entry level affordable housing would be built for people in their 20s and early 30s — a view championed by Rubin among others. For some, this was seen as a positive way to reduce demand upon existing affordable housing and increase overall affordability by expanding supply — while providing an opportunity for young Santa Monicans to continue to live here after high school and college. Combined with reduced on-site parking requirements, it would also provide housing for those who prefer an urban/ecological lifestyle based upon cycling, buses and the Expo line rail line. Others — while agreeing with these goals — feared these arguments would be used as a Trojan horse to greenwash unreasonable increases in heights and density, with the needs of a new generation used to dismiss long-time residents’ rightful concerns about unsustainable development and growth.
Before Rubin is roasted over the coals of community conflicts that long precede him, he deserves a chance to lay out his own record on projects that will come before the Commission, and show how he incorporates public input.
The bigger issue before us, is about all of us talking together, regardless of where we are on development. Back in 2003, after the Council appointed O’Day over his longtime friend and political ally Olsen, former Councilmember and Mayor Ken Genser picked up the phone and set up a meeting with O’Day at Izzy’s Delicatessen on Wilshire, where the two “broke bread” (sliced bagels?) and discussed public policy.
Where were those phone calls in 2013-14, between the “slow-growth” and “smart-growth” camps, before the Hines project came to Council? There was a positive deal that could have been made that had more affordable housing, less office, fewer traffic impacts, more open space and tighter phasing — if enough people had talked in time. But they didn’t, in many directions — between community and developer, Council and developer, and within the Council, between the two general tendencies on development at the time.
That is the message of the Rubin appointment. If we open those lines of communication today when they are easy, maybe they will be there the next time we are faced with a major development decision.
So, who is going to pick up the phone and call Rubin?
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002). 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.