Santa Monica City Hall's lobby. (Daniel Archuleta

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. January 25, 2016

The recent passage of Santa Monica’s comprehensive Minimum Wage law was a landmark public policy achievement – and there is a lot of credit to go around. The movement to support local workers and pay a living wage began in the mid-1990s and has continued through this day. Many City Councilmembers over the years have also been bold and unequivocal in their support for the idea that we don’t want our parks, schools and police funded by tax dollars generated on the backs of underpaid workers.

But also noteworthy has been the role of City Staff. The draft Minimum Wage ordinance brought to the City Council on Jan. 12 was the result of intensive collaboration between the Finance Department, the Housing and Economic Development Department and the City Attorney’s office.

That effort showed how working for our local government can provide exceptional opportunities for City Staff to be part of great cutting edge accomplishments, just like being elected to the City Council gives our local politicians the opportunity to voice support for and vote for them.

Minimum wage mini-dissertation

In Santa Monica, we often takes on issues that go beyond what many consider to be the regular operations of municipal government, and this requires becoming expert in many areas.

With the City’s draft Minimum Wage law, not only did City Staff need to be well versed in state and federal labor law, but also it necessitated an understanding of how such a comprehensive minimum wage law would specifically apply to our local economy.

To do that, City Staff convened an intensive eight-month local stakeholder outreach process, taking input from a range of interests – from big hotels and small restaurants, to car washers, housekeepers and a variety of advocacy organizations and think tanks. Staff then issued their draft recommendations almost a month before they were due to come to Council, to give opportunity for even more feedback, then further fine tuned their recommendations in response.

Of course, such work is not without its political context, and City Staff deftly offered some thoughtful compromises that made their recommendations more likely to be accepted. At the same time, they charted out several alternative approaches to key issues as advocated by a range of stakeholders, and analyzed their pros and cons as well.

The result was a Staff report that serves as a de facto primer on how a comprehensive minimum wage law might apply to Santa Monica – as well as a potential resource for other communities seeking to do the same, and for academics and others who want to study the issue.

Attracting and retaining great City employees

In addition to the City Attorney’s office (which plays a key role in developing most City policies), both the Housing and Economic Development (HED) Department and the Finance Department deserve special recognition for this professional work on behalf of our community – and how it demonstrates how staying with the City can also lead to great personal professional achievement.

Andy Agle is the director of HED and Gigi Decavalles-Hughes the director of Finance. From my own early years on the City Council in the late 1990s, I remember both as junior staff members sitting in the front row in the Council chambers, as is customary, while their own department directors would be giving a Staff report to the Council. Now today almost twenty years later, they are leading their own departments in this historic effort.

After serving as a community development project manager for the City of Anaheim, Agle came to Santa Monica in 1998, serving first as a special projects manager in the City’s Planning and Community Development Department (PCD), then as assistant PCD director in 2001, PCD interim director between 2005 to 2006, and then director of HED ever since.

Decavalles-Hughes started with Santa Monica in 1997 as a senior budget analyst, then moved up to principal analyst and budget manager in 2001. Then as should be in a progressive city, she was able to take an extended maternity leave of 18 months, before coming back to work in the City’s Community and Cultural Services Department (CCS) as a senior administrative analyst on a part time basis while her kids were young. She coordinated the department’s budget and worked on special projects such as the construction of the new OPCC Shwashlock/Access Center facility and the Annenberg Beach House, before moving to HED in 2009 to serve as Agle’s administrative services officer, then returned back to Finance as director in 2011.

In both cases Agle and Decavalles-Hughes gained experience working in different City departments before landing in their present positions, something also true of current CCS director, Karen Ginsberg, who cut her teeth in PCD before moving to CCS to take over when previous director, Barbara Stinchfield, retired in 2011. This long-time practice within City Hall of working in different City Departments further builds intellectual dexterity in our City’s workforce, helping them better understand how the City works and the connections between different policy areas.

Achieving many ‘firsts’ for Santa Monica

Another long-time City employee who has been part of many of Santa Monica’s groundbreaking achievements has been Environmental Programs manager Dean Kubani. Kubani has been with the City since 1994, and helped shape and implement Santa Monica’s Sustainable City Plan, one of the first municipal sustainability programs in the world. Along the way he’s been part of many “firsts”: first city to buy 100-percent renewable power, first municipal urban runoff treatment system, one of the first to ban Styrofoam containers ,and more. Based on the experience gained and lessons learned, Kubani has also helped countless other cities and other government agencies develop their own sustainability efforts – and many other cities now have sustainability plans based upon the work done here in Santa Monica.

Also in the rank-and-file

Doing cutting-edge work in Santa Monica is not limited to department heads, as there are countless City employees behind every program and service. Hence the opportunity to be part of something special professionally extends to hundreds and hundreds of City employees.

Back in the late 1990s when the City wanted to switch to more environmentally-friendly cleaning projects, I remember being impressed with how the City’s custodial staff had played an important role in evaluating the new products which they would work with, and for this reason ultimately embraced the change when it came to Council. This is only one example among many that continues to this day.

What this should tell us is that the opportunity to work for the City of Santa Monica brings with it many benefits, and that our high quality of life as residents is partly the result of many long-time employees being able to achieve greatness in their fields, fields that by definition are also in public service and the public interest. Such longevity and commitment by city workers isn’t present in every community, and we are fortunate that it exists here.

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.