The first candidate forum of the season yielded predictable results this week with incumbents describing a city that is meeting challenges in a way that has improved life for residents while challengers described a Santa Monica threatened by poor leadership.
The Santa Monica Jaycees, a community service organization featuring young professionals, organized the event at the Santa Monica Bay Women’s Club. Eight of the ten candidates participated including Terry O’Day, Ted Winterer, Tony Vazquez, Mende Smith, Gleam Davis, Terence Later, Armen Melkonians and Jon Mann. Candidates James Watson and Oscar de la Torre were absent.
The hour-long Q&A included pre-screened questions and an opportunity for audience participation. Some questions were targeted to specific candidates while others were asked of the group at large.
When asked about protecting rent control, councilwoman Gleam Davis said existing development policies protect rent controlled tenants by focusing development away from residential areas. She said allowing development along commercial streets lessens the economic incentive to evict rent controlled tenants
“We can discourage development in existing residential neighborhoods,” she said. “When landlords are allowed to take units of the market, they traditionally turn them into luxury condominiums.”
She said the city can discourage that behavior by making it easier to build along the boulevards such as Wilshire and Santa Monica.
She also said the city has taken steps to increase tenant protections.
“Unfortunately, harassment is a real problem in our community,” she said.
Mayor Tony Vazquez was asked what the city has done to prevent misconduct at the police department and limit the city’s liability to claims originating from police action.
He said the presence of more minority officers, many of whom grew up locally, has helped improve community policing and said there have been measurable improvements since he first joined the council.
“The makeup of the police force in 1990 was not a police force that I was proud of … since then it has changed dramatically. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a very diverse police force now,” he said.
Some challengers implied the incumbents were out of touch with residents.
“I believe that your City Council members should represent residents and vote as residents want them to vote,” said Melkonians. He also praised the Jaycees for reaching out to Santa Monica’s young voters at a time when voter turnout among the youngest age bracket is dismal.
Melkonians is the co-author of Measure LV and told the crowd that myths were being created about the proposal by its opponents. Specifically, he said Measure LV does not endanger rebuilding of tall buildings after a disaster because those buildings are considered existing non-conforming structures and therefore not regulated by Measure LV.
When asked what can be done to increase trust between residents and elected officials, Mayor Pro Tem Ted Winterer said the council had increased regulation on lobbyists and strengthened the existing anti-corruption laws. He said the age of social media has made it difficult to engage in dialog but that he, and other councilmembers, were always willing meet with community members.
“Our challenge is to get the facts out there,” he said.
Incumbent Terry O’Day said the city has taken concrete steps to address broad questions of wellbeing including issues of sustainability, equity and civic participation. He also said the current council has been proactive in attempting to close Santa Monica airport.
“This is a council that leads,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of that leadership team and have had the trust of voters to do that since 2010.”
Challenger Mende Smith repeatedly referenced her affiliation with the Green Party. She talked about the way ranked choice voting would improve the quality of the civic process in Santa Monica and her lack of traditional campaign material.
“I hope that I will have your individual vote on November 8 but you’re not going to find me in your mailbox, you’re going to find me at mendesmith.com,” she said.
According to his candidate statement, a portion of which he read Tuesday night, perennial candidate Jon Mann has run unsuccessfully for City Council 15 times. He said local elections are rigged but if elected, he said he would implement a citizen review board to reduce the city budget by cutting costs, firing employees and implementing a wage freeze.
“I’d go through the budget with a fine tooth comb,” he said.
Terence Later has run for council in the past five elections and like many of the challengers, he singled out Santa Monicans for Renters Rights as the power brokers in the city.
“The same political machine has run the city for three decades,” he said.
Later was the only candidate that opposed closing Santa Monica Airport.
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