by Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 11, 2019
One of the measures of a good city clerk is that their work often goes unnoticed. If the systems they manage work well, no one worries about what they are doing. Such is the case with Denise Anderson-Warren, who became Santa Monica’s City Clerk in February 2016, after working within the Clerk’s office since December 1994.
Anderson-Warren was already in the City Clerk’s office when I got elected in November 1996, so I got to know her during all of my eight years on the City Council. She has a good sense of humor, an innate sense of fairness — and a firm will when necessary, that flows from the quiet strength of her character. Her department office always seems to have a calm and good vibe when you visit.
Anderson-Warren has been a member of the City Clerks Association of California (CCAC) for over 20 years, as has most of her administrative staff. She also serves on the CCAC’s Professional Development Committee, its Annual Conference committee, and was its Region XI (L.A. County) Director in 2018.
City Clerk Promotes Transparency and Accessibility
The City Clerk’s office is responsible for running the application process to fill vacancies on City boards and commissions – and in rare cases – city council vacancies. A record seventy-six people filled out easy-to-use applications on the City website for the vacant council seat, via a link conveniently named www.smgov.net/councilappoint. The Clerk’s office processed and published these applications promptly, enabling the rest of us to enjoy watching — in almost real time — the play-by-play of who was applying for the seat (1,604 people visited the completed application page to see who applied), and to read the applications to see where people were coming from (individual applications were opened 4,096 times.)
The City Clerk’s office began their work on this vacancy back in November 2018, once it was clear then City Councilmember Tony Vasquez was elected to the State Board of Equalization — and would most likely have to resign his council seat in order to assume his state board seat in January 2019. In response, Administrative Analyst Maria Dacanay-Wisner spent hours creating a marketing strategy in order to promote the vacancy via the City website, paid advertising and social media.
During the application period, the entire City Clerk’s office participated by taking calls, answering questions from applicants, and assisting those with questions about the process. Processing the applications was handled by former Staff Assistant III Leah Kellen – and then after her registration by new Staff Assistant III Thania Montoya. They spent one to three hours a day in-taking and uploading applications sent via, sending follow-up questions to applicants as needed, and then forwarding the list of applicants to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorders’ Office to verify their voter registration. The turnaround on confirming voter registration from the County was the same day in most cases. In the end, three applicants were not eligible because they were not registered to vote in Santa Monica.
Why a record number of applicants?
Prior to the record number of 76 applicants this year, the last three City Council vacancies saw only 10 (2010), 27 (2009) and 15 (1998) applicants. Some of this year’s increase should be attributed to the ease and accessibility of the application process provided by the City Clerk’s office. For that we should feel very good that the structure of our local government helped enhance our local democracy.
Some of the record number of applicants also mirrored the national trend of more people becoming involved in politics. This phenomenon has been well-reported on the Congressional level. It’s also occurring on other levels of government. In some ways, applying for a vacant seat is an even greater measure of the desire to be involved, because it doesn’t require a person to actually file for office and run a campaign, but just express their interest and willingness to serve.
Role of the questionnaire
The application form to fill the Council vacancy included a questionnaire. While several applicants chose not to meaningfully answer it, many took the questions to heart and answered in depth. The beauty of responding to such questions is that it compels you to find it within yourself to express your deeply-held values and goals, and to envision yourself as a leader in your community. It must have been very empowering for so many people to take that step and imagine themselves in that role. That was another big victory for our local democracy.
The questions themselves come out of a public process. In 2013 the City Council approved a policy allowing for customized questions per body. The City Clerk’s office staff then worked with board and commission staff liaisons – and through them the boards and commissions themselves, to create customized applications and returned to the Council in 2014 and received approval for them.
How to get involved
What about the many applicants who were not appointed? During the Council meeting, both Mayor Davis and Councilmember McKeown made strong pitches about the importance of being involved with Santa Monica’s appointed Boards and Commissions.
A word for the wise for those considering this path. Just like you shouldn’t run for city council and expect to be elected if you haven’t shown up at council meetings over the years and laid out a public record of your stances on the issues, the same thing applies if you seek appointment to a board or commission. Put in your application. But then attend some of its public meetings. Let people know you care and what you think. That’s what democracy is all about.
The meeting schedule for all boards and commissions is available on the City Clerk’s website.
Three-Part Series on City Council appointments:
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.