Gleam Davis

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. March 12, 2019

On December 11, 2018 Gleam Davis was chosen as Santa Monica new Mayor – and the seventh female mayor in Santa Monica’s history. I first met Davis back in 2001, when as a local public school advocate, she contacted me and other City Councilmembers about increasing City support for our public schools. She struck me then as she does now – smart, direct, to the point and with a caring heart. As she prepares to present at the Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City event this Wednesday, I asked her three questions:

Question: There is a lot of talk about a Green New Deal on a federal level. What does that concept mean for us in Santa Monica?

Mayor Davis: My understanding is that a “Green New Deal” means a 100% reliance on renewable energy, mitigation of climate change and increasing green jobs. Santa Monica committed to a local version through its Sustainable City Plan long ago. Today we are part of a Clean Power Alliance, where the default for every Edison customer in Santa Monica will be that 100% of the customer’s electricity will come from clean, renewable power sources. Similarly, we now require that all new single-family residential construction be powered by solar energy. The City will also apply these requirements to its own structures: the new 50,000 square foot City Service Building (being constructed behind City Hall) is being built as part of the Living Building Challenge. When completed, it will be one of the greenest buildings in the nation.

Transportation remains one of the greatest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why we worked so hard to bring light rail to Santa Monica, complementing our award-winning Big Blue Bus service. We also have robust bike and pedestrian action plans to make Santa Monica easier to navigate without an automobile. (Over 20% of downtown Santa Monica residents do not own a car!). Santa Monica was also the first Los Angeles County city to launch a bike share program, as well as a groundbreaking shared mobility pilot program to regulate electric scooters and bikes.

What we need more of is “greening” our development patterns. Smart infill that increases residential opportunities near jobs and transportation, reducing the need to drive, is a key way to make significant dents in our carbon footprint.

Question: State law often greatly affects what cities can do in this respect. With Democrats having a super-majority in both houses the next two years, what changes will Santa Monica be lobbying the legislature on?

Mayor Davis: California is in the midst of a historic housing affordability and availability crisis. The biggest blow to Santa Monica’s ability to develop and protect affordable housing was the State’s elimination of the Redevelopment Authority, which Santa Monica greatly benefitted from after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake – with approximately $70M going towards affordable housing from 2007 to 2011 alone before the program was shut down. The City has spent the last few years working hard to replace those important funds. In 2016 Santa Monica voters contributed significantly to this effort by passing Measures GS and GSH, which allocated a portion of new sales and use tax revenues to affordable housing. Statewide Proposition 1, which was passed by voters November 2018 ballot, will also be a source of such funds.

State legislators are just beginning to introduce new bills to hopefully promote the development of sustainable infill development. As they are not fully fleshed out, it is hard to evaluate their merit. But you can be sure that the Council will be paying close attention to them as they develop.

Perhaps the most important thing the legislature could do is put teeth into the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process. By state law, every city is assigned a RHNA number that sets forth its theoretical five-year goal for developing new housing. Historically, Santa Monica has met its RHNA assessment. But many other California cities, including some on the Westside, repeatedly fail to meet theirs. There is no real penalty for such failure, so these cities displace their housing development responsibility upon their regional neighbors. If there was some meaningful consequence for failure, more communities might build housing and spread the regional burden more fairly. Our new Governor Gavin Newsom has just proposed this idea.

Question: We first met when you were a local education activist. What was your impression of municipal government at that time from the outside, and how has that changed now that you have served from within?

Mayor Davis: Before I joined the council, my impression of municipal government was that the primary obstacle to progress was the effort it takes to develop political will. There are some issues that automatically demand city council attention: development, housing, and sustainability. In addition, every council member has her particular issues. Sometimes, it is possible to build political will around those issues; sometimes not. For example, it took the circulation of a petition to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would help fund public schools before education really caught the council’s attention.

Now it is clear to me that political will is necessary but not sufficient, because external factors such as federal or state law or technological advancement can play an outsized role in the City’s ability to govern. Often, these are where we face the deepest criticism. For example, our toolbox for helping people experiencing homelessness is often limited by state law regarding evaluating whether a person is a danger to herself or others, and federal court rulings protecting the rights of homeless persons in public spaces. Similarly, much of the recent uptick in crime may be attributed to changes in state law that place the responsibility for dealing with property and other crimes on already-overburdened county and local facilities and resources.

As for technology, the unexpected and sudden placement of electric scooters on Santa Monica’s streets led to a year in which whether dockless mobility devices even should be allowed in the City dominated the discourse and limited our ability to address other pressing issues.

Despite these inevitable disruptions and limitations, we established strategic priorities in 2015 and have made significant progress on them – creating a new model of mobility, reducing homelessness, encouraging lifelong opportunities to learn and thrive, maintaining an inclusive and diverse community and regaining control of City land occupied by Santa Monica Airport. We now have folded them into a new framework for budgeting priorities that will guide our budgeting process.


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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