An ongoing leadership dispute within the Housing Commission has scuttled months of meetings just as the city is scrambling to address a deficient housing element that jeopardizes access to state funding but at tonight’s meeting, the Commission has another opportunity to right its ship. 

The fiasco prompted City Council to suggest temporarily suspending the Commission last week, but following strong pushback from commissioners, Council backed down from this proposal and has allowed the group to agendize a new election to select a Commission Chair to serve a term ending July 1, 2022.

The issues within the Commission stem from a disagreement over who is the current Chair. 

Six-term Housing Commissioner Richard Hilton was serving as the Chair until a March 17 meeting. On March 16, Hilton, who is blind, faxed a letter to the Housing Commission Staff Liaison Jim Kemper stating, “I am resigning as Chair of the City of Santa Monica Housing Commission,” and requesting that Vice Chair Theresa Marasco run the March 17 meeting. 

Hilton believed that he was only resigning for this one meeting, while other commission members interpreted the resignation to be permanent. Hilton said he had decided to not preside over the meeting as there were several items added to the agenda without his prior approval. 

During the March 17 meeting, Michelle Gray was sworn in as Commissioner and then immediately appointed to preside over the meeting in a five to one vote, with Hilton being the only dissenting vote. On March 18, Hilton sent a letter to Kemper and City Manager David White, clarifying that he did not intend to permanently resign.

“You have to have good cause to remove someone. There has to be some kind of violation, it can’t just be a confusion or a miscommunication, especially if there is a disability factor,” said Hilton. 

The confusion over who is the acting Chair then impeded the further functioning of the Commission as the Chair is responsible for setting the agenda and running meetings. An April 21 meeting was canceled due to the dispute and no meeting has taken place since. The City Manager scheduled a call between Commissioner Marasco, Commissioner Hilton, Council Member Brock and himself to try and settle the dispute. Commissioner Marasco did not participate in the call. 

As the dispute dragged on and inhibited the Commission from carrying out its work, Mayor Sue Himmelrich, Councilmember Phil Brock and Councilmember Gleam Davis suggested suspending the Commission’s meetings until Council considers new appointments at the end of June. The Councilmembers’ plan was to have the Commission resume meeting and hold elections for Chair and Vice Chair after these appointments. 

“This is not an attempt to disband the Housing Commission; this not an attempt to take it over in any way, shape, or form, but what we do have is a problem where there seems to be a fairly serious dispute about the leadership of the commission that has interfered with the Commission’s ability to do its job,” said Davis. “There’s a person who believes he was elected chair. There are also people on the commission who believe he resigned from that chairperson position.”

Two Housing Commissioners spoke during the public comment section of the Council meeting and expressed frustration at the proposal to temporarily pause their meetings. 

“At our last meeting, we voted seven to nothing to urge the Council to permit us to resume our normal operations. Affordable housing is one of the key issues in the city right now. We’re faced with the idea of coming up with 6,158 additional new housing units,” said Vice Chair Theresa Marasco, later adding, “we strongly urge that you authorize us to resume our normal operations.”

Housing Commissioner Michelle Gray said she felt that City Council was overstepping its boundaries by attempting to freeze the Commission. 

“This is not about conflict among commissioners. It is not about budget cuts or staffing shortages or the drama created by an unprofessional and inconsistent former chair. This is about control,” said Gray. “Suspending these meetings will prevent HCD and HUD speakers from addressing city fair housing violations, the Commission from advising the Council on the budget in May, and residents from influencing the use of vast forthcoming federal funds.”

After hearing the strong push back during public comment, Councilmembers Brock and Davis agreed to let the commission continue meeting and work the conflict out themselves. However, Davis expressed doubt over whether this course of action will actually lead to the effective functioning of the Commission. 

“I do think what we need to effectively tell the Commission is that they can no longer rely on staff to sort of negotiate these treacherous waters, that if they take a vote and they duly elect a chair and a vice chair and everyone on the commission agrees with that, that staff cannot act as the go between or the mediator; there cannot be complaints from anyone about that,” said Davis. “And my concern is I don’t think anyone can guarantee that, because that’s how we ended up in this position initially.”

Hilton also expressed concern over whether the Commission would be able to settle affairs in the upcoming meeting.

“If there’s going to be disruptions and there is a lack of training and civility we probably should wait; since we’ve had a January, February and March meeting, we can wait until July,” said Hilton.