The 227 acre airport site now faces an uncertain future and many will doubtless seek a slice of this lucrative real estate pie Credit: City of Santa Monica

City Councilmembers rejected a public lottery form of public outreach to determine the future use of the land currently at Santa Monica Airport last week in a meeting that inexorably inched toward 4 o’clock in the morning.

In a 4-3 vote, Council instead opted to ask Sasaki, the Boston-based company originally selected by staff to undertake the technical design work for the airport land, to include a standard public outreach element when they present their proposal to Council in November.

The rejected system would have involved a panel chosen through a randomized lottery-based system that’s designed to draw in a broader range of potential participants and to help remove many of the barriers from participation present in the traditional land-use planning community outreach processes.

Panelists would have been everyday people who live in Santa Monica and reflect the demographics of the city. Given that most panelists would not have prior experience with the policy topic, the idea was that they would have a unique capacity for identifying common ground solutions in the public’s best interest.

The idea grew out of previous council instruction to look into more innovative and unique community outreach efforts. However, public comment was against the lottery proposal.

“There cannot be a more inappropriate public engagement process than a lottery, but the fact that is not self-evident to the staff and to the council is inexplicable,” said Marc Verville.

Critics opposed both the process itself and Healthy Democracy, the company that would run it, saying the process would disenfranchise residents most impacted by the issue while amounting to a stealth effort to add housing to the airport land.

“City staff should not be allowed to introduce co-governance to Santa Monica and the council should certainly not approve such a departure from our rules of governance without clear, unambiguous voter consent,” said John Murdock.

Councilmember Phil Brock directly addressed the staff proposal criticizing the push for Health Democracy’s participation.

“It seems that you’re trying to do a real sales job for Healthy Democracy … I’m just concerned because I don’t always see a study session or city report, where there’s such hard advocacy for an organization … And I can guarantee what it sounds like is really an attempt to subvert democracy,” Brock said, adding that he personally would call the company “Unhealthy Democracy.”

“I would add that staff is not advocating for any particular outcome. All we’re advocating for is a process and a process that we were directed by counsel to … It’s not silencing voices, we are adding voices,” Amber Richane, Acting Chief Operating Officer said.

The proposal did have some support on Council.

Councilmember Jesse Zwick said, “What’s going on here is that there are certain groups which together, while they constitute a tiny percentage of people in our city, are used to being the primary voice in our town. And when confronted with a system that aims to broaden and diversify the representation on his panel, they oppose it. Not because it will fail to do that, but because it will succeed and actually weaken their own monopoly of power that they’re so accustomed to welding. And I just think we should be real about who’s opposing this and why, and what our goal is as a council,” he said.

However, Councilmember Christine Parra said she’d personally experienced the impacts when priority wasn’t given to residents most impacted by decisions citing the placement of the Metro train depot in the Pico neighborhood.

“By the time my neighbors and I were able to even advocate and get involved, the decision was already made,” she said in opposing the lottery system. “So I feel very strongly that regardless of what process we develop, the voices of those living directly adjacent [to the airport] have to be strong and mighty.”

Councilmember Caroline Torosis, Mayor Davis and Zwick voted to approve the proposal, while Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, Parra, Brock and Mayor Pro Tempore Lana Negrete voted to reject it. The item is expected to return for consideration before the end of the year and other remaining items from this meeting that weren’t discussed will be moved to the next meeting slated for Tuesday, October 24.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.