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|Another Poli Sci 201 Situation|
By Frank Gruber
April 19, 2010 -- One reason I enjoy writing this column is that all the big political science issues that one might ever want to study (assuming one wants to study big political science issues) get played out in local politics, but at a scale that makes them comprehensible.
Latest case on point was last week's discussion at the Santa Monica City Council about the hiring of James Corner Field Operations (JCFO) to design "Palisades Garden Walk" (the park to be built on the former RAND headquarters site between Ocean Avenue and Main Street) and the adjacent town square in front of City Hall. As Jonathan Friedman reported in his article in The Lookout Council Fights Park Designer Choice (April 16, 2010), the council voted 4-2 to ratify the decision to hire JCFO made by staff and a team of outside advisors. Regardless of what one thinks about the merits of the decision, the debate involved fundamental issues about what is, or should be, political.
The problem is that in a city like Santa Monica, where there is a hired City Manager but the City Council has ultimate authority over many executive decisions, including awarding multi-million dollar contracts to architects and designers, there is no bright line between the decisions that deserve full legislative/political treatment, with hearings, outreach, etc., and those that go straight to the consent calendar. There is a vast expanse of decisions, including the one to hire a designer for the new park, that fall in between.
In this case the situation was complicated by the fact, barely mentioned at the council's meeting, that there are some serious and dedicated people in the community, including Council Member Bobby Shriver and former but longtime Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel, who are disappointed that the job didn't go to Frank Gehry. Mr. Gehry is, of course, the Santa Monica resident who happens to be the most famous architect in the world, the designer of a great park in Chicago, and someone whose work is not represented by any civic projects in his adopted hometown. (This doesn't mean that any of the Gehry partisans necessarily would want him appointed by fiat; only that they're mystified that that Planning Department's process didn't result in his getting the job.)
But Mr. Gehry's merits aside, the issue is a matter of "process." This is what Council Member Shriver, Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Susan Cloke, and other critics of the decision to hire JCFO maintain. After analyzing the process issues, however, in the light of precedent and practicality, it's clear that the council made the right call in accepting the staff's choice.
For the reasons put forward by City Manager Rod Gould at the meeting last week, using a public process would be not only impracticable, but also unlikely to lead to better choices. As Mr. Gould said, for projects like this, the City is not going to attract good candidates if they know they have to compete in public with other designers to try to achieve a public consensus that would be impossible in any case. What was telling were the letters that several local architects -- include some who had tried to get the job -- sent to the council endorsing the process as fair, as well as comments from a representative of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
And hovering above the whole process are the deadlines imposed by the need to use Redevelopment Agency money to build the park -- the project needs to be ready to bid in about two years.
Nonetheless, Council Member Robert Holbrook was justified at the meeting to wonder what the council's role should be. If the decision is ultimately the council's to make, isn't the decision by nature political? But there are gradations, and it would not be practicable to give these kinds of hiring decisions full political treatment.
That being said, City staff made one big mistake in this process. After word about the recommendation hit the streets, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote an article praising the decision and treating it as a done deal. This was, of course, before the City Council had approved the decision. Staff should have responded with a public statement clarifying that the final decision had not yet been made -- to protect both the council and JCFO from potential embarrassment.
If politicians must ultimately make these decisions, and (not incidentally) take responsibility for them, I suggest that in the future staff should frame the process with that in mind. Staff should still make a recommendation, but it should be clear to everyone that the decision is ultimately the council's to make.
Politics and politicians are due that respect.
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