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Top News Stories of 2017

 
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December 22, 2017 -- 2017 might well be looked back on as a watershed year for Santa Monica. In the past 12 months, the City forged a plan that will guide Downtown development for the next two decades and sealed a pact to permanently close its century old airport.

Homelessness was on the rise, pedestrian deaths reached what is likely a record high and several high-profile crimes stoked new fears about public safety.

The year also saw the City's Latino power couple come under scrutiny for conflicts of interest and a major political player slapped with a record fine. Meanwhile, the City's record-setting budget became a rallying cry for neighborhood activists.

Here, in no particular order, are the top news stories of 2017:

Santa Monica Announces Airport Closure, Reduces Runway to Fend Off Jets

After meeting behind closed doors on a Saturday, the City Council announced in late January it had reached an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shutter the municipal airport by December 31, 2028 ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

The “consent decree” was meant to cap decades of warring, and costly litigation, between the two. But, having caught everyone else by surprise, controversy ensued, and continues still. Aviators sued. Meanwhile, neighboring residents railed against a decree that would take a decade to impleement and could be tossed by a court or an intervening council.

As City officials and neighboring residents wait for the century-old airport to close, the runway is being shortened from nearly 5,000 to 3,500 feet to reduce the number of large jets. That, too, has stirred some controversy, with residents fearing more smaller jets will make up for the loss of the larger carriers
("Santa Monica Airport Starts Ten-Day Closure to Aircraft for Runway Shortening," December 15, 2017).

Efforts to test whether the shorter runway will improve air quality near SMO ran into a hitch when smoke and ash from outside fires blanketed the city ("Smoke From Recent Fires Poses Challenges for Santa Monica Airport Pollution Study, City Official Says," December 20. 2017).

Homelessness on the Rise

After a decade of steady decline, Santa Monica’s homeless population spiked this year to 921 people, the largest number counted since 2007. The marked increase reflected a countywide trend and placed the issue back on the front burner in a beach city once known as "the home of the homeless" ("Santa Monica's Homeless Population Highest in a Decade," May 10, 2017).

The City Council reacted by unanimously approving a Homeless Action Plan last month that sends up to a dozen new workers into streets to steer the homeless into the region’s evolving system of help. The plan also calls for re-deploying and boosting Police Department resources, installing software to help first responders and placing a full-time social worker in the library system ("Santa Monica to Intensify Face-to-Face 'Engagement' of Largest Homeless Population in a Decade," November 30, 2017).

Downtown Plan Wins Final Approval

After more than six years in the works, the master blueprint that will guide future development Downtown was narrowly approved by the City Council in July. The Downtown Community Plan set what is likely the highest affordable housing threshold in the state. It also eliminated the requirement for parking, added housing incentives and expedited the approval process ("Santa Monica Council Sets Highest Affordable Housing Requirement in State for Downtown," July 27, 2017).

The plan sought to find common ground between developers proposing 20-plus-story high-rises and slow-growth activists who want most buildings in Santa Monica's downtown to be no more than two stories tall. Neither was completely satisfied with the plan ("Santa Monica Downtown Plan Seeks to Strike a Compromise, Officials Say, But Some Remain Skeptical," April 13, 2017).

The Huntley Under Siege

Years of battling redevelopment plans by rival Fairmont-Miramar Hotel finally caught up with the neighboring Huntley Hotel this year. After a long investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the Huntley was fined $310,000 in August for improperly concealing contributions to city political candidates in the 2012 and 2014 local elections ("Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Facing $310,000 Fine for Concealing Contributions," August 8, 2017).

Three months later, the Council asked for a probe of possible money laundering violations of local election laws. The motion didn’t name the Huntley, but was offered at the behest of organizations backing new hotels Downtown. The council members who floated the motion -- Sue Himmelrich and Kevin McKeown -- are up for re-election in November ("Santa Monica City Council to Consider Probe of Possible Election Law Violations," November 27, 2017).

Latino Power Couple Faces Conflict Accusations

Council member Tony Vazquez, the City's first Latino Mayor, and his wife, Maria Leon-Vazquez, who has been a School Board member for nearly two decades, are under investigation by the LA District Attorney for violating conflict of interest laws ("SMMUSD Probes School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez Over Votes for Contractors Who Employed Husband," November 14, 2017).

Leon-Vazquez cast a series of votes for contractors who employed her husband, a leading Latino political figure since he was first elected to the Council in 1990. Councilmember Vazquez has reported no earnings on his yearly Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) since rejoining the Santa Monica City Council in 2012, a Lookout investigation revealed ("Santa Monica Councilmember Tony Vazquez Has Reported Earning No Income Since His 2012 Election," November 3, 2017).

Wave of Violence Stokes Fear of Crime

2017 was a year when home invasions, the fatal shooting of a young mother near the Pier and a stabbing near the REI store downtown rattled residents and raised fears that a city not known for violence was rapidly changing ("Stabbing Shooting Incidents in Santa Monica Heighten Concern Over Crime," November 6, 2017).

The two home invasions in May -- which took place North of Montana just 11 days apart -- were particularly brutal, with the occupants of both homes hospitalized. The same two suspects were arrrested and charged in both home invasions, which led to calls for heightened policing in the city's wealthiest precinct ("Suspects Charged in Two Brutal Home Invasion Robberies in Santa Monica," May 31, 2017).

The City, meanwhile, is still looking for a new police chief to replace Jacqueline Seabrooks, who retired in September, ("Santa Monica’s First Female Police Chief Announces Retirement," May 8, 2017).

Pedestrian Deaths Raise Concerns

When a pedestrian was stuck and killed crossing Pacific Coast Highway days before Thanksgiving, it marked the eighth pedestrian fatality in the beach city this year. It was also the third fatal accident on the busy State thoroughfare in Santa Monica in three months ("Eighth Pedestrian Killed This Year in Santa Monica," November 21, 2017).

The eight fatal accidents took place on PCH, on busy city thoroughfares, in a parking lot and on the Expo train tracks. Rattled by the growing fatalities the City Council in May ordered faster action on a sweeping re-design of city streets to enhance pedestrian safety and carved a post for a Safe Streets "Czar" ("Santa Monica City Council Calls for Safe Streets 'Czar,'" May 11, 2017).

Big Spending in City Biennial Budget

The City was bracing for an anticipated recession and most of it streams of revenue were already slowing when the City Council adopted a record $1.57-billion biennial budget in June for the 2017-2019 fiscal years -- a 27 percent jump from its predecessor ("Santa Monica City Council Approves Record Budget," June 29, 2017).

Accounting for most of the hike was a $77 million bond the city took out to pay for the new City Services Building, which promises to be among the greenest -- and most expensive -- in the country. Critics of the City’s spending practices fought but failed to stop approval of the annex ("Council Rejects Appeal of $75 Million Santa Monica City Hall Annex," January 26, 2017).

City Spending Rouses Neighborhood Groups

Neighborhood activists did get a small toe into City Hall after City Manager Rick Cole formed an ad hoc committee of residents to help with an outside audit of salaries and benefits for City employees -- for years among the highest per capita among California cities ("Santa Monica Municipal Budget Among Highest Per Capita in California," November 16, 2016 and "Santa Monica Ranks Third in County for City Employee Compensation Costs, Survey Finds," June 23, 2016).

Recently, a couple of committee members suggested wage and/or hiring freezes, and were quickly shut down for, their Audit Subcommittee overseers said, stepping beyond their bounds. The two panels meet again in January and February ("Citizen Panel Members Recommend Wage or Hiring Freeze at Santa Monica City Hall," December 12, 2017).

 


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