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Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole Is 'Distinctly Different'  
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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

First in a series

March 13, 2017 -- It isn’t often that a city manager takes his mic on the dais to liken those he is unhappy with to Stalinists and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un -- not even in Santa Monica, a city well-known for its outspoken ways.

So, when Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole let loose with that fiery blast during a recent City Council meeting, the reaction was a moment of seemingly stunned silence.

Cole stopped himself mid-rant, and the meeting moved along.

But it was a telling moment, and not just because Cole was attacking the powerful California Coastal Commission -- a panel the City needs as an ally on many matters.

As city manager, Cole is essentially an administrator. Verbal outbursts and political tirades are not normally in the job description.

But then, Cole is far from a typical city manager.

Heading into his second year on the job, Cole is in the public eye so much he is almost as well-known as the City Council members he serves.

He tweets, has his own City blog (which people actually read) and has met with irate homeowner groups on their own turf and other critics of City Hall -- all in an effort to quell unrest in the community over three topics: Development, closing the municipal airport and high pay and benefits for City employees.

Cole also answers the emails of even his harshest critics, which is a hit-and-miss practice in general in Santa Monica city government.

For a time, a photograph of Cole, dressed in a casual blue denim at the entrance of the Pier, was even the face of Santa Monica on its City website (www.smgov.net).

Again, not business as usual for city managers, a breed of public servant more prone to staying out of the limelight than passionately opining in pursuit of a mission.

Cole is definitely the latter.

“I am distinctly different,” Cole, 63, said in an interview with the Lookout News. “The council was very aware of my energy and passion” when it hired him in May of 2015 to replace retiring city manager Rod Gould, he said.

“It’s a very challenging place,” Cole said. “But Santa Monica is a great lab for democracy at work. It’s a hard and messy process.”

He was hired at $329,424 plus benefits. At the time, only the city manager for Santa Ana was paid more among those holding such posts in California, according to Transparent California, a government watchdog organization.

Cole had been lauded as everything from an “All Star” to a “guru” of good governance before he arrived in Santa Monica from Los Angeles, where he was deputy mayor of budget and innovation under Mayor Eric Garcetti.

He has, in the past, found inspiration in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi and is regarded in governance circles as "visionary.” His own self-descriptions have included “happy warrior” and “Zen Catholic.”

Cole wears his liberal politics openly and proudly -- much in the manner of Santa Monica itself. But being outspoken has gotten him into trouble.

His outburst about the Coastal Commission was not Cole's first, although it was oddly timed. The City had just learned the panel had a lot of questions about a sports field proposed on what is now a parking lot for the shuttered Civic Auditorium. The panel's approval might be vital ("Santa Monica Inches Forward with Civic Center Sports Field," March 2, 2017).

At a meeting last month, a dialogue between Cole and Councilmember Sue Himmelrich over a $350,000 contract for outside public relations/marketing became so heated Mayor Ted Winterer tried to take it to private chambers.

Winterer finally just cut it off.

And then there was the January 24 meeting in which Cole accused critics of a proposed $75 million City Hall annex of using “alternative facts” -- an infamous term coined by the Trump Administration and, in a city as anti-Trump as Santa Monica, the cruelest cut of all.

Cole’s words that night gave Winterer pause.

“Using the phrase 'alternative facts' may have been unnecessarily inflammatory,” Winterer told the Lookout News.

He also defended Cole, however.

“But behind the choice of words is an acknowledgment of the very real challenges we face," Winterer said, noting that if "an inaccuracy is repeated enough without fact checking that it's taken as gospel."

“That's one of the reasons that under Rick's stewardship we're working on better communication with our constituents,” Winterer said, “so that if they're mad at City Hall at least the anger is based on facts rather than hearsay.”

Council Member Kevin McKeown also sided with Cole in the matter.

“I will say, for the record, 'Remaining responsive and respectful to people whose opinions are based on misinformation -- sometimes deliberately provided to them by advocates with an ax to grind -- is a challenge for all of us, and Rick does it as well as anyone I’ve seen,'” McKeown told the Lookout.

Cole is open about the problems of running local governments today. They still lack transparency, he said, which causes public distrust.

And government is still run on a model from the previous century, a time before the efficiency the internet can provide and -- more importantly -- the years when public servants didn’t get paid much, but could rely on generous health and retirement benefits.

Pay has caught up since, and employee costs threaten to bankrupt cities that don’t enjoy a well-off populace like Santa Monica's, or the fiscal luxury of a biennial budget that tops $1 billion.

Unlike some of his governance colleagues, Cole acknowledges the need for change, although he is not specific about how to accomplish that.

Local government today is “broken,” he said, likening it to Blockbuster, the movie rental giant that crushed Mom and Pop video stores, then suffered the same fate because of internet services such as Netflix.

“Cities cannot go out of business,” he said. “There needs to be change.”

Part II: Cole faces big issues and vocal critics.


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