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Santa Monica City Council Debates Whether Voters Should Elect Mayor  

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

January 13, 2011 -- The City Council agreed to consider ways to let voters pick the city’s mayor. But most council members seem less than enthusiastic about the idea.

By a five-to-one vote Tuesday night, the council directed staff to look into alternative systems used by other municipalities in deciding who gets the top office. The council will likely consider staff’s findings during the council’s annual retreat sometime later this year.

The subject was introduced by Councilmember Bobby Shriver, who pointed out that while Santa Monica’s form of government does not give the mayor more power than other members of council, the title itself carries more clout.

“Calling people on the phone and saying you’re the mayor has a much bigger impact than saying you’re a councilmember,” Shriver said. “It enables you to do things the other title does not enable you to do,” he added.

However Councilmember Pam O’Connor, who cast the one dissenting vote, said there is nothing wrong with the current system which lets the council select the mayor from among its own members.

“I’ve been involved in regional government for a long time,” O’Connor said. “I’ve become convinced that this model, the model that works for us, is a good model.”

At least one other former mayor agrees with O’Connor.

Speaking from the floor during public comment, former councilmember and mayor Michael Feinstein called the idea “a solution in search of a problem.”

“We have the best system because the role of the mayor in this city is [primarily] to chair these meetings,” Feinstein said.

“You have to have a majority of your colleagues who support you to chair the meetings,” Feinstein added. “That’s the deal. It’s not the rest of the community.”

Speaking from the dias, Mayor Richard Bloom cautioned that mayoral elections would come with political and financial costs.

Pointing to the nearby city of Inglewood, where former Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts was running for mayor in a hotly-contested run off election that same day, Bloom said, “It’s been a very fractious election …. that’s been divisive to that community.”

In addition, Bloom said, each regular council election in Santa Monica costs taxpayers about $100,000, and run off elections – which could become commonplace in mayoral contests – would each add another $70,000 to the bill.

Councilmember Gleam Davis was also doubtful. “I want to keep an open mind,” Davis said, “but my initial reaction is that changing the city charter is not good.”

Councilmembers Terry O’Day and Kevin McKeown expressed openness to exploring options but said little more than that.

Although the council appears reluctant, the idea might have more appeal among Santa Monica voters – who would ultimately decide any proposed change to the city charter.

During public comment Tuesday, Zina Josephs, a regular speaker at public meetings and president of Friends of Sunset Park, said it was time to consider another way to select the mayor.

Apparently referring to the council’s recent selection of Bloom over McKeown for the top spot, Josephs said the council reminded her of “social clubs in junior high school and in high school” where one member is punished by other members for “refusing to go along and get along in some way.”

McKeown -- who lost to Bloom in a narrow four-to-three council vote last month -- has never been mayor despite serving 12 years on council and being the top vote getter in the last city election. Bloom is in his third stint as mayor.

During Tuesday night’s discussion, McKeown said, “It behooves us to look at our options and see them all through.”

Councilmember Bob Holbrook was absent from Tuesday’s discussion.

 

“Calling people on the phone and saying you’re the mayor has a much bigger impact than saying you’re a councilmember.” Bobby Shriver

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