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Planning Commission Appointments Expose Council Rift

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Editor's note: This report was updated Wednesday, August 2, at 6:30 p.m. to clarify the policy for reappointments.

By Jorge Casuso

July 28, 2023 -- A divided City Council went 10 rounds Tuesday night before appointing three Planning Commissioners, two of them incumbents.

Commissioner Jim Ries, who was reappointed to a record fourth four-year term, received five votes, one more than the four needed to be reappointed to a second consecutive term after a four-year hiatus.

But the Council remained deadlocked over the reappointments of two other incumbents -- slow-growth advocates Nina Fresco and Mario Fonda-Bonardi -- as the three members backed by Santa Monica's liberal establishment repeatedly withheld the fifth vote needed to serve a third consecutive term.

Fresco was finally appointed in the tenth round of voting, while Fonda-Bonardi failed to get the five votes needed in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated effort to block his re-appointment.

Meanwhile Housing Commissioner Josh Hamilton, the only non-incumbent nominated Tuesday night, was unanimously appointed in the eighth round after being nominated in every previous round.

Hamilton, who has served on the Housing Commission since 2020, wrote in his application that housing and land use policy should be "informed by the breadth of community input."

"In particular, I am interested in projects that increase the number of homes affordable to low and middle income households, concentrated near light rail, commercial corridors and in the Downtown area," he said.

Ries served on the seven-member Commission from 2007 to 2015 but failed to get the five votes needed to be reappointed for a third consecutive term. A four-year hiatus allowed him to be reappointed in 2019 with four votes.

He served on the Commission during a critical juncture, when it provided key input on the City's Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and a Zoning Ordinance update, and was viewed by fellow Commissioners as a moderating force.

Fresco, a historic preservation activist, served on the City’s Landmarks Commission from 2001 to 2013 before being appointed to the planning Commission in 2015.

She has long been a champion of restoring the Civic auditorium, which the Council has been negotiating to sell or lease after designating the site as "surplus land" ("Council Ends Negotiations to Sell Civic Auditorium for Affordable Housing," July 27, 2023).

Fresco headed a group of activists called Save the Civic, and in 2013 was appointed to the Civic Working Group tasked with advising the City Council on options for the future of the iconic auditorium.

Fresco was backed by four Councilmembers -- Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, Christine Parra and Lana Negrete -- during three previous rounds before she was appointed in the final round.

Fonda-Bonardi, a local architect and slow-growth advocate, was backed by the same four Councilmembers but failed to win the five votes needed.

The only member of the 2020 City Council slate that was not swept into office by a voter revolt, Fonda-Bonardi was opposed on four rounds by
Mayor Gleam Davis and Councilmembers Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick.

Viewed as a stepping stone to the City Council, the Planning Commission helps to shape development policies by making recommendations to the City Council on development agreements and documents that regulate or guide zoning and planning.

These include the City's Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and Housing Element. In addition, the Commission has the authority to approve permits, although decisions can be appealed.

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