September 4, 2014 - From the September, 2014 issue

Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould: Retiring Observations

After serving Santa Monica as City Manager for nearly five years, Rod Gould recently announced that he will retire from the position at the end of January. Gould’s extensive career in the profession has taken him to California cities including Monrovia, San Rafael, and Poway. In this TPR interview, he provides an overview of Santa Monica’s fiscal health, its development challenges, and its opportunities as Metro light rail connects this city with the greater LA region.


Rod Gould

“My successor will be on hand for adoption of the zoning code, the Downtown Specific Plan, the Memorial Park Plan, and a pedestrian safety plan.” —Rod Gould

“Going forward, I see a continued, intense debate between slow, smart-growth advocates and no-growth advocates in Santa Monica.” —Rod Gould

Rod, you’ve announced that you’ll be retiring as Santa Monica’s City Manager. With 29 years of experience in five cities—and serving Santa Monica since 2010 —share why you’re retiring from city management now. 

Rod Gould: Serving Santa Monica these last five years has been the highlight of my career. Anybody interested in urban affairs, municipal management, public policy, and an activist, progressive polity would find Santa Monica to be the equivalent of Disneyland on steroids. The public expects and receives a lot in return for a tremendous amount of support. The economy is extraordinary here, which provides resources for city government to do what much larger cities and even counties generally do. No other city of 90,000 that I know of attempts to do such things, much less does them well. It’s a very dynamic place and it’s never dull—I assure you that.

As you pointed out, I’ve been in city management for 29 years, with 35 years of government and public service experience. I’ve worked very hard wherever I’ve been, and in Santa Monica, at a feverish pace. I’m afraid that working too many hours is beginning to affect my attitude and health. I am unable, though, to simply dial it back, work less hard, or care less. I feel that the best option is to step off the merry-go-round and find another way to continue my service—albeit with fewer hours and less stress. 

What are the challenges that future Santa Monica city manager applicants ought to be aware of before applying?

What will my successor have to worry about? Right now, what some people call a “robust” dialogue (and that would be an understatement) is taking place over the level and type of development that should be allowed in Santa Monica. This will not be resolved in the November election—I think it will continue to bubble and boil. 

My successor will be on hand for adoption of the zoning code, the Downtown Specific Plan, the Memorial Park Plan, and a pedestrian safety plan, all of which are in various stages of drafting now. Those will essentially set the rules. There are a number of mixed-use and hotel projects in the pipeline that will need to be decided upon by the council and community. He or she will see that happen. 

At the same time, light rail will come to Santa Monica for the first time in over 50 years. That will be a tremendous, 50-year change for the city. I think it’s going to be very popular and that the benefits will be many-fold. While we are making plans to adapt our municipal services to the opening of Expo in the first quarter of 2016, it is impossible to know precisely how it will affect us—we’re just going to have to experience it. 

The city has to make up its mind about how to continue providing affordable housing. We have two measures on the November ballot that would provide a portion of replacement funding for the dollars that were lost when redevelopment died in California in 2012. These are absolutely necessary funds if the city is going to continue providing reasonably priced housing for working people and those on fixed incomes. Without it, economic pressures are so great that Santa Monica will continue to lose its middle class even faster than our country as a whole, and that will change its character. The next manager needs to be cognizant of that. 

Our strengths are many in Santa Monica. I think the manager will be delighted with the quality of the staff and leadership team, the many initiatives underway now, the level of services being provided by the departments, and the capital projects that are underway to be designed and built in the next few years. It will be a heady time for my successor.

Santa Monica City Councilmember Terry O’Day shared in a recent TPR interview that he believes Metro’s Expo Line will “be truly transformative for Santa Monica and for [the city’s] relationship to the region.” Could you corroborate and elaborate?

That term “transformative” is thrown around often. It’s like “iconic”—we use it a whole lot in Santa Monica. But I don’t think it’s hyperbole in this case. 

Connecting Santa Monica to the larger Los Angeles region, and to the ever-increasing transit network that the region is rebuilding, is very important to the city’s future. 

We think people will be eager to take the train into LA for work, sports, and cultural activities, then ride back and skip parking altogether. Similarly, we believe that people will find it a lot easier to take light rail than to fight the I-10 freeway—whether they’re coming to Santa Monica to enjoy the beach on the weekend with their family; they want to do some shopping on the Promenade or in our downtown; they’re working a tech job in and around our downtown or east Santa Monica; or they’re taking classes at Santa Monica College. Light rail is going to become the mode of choice for many people. We expect 3,000 riders per day when the Expo line is fully operational. 

I don’t want to oversell it, though. I don’t believe for a second that when light rail is in place and its usage ramps up you’ll see free-flowing traffic on the 405 or the I-10. Far from the case. After Caltrans spent over a billion dollars adding HOV lanes on the particularly saturated section of the 405, traffic moves a little better—but it’s barely perceptible for large portions of the day. That’s because of the demand for auto-related transportation in America and particularly in LA. 

But does bringing light rail give you new choices? Absolutely. Santa Monica wants to be a leader in mobility. We want to make the most of this $1.6 billion investment to bring Expo from Culver City all the way to our downtown at 4th and Colorado by integrating better with our Big Blue Bus, which is the fifth-largest transit system in Los Angeles. We will reorient our buses to align with the seven Expo stations, making the first-and-last mile as easy as possible.

We’re also becoming a bike city. We want to make that an easy and safe choice. We want to make it easier for people not to own a car, but to just rent or share one when they need to. Both car sharing and bike sharing are moving toward fruition in Santa Monica. We also want to make it as safe as possible for pedestrians to walk around our city. Pushing on all of these modes at once improves mobility and quality of life.

Few of our readers are unaware of the high level of civic engagement in Santa Monica, especially around development. Two proposed land-use decisions—the Hines project and the Santa Monica airport—are being lively debated. How politically challenging is it for the city to resolve these and like land-development policy matters?

I’ve been watching this development debate in Santa Monica since I’ve been with the city. As I read and talked to people, I realized that it predates my time. So much of it gets down to policymaking: What do voters and the elected representatives of the people have to say about these crucial land-use decisions, and what are the rules of the road for development? 

There was some impression that after a six-and-a-half-year debate over the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE)—the guts of the General Plan—had been settled, there would be a period of peace and tranquility. 

That did not occur. A lot of development that had been pent up for some time, waiting for financing to become available after the Great Recession or waiting for the LUCE to be adopted, suddenly made its applications. The citizens of Santa Monica—although assured on one hand that the LUCE is a slow-growth document confining intensification to just 4 percent of the city, essentially downtown and the transit nodes—were terrified at the number of projects being proposed. That gave impetus to those saying the city is already overdeveloped, that it’s already too intense, and that there can be no rational justification of any new development here.

That’s been fought to a fare-thee-well in the last few years. A number of projects have been approved, but not that many, quite frankly—because our process is so complex, it takes so very long, and there are so many bites of the apple. 

You referenced the Hines Project. It was a cornerstone project in the eastern part of the city where we have an industrial area that needs to be updated for new and modern uses in the 21st century. But people found that the Hines project was too big or not well conceived. It was ultimately scuttled after seven-and-a-half years of discussion, debate, hearings, and negotiations. Now we face the question: What is to become of that dilapidated building right next to an Expo light-rail station in a key area in town?

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We bring forth only projects consistent with the city’s policies—in this case, the General Plan (and if the planning commission can finish it in the next few months, whatever the Council finally adopts for the zoning code). These documents become the test of whether projects can enter the process. Going forward, I see a continued, intense debate between slow, smart-growth advocates and no-growth advocates in Santa Monica. 

Although many are trying to make the airport a development question, it is a land-use issue in my world. The airport has certainly been part and parcel of Santa Monica’s history going back to the early parts of the last century, when aviation was new and many records were set out of that airfield. Many of the great planes of the past were designed and built in Santa Monica. But it’s a different time now, and it’s an open question whether or not the city needs or desires a general aviation airport. Neighborhoods that have grown up around the airport have reason to be concerned about the health impacts of emissions, about noise, and about safety. 

These concerns are just as real as proponents’ arguments about the benefits of having the airport as a reliever to LAX, as a place where hobbyists can enjoy flying, and for safety in time of a regional disaster. 

Again, the people, directly as voters and through their elected representatives, are going to have to make some decisions. But the airport is wholly different than the Hines project or any other development that I can think of in town because the authority over its future is divided between the federal government and the local city government, which owns the land on which the airport sits. There’s a myriad of law, regulation, and practice that gets in the way of determining who gets to decide. We are currently defending four different lawsuits involving authority over the future of the airport, and there may be more in the future. As our excellent city attorney, Marsha Moutrie, has often advised the council and community, it won’t be decided anytime shortly. This is going to play out over years. 

If, at the end of lengthy and costly legal battles, the city is able to decide whether it wishes to stay in the airport business, it’s going to have to determine: If not an airport, then what is it? Who pays for it? And how is it to be used? We have very smart citizens in town with clear answers about exactly how to reuse the airport. I think it’s possible. But those who think something dramatic will happen next year are deluding themselves.

Many local jurisdictions are extraordinarily envious of Santa Monica’s healthy fiscal situation, especially after Prop 13 and its progeny, the state’s chronic fiscal crisis, and the demise of California redevelopment. How has Santa Monica been able to successfully address its fiscal budget?

Santa Monica is very fortunate to have a diverse and well-positioned local economy to drive its major revenue sources. That potent local economy allows Santa Monica to blunt the impacts of economic downturns—including most recently the Great Recession. Santa Monica is able to continue to provide high levels of service, to invest in its capital infrastructure, to maintain a quality workforce and labor peace, and to keep prudent reserves on hand for times of shock losses and other eventualities that cannot be foreseen. Our budget is the third largest of the 88 LA County cities at $567 million this year. It has been balanced each year with surgical cuts, improved cost recovery and tax collection, and returns on investments, all while preserving our AAA bond rating. 

The city is extremely fortunate to have industry clusters based on entertainment, technology, hospitality, healthcare, and retail—all poised for growth in this new century. Many of these jobs pay well. They generate substantial amounts of taxes. The council is therefore able to tackle things that other cities can’t begin to address—whether it’s sustainability, aid to youth, seniors, and the homeless, mobility, advances in technology, art, and culture. The council with the will also has the wallet to get great things done. 

I do worry, however, that sometimes residents of Santa Monica lack awareness of just how fortunate they are to have such a strong downtown and commercial base, because that is what makes possible the Lexus-level of services that Santa Monica residents respect and deserve. Without it, we would be like most cities rationalizing marginal municipal services, cheating the infrastructure, and hoping for the best. The quality of life, the level of sustainability, and the safety in town would not be nearly what it is today, had it not been for our go-go economy.

From your viewpoint as City Manager of Santa Monica, what is it like to be a neighbor of the City of Los Angeles?

The big city of Los Angeles is more than a neighbor. It surrounds Santa Monica on three sides, with the Pacific Ocean being the only respite from LA. We are affected by a lot of things that happen there. 

I empathize with the leaders of LA because their challenges are so much greater than ours, but the resources and opportunities are, relatively speaking, far fewer. I root for LA. But I find many of its challenges are structural, systemic, and daunting. I wish Mayor Garcetti, City Council, key staff, and the stakeholders in LA all the best in addressing this. LA is the bell-weather for all of Southern California.

The City of San Diego recently abandoned its city management form of local government. Could you share your point of view on the value of city management as a way of governing in the 21st century?

I’m pleased to be a vice president of the International City-County Management Association, which represents 9,000 public managers and assistants in 38 countries around the world. The council-manager form of government is growing in the United States and in many countries because people see its basic premise as highly desirable. The progressives’ idea early in the last century was to marry the benefits of local representative democracy with professional management. The people pick decision makers that set the direction for the city, enact its laws, and adopt its budgets. Those elected representatives in turn hire a professional manager to manage the city’s operations and administration with effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. When it works well, it works extremely well. 

Only in cases where there’s a tremendous mismatch between the elected leadership and the key staff—or where the city has grown so large that the special interests find it more efficient to lobby a single person, the elected mayor—do you see movement away from this form of government. That’s not to say that it’s an easy balance between the elected representative democracy and efficient public administration. But it’s the best form of government that we have for small villages and hamlets, up to cities with a quarter-million in population.

It’s not ideal for large cities such as San Diego or the City of LA?

I don’t think it would work in LA or San Diego. In big cities, you find that no matter how powerful the elected executive is, he or she will often choose a chief of staff or chief administrative officer to do the day-to-day management and administration, similar to a city manager. But the hiring and firing authority resides with the so-called strong mayor. That’s to be expected. Moreover, the legislative body loses a lot of power to the elected executive in the strong mayor form of government. Sacramento voters will decide whether or not to go to a strong mayor form in November’s election.

As you prepare to retire, do you have any closing thoughts for those charged at the local level with governing in California? 

California cities took a major battering in the Great Recession. Unlike Santa Monica, many of them are just beginning to see revenues come back to where they were. They are fighting huge deficits in infrastructure maintenance as they begin to put back services that were cut too deeply and deal with public employees that were angry and hurt by the take-backs in the tough periods. These cities are also struggling under the weight of the ever-increasing cost of pensions and healthcare. This is a double whammy for elected officials and managers. 

Five or six years since the recession lifted, the sun looks like it’s coming out in California and across America. But those cities still need to hold their purse strings tight, remain very prudent, and say no much more than they can say yes—in order to not imperil their fiscal stability into the future. That’s bitter medicine. 

I’m hopeful that your readers recognize how important cities are to civilization in general, and to us in the great state of California. We have 482 cities, and over 80 percent of Californians live in cities. As go the cities, so goes California, America, and much of the world. The care, feeding, nurturing, and stewardship of cities is pretty darn important, and that’s why I’ve given my career to it.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.