December 21, 2020 - From the December, 2020 issue

Terry O’Day on Public Accountability & Santa Monica City Governance Challenges

The City of Santa Monica, acclaimed for its mission-driven, nation-leading investments in livability, has been - for cities facing unprecedented fiscal shortfalls prompted by the coronavirus pandemic - a “canary in the coal mine”. With few incumbents on its City Council winning reelection this November, TPR interviewed Terry O’ Day, Santa Monica's outgoing Mayor Pro Tempore, on how the city realigned spending priorities to survive this year’s public health crisis while also navigating a nationwide reckoning with racism in policing. O’Day further shares his frustration with the administrative failures that compromised the city’s response to the civil unrest and unchecked looting that overtook Santa Monica earlier this year.  


“Our budgets are not coming back fast. This winter is going to be long and hard. The public safety institutions still need to retool for racism and for addressing new threats. But we do have a strong asset base and we have a community that, in the end, I still trust to get out and get organized.—Terry O'Day

When we last spoke with you in April, Terry, Santa Monica was just beginning the hard work of restructuring its city services to address revenue shortfalls resulting from COVID-19 restrictions. Update our readers on how Santa Monica has been adjusting to that “new normal” and what the political consequences were for you and others who were charged with reprioritizing the City’s budget. 

The result of the budget process was that the council prioritized safety, as we were in a pandemic, meaning that we made few cuts to police and fire, and we prioritized those services that we must continue, such as trash pickup and water service. As a result, most of the cuts fell on our discretionary services that reflect quality-of-life in the community as well as some of our key progressive values such as environmental sustainability, social justice, and other investments.

The pandemic wore on and as our economy continued to be at least partially closed, the streetscape took on a different feel. Residents began to notice that they weren't getting the same services from the city due to the budget cuts. And then on May 31st we had severe looting. These things added up and likely contributed to pent up anger, a sense that the community had changed in meaningful ways, and perhaps is reflected in the election results

Speak both to the impacts on City Hall of the looting on May 31st in Santa Monica and the added stress of COVID-19 on public officials who were on point for quickly reprioritizing public budgets and delivering essential services.

As we were heading into May 31, we were in the midst of the pandemic response, and two important things were happening in that relate to how we handled that day. One, like the rest of the region and much of the globe, we were celebrating our first responders and health care workers every evening. The community came out on their porches at 8:00pm to applaud our healthcare workers, police, and fire every night.

Second, our Emergency Operations Center was already being utilized for the pandemic and enforcing physical distancing.  So, when the looting begins, we set up a mobile operation center, which did not have the same facilities as the full center. While the rest of the region, including me, was watching on TV as looting began, our police did not have a working drone and didn’t have a live feed of the television that you and I were watching. The TV-feed clearly showed our staff out of position and overly focused on protesters, but they were significantly compromised in their ability to reposition.

A full expert report is not yet available, but these are just some of the first lessons. As we saw images of stores being looted in Santa Monica—as many people in the region did—some viewers thought, ‘Let’s go!’ Next thing you know, we had an estimated 7,500 people looting downtown and spreading throughout the city. One factor in their success was that every looter was carrying a personal communications device and being connected on social media, as we all do now.  In my opinion, this represents a classic moment of technology disrupting an agency's response. The department was not able to reposition as quickly as the looters because they didn’t have tools that communicated as much information as quickly. Even the department’s drone wasn’t flying; they didn't have the TV, and once they had established a position, couldn't unlock that position for the safety of the officers.

 So part of the story is that the department really got caught flat footed on May 31 and our leadership have been trying, as a community, to figure out how to assess that day, which included anger related to how the protesters were handled; anger from the business community as to how the police had planned for and managed the day; and all of that resting within a growing national movement to address systemic racism in policing. Rather than take an across-the-board cut that a lot of communities went with, we wanted some real data with meaningful analysis from experts to evaluate the myriad perspectives on the day and have a ground-up look at how to handle our policing going forward.

Unfortunately, our police department wasn't up to the task of doing that themselves, and we learned too late. We have since gone to an outside resource to produce an independent report, and our police chief has resigned. We still are months away from having that thorough report that we need in order to inform how we restructure the department, but in the meantime, we did stand up community members to establish a Black Agenda to drive that work.

Terry, before the rioting on May 31, many thought Santa Monica had the best police chief in California. What transpired in the City to undermine that assessment?

Experts in the region anticipated some unrest as a result of what we'd seen in Los Angeles and in Beverly Hills the night before.  Our leadership was told that our department was prepared to handle it.  They weren’t.  

And then, as I mentioned, one day we were all out on our porches at 8:00pm cheering our policy and first responders and, the next day the police are being tested and reviled in the community.  Heads are all spinning wondering what just happened. 

The City Manager tasked our chief to produce an after-action report, and it just wasn't coming forward. It is not clear even now why that report wasn’t produced. So, Council directed staff to hire an independent investigation with analysis and recommendations. Unfortunately, that one misstep further undermined trust of the department in the community. We all got caught in the crossfire.

Share what it's personally like, as someone with a family and a challenging professional career, to also be in civic life today. How weighty are the pressures? How challenging is the exercise of public leadership in the midst of civic disruption?

It's always difficult. With the model of service that we have in California, with civilian leaders as volunteer, part-time elected officials, we accept some compromises.  This year, it's been particularly difficult. It seems the pandemic has rendered at least two societies. One is essential workers that expose themselves daily to COVID risk— these people have to be in the community and deal with that COVID risk. The other is the society that gets to stay home on Zoom calls all day. Both sides exist in the community and in the city staff.  We have staff members who have COVID risk and staff who work at home.

 In community meetings between city leaders and neighborhood groups, neighbors on Zoom berate our staff for not doing enough, not working through the night, not responding to their emails within an hour. It tells you something of what privilege really is; how it's wielded in our community, and how it divides us.

On May 31 I was, kind-of thrown in front of the cameras and in front of the crowds with the city needing leadership, needing to hear from us. The next day I witnessed hundreds of volunteers coming out with brooms to clean up. For many of us, sweeping up—it was the first time we had been out in public in months.

It’s always a challenge, but through this period—navigating with family, knowing that you're taking COVID risk, and dealing with this privilege that exists in the community. You do wonder what's it all for.

Your election loss in Santa Monica is but one example of November’s impact on a number of local leadership contests. Much attention—in Bloomberg City Lab, NPR, and others—has been given to the defeat of  Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs. He in part explains his loss for re-election on the success of a well-funded, social media disinformation campaign that undermined him for most of his tenure. Beyond Santa Monica, speak to the effect of our ‘low-fact media environment’ on governance going forward – and on what our President-Elect will likely face at the national level.

When President Obama won in 2008 and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress—I always thought that one thing we missed when we had the authority was reform of our media ownership. We are just not getting information the way that we need it, and it's clear that it's being exploited by our foreign enemies. Now, what we're seeing even at the community level is a fact-less debate. If you can’t agree on the facts, then you don't really have a public forum. And there just is no arbiter of fact left in most of our communities or in national democratic dialogue.

What Michael faced, is something we saw in many of our elections in Southern California.  It is the impact of claims on social media that don't get challenged because you don't have discourse centered around shared facts.  It has compromised so many of our systems that had until now been insulated. We had mostly been seeing this high degree of partisanship and tribalism at the national level.

 In our communities, we used to see our neighbors and worked with people who may dislike federal government but have always appreciated local government because they can observe the results. This year feels different. Everybody's at home, not interacting the way they used to, relying on social media, and not trusting the brands who brought them facts in the past.

 For example in Santa Monica, our incumbents who lost were endorsed by the Sierra Club, the Democratic Party, the local Democratic club, and the firefighters, and still they lost. Voters went with challengers who had none of these endorsements and few if any. It was a repudiation of fact and previously trusted brands and there were scarce to even engage in a real debate anymore.

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The media sources that remain, they struggle to survive, and the line between opinion and fact is blurry at best. The struggle to find ad revenue really drives a lot of the agencies that are left or those that have been bought up by corporations. It's a tragic loss. 

Help our readers make sense of what appears to be the outcome of the California elections this fall? With Biden winning California two-to-one, the loss of every labor-supported ballot propositions, and the Dems losing both state and federal legislative seats—is there a logical explanation?

I haven't seen the pattern yet. It's troubling for sure because we want to have explanations for where we're headed. That's part of the accountability we all need, right? What was the message of the voters? It seems elusive this year and lots of us are struggling. People are looking to get paid, and I don't know if that mixes things up, if it's the social media element that makes things up, whether it's the hype or get out the vote campaigns, I think we're going to be struggling to solve this for some time.

The former city manager of Santa Monica recently penned a TPR opinion piece regarding the many challenges confronting Cities today, titled:  Four Horsemen of the Fiscal Apocalypse. As someone who has been in the belly of the beast, do cities presently have the local tools essential to confront: cratering public revenues, a faltering private economy, institutional racism, and a dramatic increase in public safety demands …in the absence of federal assistance?

We are better positioned than most cities. We have some great assets here in Santa Monica, but we also have deeper exposure to the tourist economy in a downturn. That, we anticipate, will persist. What we have been attempting to do is to pivot towards a new type of economy that allows for more open space and more utilization of some of the assets—like wide streets and great weather— that we do have. Hopefully that can restore some of the community involvement that we rely on for the economy.

 On safety, May 31 demonstrates that we have a real digital disconnect, and we need to think about our capabilities in a different way to respond to a different kind of organized threat. But we also have to deal directly with systemic racism and the loss of faith in these agencies and institutions that we have always regarded as our keepers and the bedrock of our local communities.

Our budgets are not coming back fast. This winter is going to be long and hard. The public safety institutions still need to retool for racism and for addressing new threats. But we do have a strong asset base and we have a community that, in the end, I still trust to get out and get organized.

Santa Monica, like Pasadena, has been a very privileged city in terms of tax revenue—sales tax, hotel tax, etc.  The City, blessed with budget surpluses, invested in a number of social serving projects and innovative programs. What now can the public expect from city services given the severity of the financial challenges you have spoken about today? 

They'll need to expect less—and pay more, unfortunately. That's a hard message to hear, but it's real. Our cities are going to have to continue to provide certain types of services, but some of the ones that engage our community members the most are the ones that get cut. They're the ones that bring people out to planning meetings to plan the future of their community. Seventy percent of our sustainability office was cut because we had to cut 30 percent from our budget, and we couldn't cut those services that provide daily needs for the community. It's going to feel differently going forward until, hopefully, we can get the economy back to where it was.

Speaking of sustainability, when TPR last interviewed you, Santa Monica was about to open its new city services building, touted to be the most sustainable public building in the world. Has it been opened? Has it met expectations? 

It's open, but it's underpopulated because our office workforce is still mostly at home. It’s given us some more space to spread out and a quality work environment for those people, but it's not functioning the way it was intended. It is designed to have a large open public counter, particularly for planning and other services, and that's not functional due to Covid. We didn't get the ribbon cutting, so there was no patting on the back for those officials who put work into getting the building up. There wasn’t the send off that communities need when they when they make investments and sacrifices.

Let’s pivot to transportation and the city's pre-COVID commitments to decarbonizing transportation infrastructure. Is that commitment still being honored? 

We are working in Santa Monica on taking it out of planning and putting it into a single transportation department. The decarbonization work that we have been doing should continue as it is one area where we actually think that the planned investment to upgrade the fleet will reduce our operating costs going forward.

There are, fortunately, mega-trends that haven't changed as a result of COVID. Our sustainability solutions continue to become more affordable. Battery manufacturing is causing battery prices to drop.  In transportation, we do think we can still decarbonize. And the same is true for some efficiency investments in water. We have opportunities still; we just have to figure out how to do them with less staff and less investment.

A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times addressed how difficult it is, when everybody's bunkered down, to engage in this partisan environment, in truly interesting and provocative civic conversations. There are some rumors that your successors on the City Council will be a bit more partisan in closed sessions than has been the tradition on the council. What advice could you give them about how to find common ground in light of the civic challenges we've just spoken about?

No doubt it's going to be difficult while people remain hunkered down. The one strong impression that I have from the past few years is that we have a structural concern related to accountability in our city governance model. We have seven council members—some cities we have five—the city manager, and maybe a city attorney or city clerk who report to the city council. In that kind of structure with the Brown Act, where you can only talk to less than a majority of them without calling a public meeting, there's always an opportunity to put it off on someone else—to say, the city manager’s in charge of that or the city council needs to be on board. Then, in an environment like 2020, when we had this breakdown like on May 31, the public needs someone accountable. The question is, who will that be?

To the successors here, will it be you and how will you respond to that? It won't be good enough to skate by; the public is demanding more. It's not clear yet just how to get the action that the public expects right now without structural reforms. That may mean going to a directly-elected mayor system, or something that has direct accountability to voters for administrative actions in the city. 

Santa Monica has a City Managerial form of governance, much like most local governments in small and medium-sized cities in California—employing  a professional city manager and professional staff always accountable to the majority of the Council. Indeed, Santa Monica has been the epitome of that form of governance. Is the City now really willing to give up on the professional management?

I'm not yet there, but it is an interesting conversation that is coming from a lot of different sectors in our community right now. It's coming from the Chamber of Commerce and from the neighborhood groups—those two are traditionally opposed to each other. It's coming from real estate interests and from renters’ rights groups. So, the conversation is started.  I'm definitely much more of a purist. I believe in the progressive reforms of the early 20th century, but I spend most of my time in the private sector where accountability models are much more direct, and there is a bit of an accountability problem here. 

Lastly, what are your personal options for what’s next—post service on the City Council?

I'm definitely going to put more time into raising my teenage girls, as it’s not only the most rewarding thing I do and most important, but I've learned too that it's much more demanding than I expected it to be when they were younger. By this time, I thought it'd be more cruise control.  When they were younger, someone told me wisely to get down on the floor and play with them. I need to do that more, whatever the version of that is as teenagers just get into where they are and understand that and engage in it. So, we’re going to have fun.

But I've got this fleet electrification startup called In-Charge Energy. We were cautious on hiring because of COVID this year. We hired about half the people we intended to. Turns out we doubled our revenue plan this year. Now we're busting at the seams and I really need to engage. The company has the important mission to finally defeat diesel pollution.  Obviously, this is an important mission that deploys a private sector solution to solve a public problem.  Next year I will think again about what public service means.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.