Sustainability and Equity Champion Tapped for Top Position at Santa Monica City Hall


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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include quotes from Santa Monica and Los Angeles officials.

L.A. Deputy Mayor Rick Cole, an outspoken proponent of equity and sustainability in local government and planning and self-described progressive Catholic, will take over as city manager in Santa Monica.

The City Council announced the unanimous decision at a special meeting Wednesday.

“Our City Council is unanimously enthusiastic about what we all agree is a perfect fit of City and Manager. Rick Cole is a respected and inspirational visionary for successful sustainability, resilience, and quality of life,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown in a press release issued Wednesday shortly after the decision was made.

“We took very seriously our community’s contributions to the job description from which we hired Rick. He has proven in city after city his ability to incorporate diverse input, identify shared goals, balance economic development and residential quality of life, and bring communities together,” McKeown said.

In the same press release, Rick Cole said, “The City of Santa Monica today was shaped by the last three decades of remarkable Council, staff and community leadership. It is both a national model and a personal inspiration to me as a model for sustainable urban policies and practices.”

“The challenge ahead is to reconcile the success of that model with powerful market forces to ensure that Santa Monica remains a city that works for everyone,” he said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti offered his congratulations in an official statement released Wednesday.

“I want to congratulate Deputy Mayor Rick Cole on his appointment as Santa Monica City Manager,” he said. “Rick has led our work to reform city government, balance our budget and adopt new technology across our departments. I wish him all the best and know that Santa Monica will benefit from his talent, experience and commitment to public service.”

Cole has served both as a local elected official — he sat on the Pasadena City Council for 12 years — and as city staff, including an eight year stint as city manager of Ventura, where he “led a downtown revitalization, guided Ventura through daunting budget challenges and oversaw important but unsexy work such as improving public works, water and sewer operations,” according to The Ventura County Star.

In 2013, about a year after Cole left his position as Ventura city manager, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti drafted him for the post of deputy mayor of budget and innovation. In that post, Cole has been a champion for Garcetti’s vision of a data-driven City Hall, “by emphasizing performance metrics, open data, and results-based budgeting,” according to The Planning Report.

“That which gets measured gets done,” Cole told The L.A. Times in a 2013 interview shortly following his appointment by Garcetti. “Government has been slow sometimes to adapt organizational best practices. Tracking performance and being accountable for results is what I’ve tried to implement going back 30 years.”

While in Ventura, Cole helped articulate and oversaw the implementation of that city’s general plan.

“His most notable achievement in Ventura was adoption of a general plan that emphasizes redevelopment of the city’s core, including its commercial downtown, favoring walkable communities that grow by going up instead of out,” The L.A. Times reported in 2012 when Cole announced he would be leaving the city over differences with newly-elected Council members.

Cole is known as generally outspoken and not one to mince words. As mayor of Pasadena, he criticized the selection of a descendant of Christopher Columbus as grand marshal of the Rose Parade, saying that the choice symbolized the “greed, slavery, rape and genocide” of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, according to a 1993 profile of him in the L.A. Times. Cole attributed the choice to “the extreme myopia of an organization totally controlled by aging white men.”

Cole arrives in Santa Monica at a time when the city’s debates over sustainable growth have reached a fever pitch. Cole is “an outspoken proponent of high-density building along transit corridors and someone who, as a former city manager, demanded accountability from department heads,” the L.A. Times said.

As an advocate of smart growth, he is also understands that good planning is also about social justice and equity.

“If a neighborhood suddenly becomes more attractive in the marketplace, it does seem logical that residential and commercial rents will increase. What’s missing from that equation, however, are two other factors,” he told The Planning Report last Febraury in an interview about Garcetti’s “i-team,” which is designed to coordinate L.A.’s urban revitalization programs to ensure the benefits minimize displacement and maximize benefits for existing residents.

“First, what if revitalization was so widespread across Los Angeles that attractive neighborhoods were not a scarce commodity?” he asked. “Second, what if rising wages and business activity allowed existing residents and local businesses to prosper in an improving neighborhood?”

Cole is often credited with leading the revitalization of Old Pasadena, an experience that still informs his his approach to placemaking, especially as a champion of Garcetti’s Great Street initiative, the program that hopes to transform — on a shoestring budget — some of L.A.’s major streets into safe, comfortable public spaces for use by all.

While Cole hasn’t had any direct responsibility over L.A.’s Great Streets initiative (that responsibility belongs to Deputy Mayors Barbara Romero and Doane Liu), he has been a philosophical leader of the program.

At an Urban Land Institute (ULI) forum in February 2014, Cole discussed a holistic approach to planning streets for people.

“Once there is critical mass, then the property owners and business people need to band together in a business improvement district, to make it clean and safe, to add street amenities and put together all the pieces that maintain and enhance a great street—including watering the flowers and putting on events,” he said.

Cole will replace interim City Manager Elaine Polachek, who took the helm after former City Manager Rod Gould stepped down at the end of January after five years. Gould recently took a job as vice president for management of Management Partners, a local government consulting firm.

Jason Islas
Jason Islas
Jason Islas is the editor of Santa Monica Next and the director of the Vote Local Campaign. Before joining Next in May 2014, Jason had covered land use, transit, politics and breaking news for The Lookout, the city’s oldest news website, since February 2011.


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