Santa Monica has seven officially recognized neighborhood groups. Despite their official recognition and city funding, most of these groups are known for not being representative of their neighborhoods–indeed, many residents don’t even know they exist. On Tuesday, February 6, Mayor Phil Brock was listed as a guest for one of these groups, the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition, at a public meeting. This seemed like a great opportunity to drop in and see for myself what goes on at one of these meetings.
I was struck during the opening of the meeting how negative a lot of the introductory comments by the Wilmont NC leadership were. There was talk about getting people to join the organization and even their board, and that they think being a part of the group is fun.
But neighborhood organizations were framed as important because they’re how you can convey complaints about what’s going on in the city to the city government…and boy did they have plenty of complaints. These included Santa Monica being designated pro-housing, the needle exchange program in Reed Park, and the fact that residents of some of the new housing being constructed will qualify for residential parking permits, clearly implying that these new residents would be taking “their” parking. There didn’t seem to be much they were actually happy about and there was no talk about using the group to convey positive desires for the future to the city.
It was also hard not to notice that the room was entirely white, other than Chief Ramon Batista, who was also a guest at this meeting, and Rent Control Board Commissioner Ericka Lesley when she joined later. The median age of the room appeared to be somewhere around 70. For comparison, according to the 2022 5-year ACS estimate from the Census Bureau, zip code 90403 (which corresponds to two Santa Monica neighborhoods, Wilmont and the Northeast) has a median age of 44.5 and is approximately 80% (not 100%) white.
After comments by and a Q&A with Chief Batista, it was Mayor Brock’s turn. This portion of the meeting was much more chaotic than the portion with Chief Batista, which had proceeded in a pretty orderly fashion. The presentations, and the Q and A’s, were a very illuminating view into the world of Santa Monica’s official neighborhood organizations.
Note: Many questions from speakers are unattributed because people were not asked to give their names when they asked questions and there was not an opportunity to get everyone’s names after the meeting. Quotes in this article also reflect comments that were also not always captured in their entirety because I was taking notes on my phone (but was not audio recording, as will be relevant later); comments that I was not able to properly capture due to the back and forth during Brock’s segment were discarded as I took notes to avoid misconveying them here. Finally, Brock was jumping around in his comments a lot and there was frequent interjection from the audience, so this article is written to try to connect different threads of conversation instead of being a strictly chronological relaying of the discussion.
Brock started with some very freewheeling comments. He talked about his history with Santa Monica, including that both he and his mother, who he was happy to announce will be turning 96 this month, are lifelong residents who were born here. He reminded the room that he was on the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission for nearly 14 years, and that he wants to highlight Santa Monica’s past as we go into our 150th year in 2025. Points of history he touched upon included “taking over from the Tongva, and then the Mexicans, who then became Mexican-Americans”.
One bit of back and forth that I found interesting was Wilmont NC board member John C. Smith reminiscing to Brock about a Wilmont NC meeting at Joslyn Hall where 120 people attended, as Smith put it, right after the scooters came in. Brock eagerly responded that probably not one of them took a scooter, a nod to his longstanding dislike of the shared mobility devices. Brock once even wrote a column where he said, “The latest symbol of our communal woes is the arrival of the e-scooter, descending on our city like a swarm of locusts intent upon eating up our neighborhoods.”
Later in the meeting, Brock said he wants more protected bike lanes but “without destroying traffic patterns”, which fit with his history of doing things like claiming he supports bike lanes while trying to see if anything could be done to undo the 17th St protected bike lane before it was even 100% finished.
Brock then started talking about how he thinks the city needs to execute permits quicker, and Wilmont NC board member Alissa Finerman cut in to ask what’s making permits take so long whether there is data on permit delay, and what the city’s targets are for average permit time . Brock said he wants permits and inspections to be over the counter but that he doesn’t have any data. As the meeting progressed Finerman would repeatedly interrupt Brock to ask about data, and Brock kept saying that he doesn’t have any data but makes decisions off what he sees and feels.
Bringing things back to traffic safety, Brock talked about how dangerous driving has gotten out of control. He related a story about seeing someone pick up their child in front of Holy Grounds and then proceeding to blow through a stop sign at high speed. One attendee asked Brock about license plate enforcement of traffic violations, which Brock seemed to like the idea of. I found that pretty interesting because on multiple occasions I’ve seen Brock driving around without a front license plate attached to his car and his old car was spotted with an illegal license plate cover obstructing his rear plate.
After this discussion, Promenade real estate broker Barbara Tenzer started to ask a question where she said that the police have told her they’re very concerned that they won’t be able to enforce traffic laws because of council. Brock said what the Tenzer says the police told her isn’t true, to which Tenzer asked why would the police say that to her if it wasn’t. Additionally, what Tenzer said the police told her sounded a lot like a comment made by Santa Monica Police Department spokesperson that there has been “a push-back against armed officers making traffic stops”.
Brock then started to make an eye-raising comment about how RCB boardmember Lesley, the only black person in the room, was “a diverse woman, and the police could pull her over just because she’s diverse”. Perhaps regretting the comment he’d started to make, Brock pivoted to saying that there’s a fine line between what happened in the South and the 75 years of racism in Santa Monica, and that he believes our police officers are doing an amazing job of threading a number of different needles, including “a DA who won’t prosecute”.
Before the meeting moved to another commenter, Tenzer started to make a comment about how being in a minority group makes it easier to get away with breaking laws, that you could for example say you’re Jewish to get out of a traffic ticket, which may have been a nod to her Jewish heritage. This comment is of course completely opposite of what statistics actually show about who gets traffic tickets in Santa Monica.
Nearing the end of Brock’s Q&A, Wilmont resident Eli Gill asked what Brock is doing to increase housing and to lower rents. Brock claimed that the new buildings increase rents (despite overwhelming evidence that new housing causes rents to go down) because the owners of the existing buildings look at the rents in the new buildings on Lincoln and think they should be getting the same rents, and that they’re always going to take the maximum increase. I asked Brock if he was speaking from his own direct experience with being a landlord himself, but he claimed that his tenants pay under market, and that he doesn’t raise rents so his tenants stay.
Brock started to say something about how he would prefer organic housing–no details were offered on how this is different from just letting developers build housing–and that he’s opposed to a loss of local control, and even thinks that we built too much housing in the last cycle (I did not have the opportunity to ask, but I believe he meant the last housing element cycle). Brock also commented that he preferred that I not be recording, which as I stated at the start of this article, I was not. I was typing notes on my phone.
Interspersed with this was Gill and I being challenged by Finerman about whether we’re Wilmont residents, which we are, but which is irrelevant because neighborhood organization meetings are public meetings due to their official recognition and funding by the city. Finerman and somebody behind me (I believe but cannot confirm it was Wilmont NC board member Kate Bransfield) were also saying that Brock shouldn’t have to answer my question and that he shouldn’t be put on the spot like that. Smith interjected that if we want to discuss housing that we should come to a meeting…an odd objection considering the fact that we were, in fact, at a Wilmont NC meeting.
Brock’s final comment of the evening was that the neighborhood organizations have more clout because they’re residents’ organic connection to the city. As per the demographics of the meeting that I discussed at the start of this article, I suppose that’s true if you’re a retirement-age white resident who doesn’t want to ask any questions the group’s leadership doesn’t approve of.
I found it very interesting that Brock was bothered by the idea that somebody might be taking notes on what the city’s mayor is saying at a public meeting, and that Wilmont organization board members think it’s inappropriate for the public to ask the mayor questions at a public meeting. I left with the impression that it’s no wonder that this meeting looked like a bingo hall in Levittown—the board members seem to want to run this officially-recognized publicly-funded organization as a private club where only like-minded individuals are welcome.
This hostility and attempt to limit the conversation to friendly softballs for Brock also stood in direct contrast to a comment made by Brock during his opening remarks about how one of the great things about Santa Monica staying independent from Los Angeles is that you can have a chance to talk to officials like your mayor.
Closing out the meeting was board member Smith attempting to keep the meeting going to talk about the needle exchange program in Reed Park and I believe something about Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. He was interrupted with talk about ending the meeting, to which he responded that he thought the meeting goes until 9. But Finerman (and I believe Bransfield), clearly still flustered by the questions from Gill and myself, kept interrupting him insisting it was time to go at 8:40 and that the meeting was over despite the fact that their own posted agenda does indeed say that the regularly scheduled time for Wilmont NC meetings is 7-9.
The announcement for the 2/6/2024 Wilmont NC meeting, as accessed on 2/7/2024 at http://www.wilmont.org