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Santa Monica's Myers Grapples With City Problems and a Social Conscience

November 17, 1985|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

The weather was cold and the sky was a misty gray as Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers embarked on his daily six-mile run last week. Zipping up his jogging jacket, he headed west to Ocean Avenue, negotiating several signals and crosswalks before turning north into Palisades Park.

His pace quickened when he reached the park and as he dodged mud puddles and maneuvered around towering palm trees, Myers could not help but notice the homeless people huddled on benches, wrapped in dirty blankets and wandering in search of handouts from the regular park visitors.

Won't Prosecute Homeless

Such scenes have become strikingly familiar in Palisades Park and other Santa Monica locations. And some city officials have said that Myers, who has consistently refused to prosecute the nonviolent homeless, is partly to blame for the problem in Santa Monica. But their criticism has not weakened Myers' resolve to seek social remedies in place of prosecution.

"I spend a lot of time running through the park and seeing what's going on," Myers said recently. "And when I see many of these people I feel a sense of helplessness. . . . In a land with adequate resources for most of its citizens, it's one of the great injustices to see people in this condition."

Myers' viewpoint may incense people who are routinely hit up for quarters when they are out for a walk. But the 34-year-old city attorney, who has been called brilliant by even his worst enemies, contends that his dogmatic stand is morally and legally defensible. He took a similar stand several years ago when he authored the city's rent control law on behalf of low-income tenants facing skyrocketing rents.

Myers has been under fire in past months from council members who say he is not doing enough to solve Santa Monica's problems with the homeless. Councilman David G. Epstein, speaking last month at a workshop on the homeless, accused Myers of failing to do his job. And Councilman William H. Jennings called for an audit of Myers' office a few weeks ago, saying Myers was slow to process city business and generally uncooperative. Jennings later withdrew his request.

But Myers' supporters argue that criticism of the city attorney has more to do with politics than the homeless question. They say he is caught in the cross fire between the city's two political factions--Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the liberal organization that supported his appointment when its members held the council majority in 1981, and the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition, whose members have criticized Myers since they gained the majority in City Hall last year.

'Outlandishly Inappropriate'

"Any office as sensitive and complicated as the city attorney's office is going to have a lot of critics and a lot of admirers," said Councilman James P. Conn, a tenant activist who links attacks on Myers to attacks on rent control. "But these latest attacks have been outlandishly inappropriate."

Myers' critics deny that he is being attacked because of his ties to tenant activists. They say his intransigence on the homeless issue proves that the city attorney--who has often been called the eighth City Council member because of his outspokenness--is too independent.

"He's a very good lawyer, but he's also political," said Jennings, a coalition member. "It's not his position to decide whether he'll enforce the laws we pass. Only seven of us set policy."

"Bob is brilliant and he's dedicated to what he thinks is right," Epstein said. "But he sometimes forgets that he's no longer a Legal Aid lawyer, where your job is to be a vigorous advocate for the poor. When you're city attorney, your client is the City Council."

Jennings and Epstein have stopped short of suggesting that Myers be fired. One reason, they say, is the fear that tenant activists would try to portray Myers as a martyr for rent control in the 1986 election. Council members have also said that Jennings and Epstein probably don't have the five votes needed to remove him from office.

"I think there are other people who could do the job. It's not like he's the only one," Jennings said. "But nobody on the council wants to go through the election fighting the argument that we fired the father of rent control."

Declined Comment

Until recently, Myers has been tight-lipped in the face of criticism from Jennings and Epstein.

But in a wide-ranging interview with The Times last week, Myers predicted that he and his critics will reach a compromise on the homeless. He downplayed the significance of the recent criticism and said he enjoys his job.

"I believe that the type of work I'm doing is an important contribution to the public interest," Myers said. "As long as I feel that way I'll continue to work here . . . though ultimately the measure of a city attorney's performance is the satisfaction of the City Council that appoints him."

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