The abrupt firing of Santa Monica's rent control administrator, Howell Tumlin, may signal the advent of a tougher Rent Control Board--a prospect that dismays landlords and pleases many tenants.
The Rent Control Board voted unanimously to fire Tumlin, saying the board needed a "new direction." The dismissal was effective last Tuesday.
Members of the board said they were exercising a clause in Tumlin's contract that allows him to be fired at will and without cause. And because of that, they were vague about reasons behind the unexpected move.
No one publically criticized the job Tumlin, administrator for eight years, had done. However, board members indicated that they thought a different administrator could better exercise "progressive" policies they plan to pursue.
"We want someone who can better implement policies in tune with what we want to do," board member Wayne Bauer said.
Susan Davis, who chairs the five-member board, said a "more activist" board would give closer scrutiny to petitions from landlords who want to raise rents and to requests for removal permits, which allow owners to remove housing units from the market.
The board last week began studying a proposed regulation that would allow tenants to apply for reductions in their rents if carpets or drapes are more than 10 years old or the paint is more than five years old, and Bauer said he plans to propose changes that would stiffen eviction rules.
Bauer said both measures, which landlords oppose, are examples of the board's "new direction."
Landlords immediately reacted.
"This shows the Rent Control Board is going to move to the left, become more radical," said Carl Lambert, a Santa Monica landlord and lawyer. "They will seek to put more stringent regulations on landlords that are not fair."
The board's actions come as a Santa Monica-based landlord advocacy group launches a major legal challenge to rent control laws here and in other California cities. The group has filed one lawsuit against Santa Monica in federal court and plans others.
A stepped-up militancy by landlords could inspire the same from rent control advocates, some observers suggested.
Although rent control laws have generally stood up in most courts, the California Supreme Court is more conservative than in past years. Landlords may feel they now have a better chance to overturn rent control laws.
Davis said that burgeoning development makes it necessary for the rent control board to be more diligent.
"You'll find closer scrutiny by this board," Davis said. "It's a different time. Development is a much bigger issue now. There is more pressure."
Mallory Pearce, head of the Tenant Aid Project, praised the board's "new direction."
He said the new measures under consideration "give another tool to tenants to enable them to get their rights."
"We are pleased with the general direction: an activist board, making the law work for tenants," Pearce said.
He said the addition earlier this year of Dolores Press "shifted the voting strength" of the board away from those members who "take more middle-of-the-road positions" and to a now "unified" majority.
Both Press and Davis joined the board within the last year.
Press is considered to be one of the more outspoken members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the liberal political faction that controls the Rent Control Board.
Shortly after he had been fired, Tumlin said he was "totally shocked" by the decision.
He said the board had praised his work and told him the rent control agency had "never been run better." But "in practically the same breath," the board said his contract was not being renewed. He said he was not given an adequate explanation.
"They talk of a 'new direction.' I don't know of any direction I'm not capable of leading in," he said.
Davis, speaking before Thursday's meeting of the board, said she planned to propose drawing up a new job description to begin the search for Tumlin's replacement. She said she hoped candidates could be interviewed early next month.
She said Tumlin has formally asked for a statement of the charges that led to his firing, but she said that the board did not have to provide one.
Several employees who staged a one-hour protest the day Tumlin was fired said they objected to the "unfair" way he was dismissed.
The Rent Control Board, in a closed-door session on Nov. 23, told Tumlin that he had 44 hours to resign or he would be fired. When the deadline ran out, Bauer and Davis delivered his dismissal notice to his office at City Hall. He then bid an emotional farewell to staff members.
The episode left many employees confused and upset.
In an effort to smooth tensions, Davis and Bauer met with the employees last week for about an hour and a half to explain the board's actions and answer questions.
"Some were angry, some were upset, some were supportive and some were just confused," Davis said.
The Rent Control Agency, which Tumlin headed, administers policies set by the board. Both were set up after voters approved Santa Monica's rent control law, considered one of the strictest in the nation, in 1979.
The agency had been plagued by labor disputes during much of Tumlin's tenure. But he said most of those problems had subsided in the last year.
"The agency went through a lot of change in a short period of time," Tumlin said. "It went from a chaotic fire-bucket brigade in the early years, to a sophisticated regulatory agency. There is a lot of human friction in organizational change."
He said that the agency "had reached a real high water mark in terms of professionalism, morale and training."