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Factionalism Fragments Santa Monica Politics : Flurry of Initiatives Reveal Partisan Conflict 5 Months Before Council Election

June 02, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

The staff in the clerk's office at Santa Monica City Hall had never seen anything quite like it.

In barely four weeks' time, papers for a handful of November ballot initiatives--dealing with slow growth, campaign spending and rent control--had been filed, withdrawn or refiled a total of 10 times.

"It came to a point where the city attorney said, 'Where's the score card?' and I said, 'Yeah, we sure need one,' " said acting City Clerk Donna R. Betancourt.

"People would come in and ask which one (initiative) is in today," she said with a smile. "They'd ask to see the slow-growth initiative; we'd say, 'Which one? We have any number for you.' "

Some of the back-and-forth, push-and-pull could be attributed to simple errors in hastily filed initiative proposals, such as typos or lines dropped by computer word processors, which forced sponsors to withdraw, fix and refile their measures, officials said.

New Level of Factionalism

But the unprecedented flurry of initiative filing also appeared to reflect a new level of factionalism among political groups in the city, especially as crucial City Council elections loom just five months away.

In a city where politics have long had a reputation for being explosive, rarely do internal partisan differences become as public as they did with the initiative-shuffling.

The most eye-catching split came within the slow-growth movement.

A diverse group of Santa Monica residents worked for months to write an initiative that would control development, only to split at the last minute. One faction beat the other to the punch by filing its initiative papers first; the other spent days filing numerous versions of its own initiative in an unsuccessful effort to forge a compromise.

At the heart of the division was the debate over just how far the initiative could go to clamp down on new construction. One side chose to include sewage flow as a criterion for growth; the other side said such a provision could not stand up in court.

"There seemed to be philosophical splits over the whole process," said Ken Genser, a member of the faction that filed second. "There were some who thought that tougher is better all the time. Others said let's look at the implications. . . . It was as if being reasonable became a bad word."

Want to be Enforceable

"You want to be tough on development, but in a way that's enforceable," Genser said.

Much of the political debate that rages these days swirls within the city's dominant political organization, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, which grew out of the tenant activism movement of the late 1970s.

Members of the organization found themselves on both sides of the slow-growth initiative battle; still others considered the initiative route the wrong way to go, favoring recent zoning code revisions enacted by the City Council as a better way to regulate development.

Genser, who co-chairs Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, said he did not wish to see the fracturing that occurred over the slow-growth initiative spread into other issues on which the organization will take positions. But he indicated that he feared it might.

"It will depend how hot under the collar people get," he said.

Some political observers predicted that factions within Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights--smelling victory in the November election--will slug it out in the next months over what positions to adopt on a variety of issues. Some members of the group are considered more politically to the left than others, and the factions may feel the need to jockey for position before the election.

"They don't seem to know where they're going, except they realize they are going to be in the majority again, and they realize what's at stake," said a local observer of politics who asked to remain anonymous.

Deny Factionalism

"Personalities, ego and ambition . . . play a great role. No one wants to let their colleague get too far ahead."

But several leaders of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights minimized any divisions within the group and denied that there is outright factionalism.

"There are differences that share a common philosophy . . . differences over tools rather than objectives," said City Councilman Dennis Zane, a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights who is running for reelection in November.

"I don't have any doubt that there is a very strong common bond between people energetically sponsoring slow-growth measures," Zane said. "In fact, slow-growth issues will unify the people rather than divide them."

Four seats on the seven-member City Council are up for grabs in the November election. Two belong to Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights; a third belongs to the council's lone independent, Alan Katz, who has announced that he will not seek reelection.

That breakdown gives Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights a chance to regain the majority in the council for the first time since 1985.

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