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Zane's Challenge Is to Cultivate Civic Harmony

December 01, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Dennis Zane discovered a hidden talent for gardening not long ago. On a barren patch of land in his apartment courtyard, he planted roses, gardenias and impatiens, then stood back with some amazement and watched them grow.

The plants, many of them dormant now that colder weather has arrived, still flutter in the breeze that sweeps through Zane's stucco apartment complex, a testament to his green thumb. But this week, as he surveyed his small garden, Zane had a tougher task on his mind--making harmony grow in Santa Monica.

There are those who fear that the strident rent-control and slow-growth advocate who was appointed mayor on Tuesday by the City Council's new liberal majority will be unable to forge compromises with the city's moderates.

And there are those who say that Zane, who often comes across as sullen and insular behind his thick wire-rimmed glasses, will be an uninspiring leader.

Bright Outlook

But Zane and his supporters contend that he will surprise people with his creativity, his openness, his statesmanship and his willingness to compromise.

"It's possible to disagree without being disagreeable," Zane said in remarks after his selection as mayor. "We have an undeserved reputation as a divided community. But no divided community could accomplish so much."

Whatever his critics or supporters think of him, most agree that Zane, 41, brings some solid credentials to the mayor's office. He is a veteran lawmaker, serving on the council since 1981, and has been the point man for several important city projects, such as the renovation of the Third Street Mall.

Zane also brings a spirit of commitment to the post. He quit his math teaching job last summer and intends to devote himself fully to running the city, a job that pays $150 a month, while he searches for new employment.

List of Goals

Before he was even sworn in, Zane had assembled a laundry list of goals for his two-year term, including better commercial development controls, better public school financing, better public child care programs, better traffic management, expanded parks, tougher environmental laws, and the list goes on.

Zane's supporters say he can accomplish much of what he sets out to do if he succeeds as well as his more moderate predecessors in bridging the gap between the factions that are continually at odds over the city's future.

Thom Poffenberger, a close friend of Zane's who has worked with him in the tenant organization called Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, said the new mayor does not expect to accomplish his ambitious agenda all alone.

"He has strong feelings," but he is willing to listen and talk to people," Poffenberger said. "And the thing that is key is that he likes to reach a consensus so that people feel good about the decision that is made."

"The fear people have of him is that he'll just be an ideologue and do radical things," Poffenberger added. "But that's not a correct image. . . . People who are expecting him to be rigid and one-sided will be surprised."

Backing From Kelso

Duke Kelso, a community slow-growth advocate who once clashed with Zane over the amount of commercial development that should be permitted in Santa Monica, said he now sees Zane as the council's most responsible member.

"I commend Dennis for his ability to see the light," Kelso said. "I'm glad to see that he's mayor."

Former Mayor James Conn, a longtime ally, said Zane has already proved that he is a capable lawmaker through his work on the council. What remains to be seen, Conn said, is how he handles the demands that go with the mayor's post.

Conn, one of the city's more popular mayors, still clashed with liberal backers over his support for some development projects, and the extremely controversial question of how much construction should be allowed at Santa Monica Airport still looms before the city--perhaps as its most important issue.

In the Hot Seat

Since the mayor sits at the center of city government, Conn said he is constantly in the hot seat.

"When you're on the council, people don't know you as well as they do when you're in the mayor's chair," Conn said. "The difference is that when you're mayor, you are asked your opinion on practically everything that comes up."

For all his years on the council, and before that as an activist, perhaps what is most curious about Zane is how little people know of him personally.

The usually loquacious Conn became practically tongue-tied when he was asked to describe some of Zane's traits. "He's very bright," Conn finally stammered. "He's also very creative, very articulate and very likable."

Unlike Conn, however, who usually attracts attention in public, Zane often goes unrecognized or ignored. As he sat for a 90-minute interview this week over breakfast at the Omelette Parlor, one of Santa Monica's most popular morning hangouts, no one stopped at his table to talk or even say hello.

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