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Santa Monica Rejects Bid for Elected City Attorney

November 08, 1990|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Monica voters set aside their feelings about homeless problems and their controversial city attorney on Tuesday by voting decisively against a ballot measure to make the city attorney an elected position.

The measure, Proposition Y, was billed by its proponents as a referendum on the city's lenient policy toward the homeless and on City Atty. Robert M. Myers, the man some blame for not rousting the homeless. Myers has drawn criticism for failing to prosecute homeless people for sleeping in the park and for non-aggressive panhandling.

But opponents of the measure managed to reframe the issue to one of good government. They enlisted a barrage of mailers and a comprehensive precinct-by-precinct campaign to educate voters about the pitfalls of an elected city attorney who they say would be the city's most powerful politician, rather than an employee of the City Council.

Though a recent survey found high resident frustration over mounting crime and other problems the residents attribute to Santa Monica's large homeless population, 58.4% of voters were convinced that electing a city attorney is not the way to resolve their complaints, while 41.6% disagreed.

Proposition Y's defeat was viewed by some as a tribute to Santa Monica voters. "Voters in Santa Monica are fairly sophisticated," said Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce President Chris Harding, who opposed the measure. They were able to separate the issue from the man, and not turn the election into a popularity contest, he said.

City Councilwoman Judy Abdo, a political ally of Myers, agreed. "It means the community is very well-informed about how government works," Abdo said. The vote against Proposition Y was 16,975.

Conservative Leslie Dutton, who spearheaded the campaign to place the measure on the ballot, said Wednesday that the 12,107 residents who voted for the measure were enough to send a message to Myers. "We're not going away and are considering legal action against city for not enforcing the law. If City Atty. Robert Myers thinks the defeat is a mandate for him to continue business as usual, he's wrong."

Myers said he does not view the vote as a mandate, but also does not plan to change his prosecution policies. "I think everyone has the right to be concerned about the homeless. I continue to believe the criminal justice system is not the place to look for an answer," he said.

Myers said he will step up efforts to explain his policy to residents who think he isn't a tough enough prosecutor. He said he vigorously prosecutes transients for all but a few nonviolent misdemeanors. Myers said to do otherwise is futile because of jail overcrowding.

Late on election night, Mayor Dennis Zane and Abdo said they expected the council to rethink city policies toward the homeless in light of the issues raised by the debate over the city attorney.

The battle against Proposition Y was an uphill one.

Myers said an independent poll taken in August indicated that an overwhelming majority of voters said they would probably or definitely vote yes on Proposition Y. The poll results mirrored a statewide trend in which voters usually grab the chance to make a position elected.

The No on Y group, called the Santa Monica Progressive Precinct Network, quoted a disparate group of supporters, including the police union, moderate City Councilman Herb Katz and the Chamber of Commerce president, in the 10 pieces of literature it circulated. One mailer's headlines said, "both detractors and defenders" of Myers were against Proposition Y.

The price tag for the No on Y campaign was high--$51,000 and counting, according to Myers. Myers said early in the week that he had raised about $43,000 and had loaned the campaign $5,500 in the final days before the election.

An early flurry of activity by Dutton was dampened as her fund raising flagged. Dutton said she could afford only one mailer, while the No on Y camp inundated voters with seven mailers and three other pieces of campaign literature.

Myers kept a low public profile during the campaign, cooking meals for fund-raisers and volunteers who went door-to-door on his behalf and turning out more than 60 of his trademark cheesecakes.

Myers often appears to be at odds with members of the council during meetings and also has enemies among landlords because he is the author of the city's rent control law.

Despite persistent rumors that he would resign even if Proposition Y failed on Tuesday, Myers insists he has no plans to leave, and council members said they have no plans to force him out. "I don't know why you're asking me that question," said Zane.

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