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Saint Bob : 'Holier-than-thou' or just holy? The city attorney, revered and scorned for his style and personality, has staked out the moral high ground while dominating the political scene.

February 16, 1992|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — In his heart, Robert M. Myers knows he's right.

And anyone who disagrees better steer clear of the Santa Monica city attorney, who for more than a decade has dominated city politics with a blend of legal wizardry, piety and, some say, flat-out bullying.

To friends, Myers, 41, is Saint Bob, revered as the father of rent control and viewed as its indispensable legal defender, a legal genius of the left whose minor sins are easily forgiven in the scheme of things.

"There are people in the (renters' rights) group who will live or die for Bob," said former City Councilwoman Christine Reed.

Foes view Myers as only too mortal, even--or especially--as he looms over City Hall waving the Constitution and his moral compass, anointing himself the conscience of the community and the center of controversy over such touchy issues as the homeless.

Myers acknowledges that his moral principles are an essential part of his appeal.

"I was obviously hired as city attorney (in 1981) because of my values," Myers said in an interview last week.

In his latest scramble for the moral high ground, Myers upbraided his bosses on the City Council last month for asking him to draft an "oppressive" law to control camping in the city's parks by homeless people.

Rather than rebuke him, and without batting an eyelash at the public scolding Myers had just delivered, members of the pro-rent-control majority on the council praised him lavishly. Then they turned around and hired an outside attorney at an unspecified expense to the city to get the law they want.

Councilman Dennis Zane later took the blame for even asking Myers to write a law that might infringe on his deeply held principles.

"You don't attack an icon," former Councilman William Jennings said, explaining the council's defense of their attorney. "There's no control over Bob, no control at all."

Community activist Sharon Gilpin, who has known Myers since he was a Legal Aid lawyer, said it is the council that is deserting Myers for political expediency's sake, not the other way around.

Gilpin said she has learned over the years to trust Myers' advice, because it comes from the heart, without calculation.

"Bob ain't a politician," she said. "A politician wouldn't act that way."

Even some supporters concede that it is not just principles and politics that make Myers so controversial. In part, it is his personality and style that fuel his reputation as a formidable character.

"Bob is a Catholic purist," said his good friend, Municipal Court Judge David Finkel, a former city councilman. "He's a very dear man. He just has this unusual presentation."

Indeed, Myers is a physically imposing man. Tall, beefy, tightly coiled, with a hair-trigger temper that he says he's working hard to control, Myers is shy and can be painfully ill at ease in casual social discourse. "He's definitely missing some social genes," said a veteran of City Hall who asked not to identified.

Eschewing the civic social scene in favor of solitary pursuits such as reading, strumming his guitar or baking his famous cheesecakes, Myers said it is fair to say that he's not one for hallway schmoozing and party chitchat.

Many people find Myers someone to be approached gingerly. He may mumble a normal greeting, offer a barely civil hello, or explode, his face turning its trademark beet-red.

On other occasions, Myers displays a dry wit, delivered deadpan in a monotone voice. When a reporter complained good-naturedly about being chased around the City Hall lawn by a homeless woman brandishing a big stick, Myers retorted, "She's probably been reading your articles."

Myers is well-known as a man who practices what he preaches. He is the principal financial backer of a weekend homeless feeding program in the city, and he gives large, but unspecified sums of his $105,000 annual salary to charity.

Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, described Myers' style as intrinsically linked to his deeply rooted Catholic faith, a personal witness approach to stopping immoral acts by speaking out.

Rothstein, whose organization is the city's largest provider of services to the homeless, praised Myers for his willingness to take moral positions, calling it a rarity among public officials.

"He challenges people to think out their moral beliefs and it drives people crazy," she said.

On the other hand, Rothstein added, such behavior is not always productive.

"He's supposed to do what the community wants, not take moral stands," she said. "He exerts a lot more power than is appropriate as a city attorney." On the camping-in-the-park issue, she said, "he may have opted out and felt pure, but the community came off worse."

One of the great ironies about Myers is the gap between his devotion and empathy for the disenfranchised and the way he relates to others on a day-to-day basis in City Hall.

"He's like the guy who loves humanity but who doesn't like people," said one person who has worked extensively with Myers.

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