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NEWS ANALYSIS : Acrimony Seems This Council's Hallmark : Politics: Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen have staked out a distinctly contrarian agenda. They prefer to call it a vision for the city.

April 25, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — Smear tactics are part and parcel of politics, but a recent smear effort in Santa Monica was messier than usual: The perpetrators used cream cheese.

Mayor Judy Abdo was one of the victims of the wave of junior-high-style vandalism in the council office. Her nameplate was discovered the morning after a council meeting slathered with cream cheese by someone who is probably not a fan.

Councilman Paul Rosenstein was also singled out for defilement. His picture was removed from a frame, the teeth blackened out with a pen and the photo rehung on the wall.

While no one is pointing fingers at political enemies or fingerprinting the cream-cheese knife, these acts and others committed recently in the dead of night after council meetings could easily serve as a crude metaphor for the ill-disguised rancor that has been the hallmark of this council.

"It's like watching a dysfunctional family," one council-watcher said after a recent long night at City Hall.

The schism erupted at the first meeting after November's election, when Abdo refused to split a two-year mayoral term with slate-mate Ken Genser.

Since then, Genser and ally Kelly Olsen have staked out a contrarian agenda, seizing every opportunity to highlight their differences with the others, and to distance themselves from Abdo's administration.

"I think perhaps they see themselves as some sort of pure opposition to the rest of the council," Councilman Paul Rosenstein said.

Olsen says he doesn't know what everyone's talking about. "I'm just trying to set good policy and trying to get the rest of the council to explain (to the public) why they're voting a certain way."

Genser and Olsen's first rebellious act, viewed by some of their colleagues as pure pique, was to refuse to serve as liaisons to the city's commissions. They cited lack of time, though neither is fully employed outside his council duties.

"I didn't feel it was the kind of thing I could make a commitment to do thoroughly," Genser said last week in a phone interview from San Diego. He said his consulting work is now taking him out of town a few days a week. "Not one council member has ever mentioned or asked me about it."

Olsen said he is making up for not advising the commissions by working on more important neighborhood issues.

But serving as liaisons to groups ranging from the Planning Commission to the Commission on Older Americans has always been viewed as an important council function, and their refusal created quite a stir.

It meant more work for their colleagues, who had to fill in. Nearly all of them accused Genser and Olsen of being sore losers.

"I think that what they have done is refuse to take responsibility for the offices they hold," Abdo said. "They let down their colleagues and the volunteers who serve on the commissions.'

At meetings, the two take every opportunity to take potshots at Abdo and Rosenstein, their nominal allies. All four were elected with the backing of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the city's powerful tenant organization. Olsen has gone so far as to imply repeatedly that Abdo and Rosenstein--as well as the other three members of the council--don't understand the problems of renters because they own their homes.

As for Rosenstein, Olsen has frequently said in interviews: "Paul and I disagree on virtually every major issue."

Rosenstein was endorsed by the Renters Rights organization and won election over the objections of Olsen and Genser, who represent the militant slow-growth faction of the group. They view Rosenstein and Abdo as too accommodating to developers and business, citing their willingness to meet and compromise.

"They're the ones who are distancing themselves from the renters' rights agenda," Olsen said.

Since losing the mayoral vote, Genser has run roughshod over Abdo at council meetings, taking advantage of her permissive style to dominate every discussion, sometimes without waiting for her to call on him to speak.

Olsen one night during a meeting mumbled loud enough for Abdo and another councilman to hear, "I wish you weren't mayor."

"These people are acting like children," said Planning Commissioner Sharon Gilpin, herself a slow-growther. "They're not treating the city as an entity they love. They're playing games."

Former Councilwoman Christine Reed added, "Treating Judy disrespectfully, which they do, is a very childish response."

Reed said of Olsen and Genser: "Their whole goal is to embarrass everyone else."

Genser hotly disputes the view that his agenda and tactics are grounded in sour grapes. Rather, he said, he is driven by his vision for the city and his colleagues' lack of one.

"I feel very strongly the council is taking approaches which are antagonistic to maintaining Santa Monica as a strong residential community," Genser said. "I have always felt it is important to advance certain points of view as forcefully as I can. "

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