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To Vote or Not to Vote? Impasse Is Pure Politics : Government: Divided in their preferences for city attorney, council members show they will spare no amount of cunning to get their choice elected.

August 15, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — At just past 11 on Tuesday night, Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Tony Vazquez strode from a closed council session to the microphone at the dais and startled everyone by abruptly ending the meeting.

The sudden close of the session left several matters on the agenda unfinished, but the real unfinished business of the council that night was the continued impasse over the selection of a new city attorney.

The impasse is all the more remarkable because one candidate apparently has the four votes needed to be hired--if only the council would vote. That they didn't says a lot about a council that is paralyzed by trickery, intrigue and the power of the squeaky wheel.

"This is the most bizarre hiring process I've ever been involved in," said Councilman Paul Rosenstein.

And a long one too. The council started accepting applications in February and interviewed five finalists in mid-May. At this point, it appears to be a two-man race.

The apparent front-runner for the job is Matthew C. St. George Jr., a Los Angeles deputy city attorney who manages the 25-lawyer West Los Angeles office and is active in Lawyers for Human Rights.

City Hall head counters say Mayor Judy Abdo and council members Asha Greenberg, Robert T. Holbrook and Rosenstein are backing him.

Vazquez confirmed what was obvious to observers who saw them huddling Tuesday night--that he, and Councilmen Ken Genser and Kelly Olsen support Acting City Atty. Joseph Lawrence.

Lawrence has been heading the office for almost a year now since the firing of Robert M. Myers for insubordination over the legal direction he was asked to take to manage the city's homeless problems.

The vestiges of that firing have complicated the hiring process both among council members and in the larger community.

On one side are those who argue for new blood because of a perception that Lawrence is a clone of Myers. Others feel secure with Lawrence as a known quantity who will advance their political agenda, especially about rent control. His allegiance to Myers is seen by them as a plus.

So why not end the wrangling and just get on with the vote? The answer to that one might be found at Tuesday's meeting, or more precisely, at the meeting before the meeting.

That was a closed session at which the city attorney selection came up. Since the meeting was confidential, no one would chat about it on the record. But Greenberg, Holbrook and Rosenstein did say later that they had come prepared to vote.

Vazquez, Genser and Olsen did not want to vote, presumably because they knew they would have lost. Though they didn't say so directly, their inclinations could be gleaned from their successful coup to end the meeting without picking a city attorney. More about how they managed that later.

The 3-3 split on whether to pick the new city attorney put Abdo in charge.

Though others expected her to vote that night, Abdo said in a later interview that she had been undecided about whether to move forward or further delay the already protracted process.

She would not say what swayed her, but sources said Lawrence's council supporters threatened to publicly denounce the others on the council if Lawrence was not selected.

"I'm hoping council members will come to some better agreement," Abdo said.

There is already a campaign in the city attorney's office on Lawrence's behalf. A petition was delivered to the council favoring his selection, and attorneys in the office have been lobbying the council, saying there would be mass resignations of lawyers if Lawrence didn't get the nod.

The Santa Monica Democratic Club board got in the act last week too by voting 7 to 6 to endorse Lawrence, despite having never laid eyes on the other contender. Club president Dolores Press, who broke the tie vote, said defense of rent control was the key issue.

Abdo likes to keep the peace, and to do so behind the scenes, which makes her susceptible to threats of a public bloodletting. And it was apparent she was up to something the other night.

When the council finally started its public meeting more than an hour late, Abdo turned over the gavel to Vazquez and disappeared for a long, private chat with Lawrence. A while later, she signaled to St. George, who was in the audience, and had a confab with him too.

Most people conjectured that Abdo was telling Lawrence privately that he did not have the votes to become permanent city attorney. Actually, City Hall sources say, she was seeking a way for him to gracefully withdraw from contention and stay on as assistant city attorney. After a decent interval, then the council could go forward with St. George.

"I'm trying to make sure whoever is city attorney takes over the office and makes it a successful transition," Abdo said in a later interview. "There's nothing wrong with delaying."

But no one knew that at the time, so the word was whispered around the room that later that night after another closed session, a big announcement would be forthcoming.

It was not to be.

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