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Searching for the Line Between Policy, Policing in Santa Monica


How now, black-and-white cows?

That was, more or less, the question posed a few months back by Santa Monica Councilman Ken Genser, who wondered if that cow mural painted on Ben & Jerry's ice cream store ran afield of the city's sign ordinance.

Meanwhile, Councilman Kelly Olsen wanted car dealerships to stop flying balloons and little American flags from the vehicles for sale.

These are some examples of about three dozen formal complaints to city building and safety officials against businesses that City Council members have registered in the past few years.

Such complaints, the vast majority of which have been filed by Olsen, have drawn criticism from some that council members are micro-managing by getting into regulation rather than only making policy.

"You'd think they'd have something better to do, wouldn't you?" said auto dealer Walter Parr, who removed the three American flags displayed on cars after an Olsen-instigated complaint, but denied there were balloons.

Council members, though, say they are just doing their job.

"I don't think neighbors should suffer the effects of a business operating illegally, (even though) a business is bringing in tax dollars," said Olsen, who is himself a neighbor of Santa Monica Boulevard car dealers. He is responsible for about 30 of the complaints (including a few repeat complaints against the same dealer).

Some of the complaints reviewed resulted in warnings or citations; in others no violations were found.

City Planning Director Suzanne Frick cautioned that there may be more complaints on file that were not uncovered during a search requested by The Times, a difficult process because the reports are filed by address, not name.

Though the complaints from Olsen cover a variety of potential infractions by various types of merchants, he gave special scrutiny to the city's automobile dealers and auto repair shops.

A slew of dealers were written up for such offenses as having balloons on cars or flying pennants above their lots. One Olsen complaint about Claude Short Dodge accused the dealer of having small, plastic American flags flying from radio antennas--a breach, however minor, of the city's code. Olsen turned in Katie's Pet Depot on Wilshire Boulevard for excessive banners and balloons.

Frick said these decorations were banned in the city in the mid-1980s as being unsightly. When a city building inspector called the Dodge dealer, co-owner Parr confessed to having three American flags, but no balloons. Parr said in an interview that the flags were sent to him by the Chrysler Corp. as part of a buy-American car promotion.

The dealers said they viewed the complaints as indicative of a political climate unfriendly to business. The attention was deemed especially unwelcome in a tough economic climate.

Automobile dealers are the No. 3 source of business revenue to the city, surpassed only by hotels and restaurants, city officials said.

"It seems a little odd that a city council member would want to run around inspecting to see whether anyone has balloons on their cars," said Wayne Harding, general manager of Santa Monica Ford.

Chamber of Commerce President Graham Pope said the complaints are emblematic of the "attitude by some council members that they have the right to micro-manage the city."

Olsen said that some of his complaints were initiated by him, but that most were made on behalf of residents.

The only difference between him and other council members is that he signs his names to complaints, while the others funnel them in a more circumspect way through the city manager's office, Olsen said.

Word of Olsen's high number of complaints leaked out months ago, but city officials initially balked at providing documentation, saying it was necessary to protect the identity of complainants. When renewed requests for the records were made recently by The Times, City Atty. Marsha Jones Moutrie released them.

This is not the first time Olsen has become embroiled in controversy over the way he views his council role.

A year-and-a-half ago, Olsen had to be counseled by the city manager on the proper boundaries for a council member after he told a traffic control officer at an accident scene to "get out in the intersection and better direct the traffic" and demanded a police escort on one of his forays to videotape drug dealers in Palisades Park. Fire union officials also complained that he buttonholed them to discuss city politics while they were on duty.

More recently, police officials said they saw Olsen drive through the middle of a drug undercover operation, as part of his effort to track the problem.

In all cases, Olsen denied any untoward behavior.

"If I'm being charged with paying attention to what's going on, I plead guilty," Olsen once said.

As for those black-and-white cows painted on Ben & Jerry's wall, Genser said they fell in a gray area. According to the complaint form, he asked that a picture of the mural be forwarded to the city attorney for a legal answer to the question: Are they art or are they advertising?

The ice cream store has, meanwhile, filed for a permit that would resolve the bovine beef by bestowing mural status on the cows.

Times correspondent John Buzbee contributed to this story.

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