Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser, who was a fixture on the City Council serving more than two decades and devoted his career to protecting the quality of life in the city, has died. He was 59.
Genser, who entered the hospital on October 30th, passed away peacefully from multiple complications Saturday, January 9th with his family and close friends by his side, city officials said.
The lifetime Santa Monica resident who was first elected to the City Council in 1988 was the longest serving council member in city history. He was elected by the council to three terms as mayor in 1992, 2000 and 2008.
“It is with deep sadness that we mourn the loss of our Mayor Ken Genser, an indefatigable champion for quality of life in Santa Monica,” Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor said in a statement.
“Ken distinguished himself with a fierce intellect, passion for progressive social policy and compassion for people. He served the Santa Monica community throughout his lifetime and will be greatly missed.”
Throughout his 30-year public service career Genser worked to support a wide range of community issues including renters’ rights and affordable housing, land use and environmental quality, workers’ rights, parks, public safety and education.
City Councilman Kevin McKeown called the loss of his six-time-elected council colleague “incomprehensible.” Genser’s death came one year after another longtime elected official and former mayor, Herb Katz, passed away January 7th, 2009.
“If you sleep safe in a rent-controlled apartment, or your family enjoys the security of affordable housing, or you earn the dignity of a living wage, Ken touched your life directly,” said McKeown, referring to passionate issues for Genser.
“Ken dazzled us all with his dogged ability to think through solutions that would make life better in Santa Monica. He had the vision to make great things happen, and the attention to detail to make them happen great.”
School board member Oscar de la Torre noted how the mayor was also an advocate for youth programs in the city, saying that the Pico Youth and Family Center presented Genser with its Hope and Unity Award in June. Genser “set the standard” for de la Torre as a young man in politics, he said.
“I saw him as the Wise Man of the City who was fair and took his job of representing the people seriously,” de la Torre said. “He was someone who practiced the highest principles of ethics.”
Retiring City Manager Lamont Ewell explained that Genser was the type of leader who could bring his council colleagues together on controversial issues.
“He was a tremendous leader and I think first and foremost, they’re going to be missing that on the council,” Ewell said. “He was always the one who was able to pull everyone together on diverse issues.”
In addition to his commitment to providing affordable housing, Genser was dedicated to ensuring that the scale and character of the city was maintained, City Councilman Richard Bloom said.
“He was involved in every detail of Santa Monica policy during his over 20-year service on the City Council,” Bloom, a former mayor, said.
Bloom called Genser his ally and mentor, saying that Genser was one of the first people who encouraged him to get involved in city government.
Genser began his career in public service in 1980, when he was appointed to a city Task Force for Revision of the Housing Element and was chair of the Goals and Policies subcommittee. He was a founding member of the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, serving from 1982 to 1988, and was appointed as a Planning Commissioner in 1983 through 1985.
Genser was also a board member of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation from 1985 to 1988. As an actively involved community member, Genser had an influence on a number of other officials, including Ben Franz-Knight, pier restoration corporation executive director.
“I learned an awful lot from him. He was incredibly diplomatic and what I most respected was the very humble way he treated everybody,” Franz-Knight said. “His contributions to Santa Monica as a community are quite possibly unrivaled.”
Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin, who regularly attends City Council meetings, said while he and Genser disagreed on certain issues, he had the “utmost respect” for the late mayor.
“He was so very knowledgeable about every issue in Santa Monica,” said Rubin, who noted that Genser was supportive of establishing an ongoing Tree Commission following the effort to save downtown ficus trees.
Rubin and others noted how despite the many challenges Genser faced throughout his life, he always maintained a sense of humor. Genser had a mischievous side of him that liked to come up with pranks, Ewell recalled.
The longtime public servant faced a variety of physical struggles during his life but was not one who complained about his problems, Ewell said.
“He always exemplified perseverance and pushing through to get things done,” the city manager said.
Genser’s duties as mayor have been assumed by O’Connor. The City Council, which postponed its January 12th meeting to the following Tuesday, will hold a discussion at a later date on whether to invite applications or hold a special election for the vacant council seat.
A memorial service is planned at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, January 24th at Barnum Hall on the campus of Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd.