The Santa Monica City Council is considering taking another look at ways that the mayor is selected.
In a city where the mayor is appointed to the post by City Council members, the council may decide to explore other selection options, including a direct election by voters. The City Council voted 5-1 Jan. 11 to approve a request by Councilman Bobby Shriver for staff to review practices for selecting the mayor and report to the council on potential options at the Feb. 13 retreat.
Through the city’s process, the mayor is elected by council vote to the mostly ceremonial position and has no more authority than other council members other than to serve as chair of meetings. An election of the mayor by voters would require an amendment to the city charter.
In explaining his motion, Shriver said many other California cities already elect their mayor directly and some Santa Monica residents seem to be confused at how their mayor is selected. Shriver, who served as mayor for several months last year, said though the mayor has the same authority as council members, in his experience the position appears to be more highly regarded.
“I could see that the word would confuse people. When you tell people you’re the mayor they feel that you’ve been elected,” Shriver told his colleagues.
“I found that calling people on the telephone and saying you’re the mayor had a much bigger impact than saying you’re a councilmember. It enables you to do things that the other title doesn’t enable you to do.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown, the longest serving councilmember who has not had an opportunity to serve as mayor under the current system, agrees.
“The mayor enjoys a much higher profile and added credibility as spokesperson for the city on regional and other issues. Most people in Santa Monica just assume that the mayor of our town is a person of elevated significance, like the mayor of Los Angeles,” said McKeown, the top vote-getter in the Nov. 2 election who was runner up in the most recent mayoral selection.
Some community members indicated they were content with the status quo. Resident Jerry Rubin, who remembered how the direct election of a mayor previously came on the ballot and was defeated, said he was pleased to know that each of the council members, including the mayor, has equal power.
Former mayor Michael Feinstein was also opposed to the idea, calling it a “solution in search of a problem.” He believes the proposal would lead to a “big money, citywide election” and notes that the person serving as mayor needs to have the majority support to effectively chair meetings.
“I don’t want to lose my democracy to have a ‘separately elected mayor,’” Feinstein said.
Others appeared to be more open to possible changes of the current system. Resident Zina Josephs said the selection process reminds her of school social clubs and alluded to how McKeown has not been chosen despite being an active representative in the city.
“I find it very difficult to understand why such a conscientious, hardworking councilmember would not merit being selected as mayor with the current system,” she told the council.
Having been recently appointed to his third term as mayor, Richard Bloom cautioned that an election for mayor by the voters will have financial costs, and could have political impacts. He referred to the recent mayoral runoff election in Inglewood involving former Santa Monica police chief James Butts, which seems to have caused some divisiveness in the community.
Councilwoman Gleam Davis said she is willing to explore other ways of selecting the mayor but has some concerns with amending the city charter for a direct election. The only vote against Shriver’s motion was from Councilwoman Pam O’Connor, a former mayor, who said she is convinced that the current process is a good model.
One concern expressed by McKeown was that if councilmembers decide to run in a separate election for mayor and are unsuccessful, they could lose their seat on the council. But he noted that there are several alternative ways for choosing the mayor, such as rotation based on seniority, and he is supportive of exploring those options.
“I think it behooves us to explore the options and think them all through,” he said.