Lane Dilg takes over as Interim City Manager to guide Santa Monica through COVID crisis
By Danny Karel
Last month, with Santa Monica facing a devastating economic crisis, Lane Dilg — a Yale Law School graduate and the city’s previous City Attorney — was unanimously voted Interim City Manager by Santa Monica’s City Council, on the same day the council accepted the resignation of longtime City Manager Rick Cole. She is now tasked with navigating the city through perhaps the most challenging era in its history.
Her colleagues believe she is up to it.
“Santa Monica is fortunate indeed to have as Interim City Manager someone as qualified and prepared to lead as Lane Dilg,” said Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown in a statement, adding that the job “might be impossible” for someone else.
Dilg must execute a contentious budget plan constructed to account for a projected $224 million deficit the city is expected to face over the next two fiscal years, resulting from revenue shortfalls initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Santa Monica City Council voted 6-1 on the plan, which will dramatically downsize city government and make sweeping cuts to numerous programs and services. The plan included the elimination of 337 staff positions at the time — since then 156 layoff notices have been sent out, and 126 employees have participated in the city’s Voluntary Early Separation Incentive Program (VESIP) — a scaling-back of after school programs such as CREST, PAL and VAP, reduced hours at public recreation centers such as the Memorial Park Gym and the Cove Skate Park, the closure of the Annenberg Community Beach House Pool through 2021 as well as the transition of street sweeping services from weekly to monthly. The plan also calls for the temporary closure of two public library branches.
A sizable cohort of local residents believe such cuts are drastic, and will lead to long-term, indelible harm to the city. Before a final version is adopted on June 23, city staff will post the proposed budget on May 26, and the public will have the opportunity to comment on it at the city council’s June 9 study session.
The Argonaut spoke with Dilg about the new budget, the process of making cuts, her response to residents’ criticism, and how she has personally oriented herself to the undeniably challenging task she faces.
The Argonaut: With Santa Monica facing a projected $224 million deficit over the next two years, how were budget priorities determined?
Dilg: We are committed to providing a bright future for our community, and we’re taking steps now to ensure financial stability going forward, for our work force and our residents. We’re doing it in a way that focuses on the things that are hallmarks of Santa Monica — strong public safety, vibrant public spaces, and the ability to support our struggling local businesses and families as we move into the next stage of this crisis.
Across the city, we have taken steps to identify what our community values most, and what we need most. What are the pieces that are foundational to who we are as Santa Monica? We have tried to move deliberately and carefully to understand what those pieces are, and how we can preserve them in these new and very challenging circumstances.
What was most challenging about making these cuts? Can you describe the process?
The process has been exceptionally challenging because there are so many programs and services that we all love. Santa Monica has been a leader in cutting-edge policy development — our staff loves those innovative programs, our community loves those innovative programs — but the process we have been through is to really understand how we would best serve our community’s needs, and how we can move forward with recovery while recognizing that the best way to recover is to start planning early.
Some residents are worried that these cuts might threaten Santa Monica’s community spirit and exacerbate inequality. How you would respond to their concerns?
I think we’ve been very careful about equity issues as we look to children’s programming and other services that we provide to our residents. We’ve tried to be very attentive to the community members who need us most, and to be in a position to continue to serve those community members. We know that members of the community need care for their children after school, and we’re working very hard to work with the school district and others to ensure that that essential service is there.
We have had to make cuts in areas that people love, particularly some of our recreational programs — we’ve had to scale back the hours. But what we’re trying to do is be deliberate about putting ourselves in a position to continue to provide the things that people need most.
It’s hard for people to see the true impact of COVID-19 in this moment from their homes, but we remain very hopeful that when our civic life reemerges, people will be able to see that we took action now to preserve the things that the community needs and values most.
Do you think it’s possible to leverage this restructuring to set the city on a course for a better future?
I’ve heard this question before, and I don’t view any of this as an opportunity — I view it as a tragedy. All of us would prefer to be in January 2020, but that’s not where we are. We’re trying to be clear-eyed about the true impact of COVID-19, to make sure we can best serve our community as it is now and as it will be in the months to come.
Democrats recently proposed the HEROES Act, which would potentially send aid to cities like Santa Monica. How much of a difference would federal funds make?
Federal funds would be very helpful, and we are engaged in legislative advocacy on a daily basis to try to secure funds from the federal and state governments.
We support the HEROES Act and its potential impact for our city, but we are aware that Senator McConnell has expressed great skepticism regarding the act and has said he doesn’t intend to take it up until June, and that he thinks it’s the wrong approach. So we are advocating very strongly for federal funding directly to our city.
You face a difficult task, but your colleagues have expressed great faith in your abilities. How have you mentally oriented yourself to meet this challenge?
I am somebody who has thrived on challenges, and this is one of the biggest that our community has ever encountered. I walk into work every day trying to do what I can, together with our community and with the larger city team, to put our city in the best possible position going forward.
We are trying to ensure that we will be able to support economic recovery for our community members who are already very much in need — businesses and families alike — and to do so in a way that reduces any negative impact, including job loss, for the members of our city, their families, and the people that they love and support.
The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce hosts a virtual town hall with Interim City Manager Lane Dilg at 1 p.m. Thursday (May 21). Visit bit.ly/lanedilg to sign up.