By Gary Walker
Santa Monica voters have lots of choices for filling three city council seats up for grabs on Tuesday: stick with popular incumbents, opt for some fresh faces with established track records in civic affairs, change course with challengers who want to get tough on crime and the homeless, or any mix thereof.
During an election forum on Oct. 16, the seven council candidates on the ballot sought to distinguish themselves through conflicting approaches to crime and homelessness, and also spent some time reflecting on whether the city could have better handled the proliferation of electric scooters.
Make that seven candidates and one familiar gate-crasher. Perennial council candidate Jon Mann, who did not gather enough signatures to qualify for this year’s ballot, held up the start of the forum by claiming that he deserved to be on stage and the city’s power infrastructure was conspiring against him.
“I’m a candidate for city council no matter what the city clerk says. I’m going to stay here until the police come,” Mann bellowed in the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium of the Santa Monica Public Library before police arrived and asked him to leave the stage.
Once Mann’s theatrics were over, challengers Scott Bellomo, Greg Morena, Geoffrey Neri and Ashley Powell and incumbents Kevin McKeown, Pam O’Connor and Sue Himmelrich took turns speaking about why they should be elected.
From the outset, Neri and Bellomo struck hardline positions on homelessness and crime, frequently asserting that the two issues are inherently related.
“I got into this race because my son and I were threatened by a deranged homeless man. I’ve felt for a long time that crime has not been a top priority for our city leaders,” Bellomo said.
Neri enumerated public safety, the city’s homeless crisis and housing as his top three priorities.
“My overriding concern is law and order. I think it’s wrong that those who are in office have allowed crime and homelessness to flourish,” asserted Neri, an attorney. “We have become victims of our own tolerance in this city.”
Powell, a social worker who grew up in Santa Monica, offered an opposite approach.
“I don’t think we should be criminalizing homelessness,” Powell said to applause. “I would recommend building emergency housing in some of the empty hangars [at Santa Monica Airport].”
Morena, whose family owns The Albright seafood restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier, played up his lifelong ties to the community and his experience as a member of the city’s audit committee.
“We are in need of fresh, new leadership and I feel that it is my time to lead,” Morena said.
On the topic of homelessness, Morena said he has been involved with family reunification for two people.
“Homelessness is personal for me because one of my best friends from high school has been homeless for years,” he said.
Some of the challengers sought to use incumbents’ records against them, but McKeown touted his 20 years of service on the council and emphasized his record on environmental causes and protecting renters’ rights.
“After 20 years you get pretty good at doing a job, and I still love doing this one,” he said. “I know when to vote no on a bad project and when to say yes to a good project. I also I know how to work with others on the council, which is essential in order to run a successful city,” he said.
O’Connor talked about the current council’s fiscal stewardship and its high bond rating.
“I want to continue to make sure that Santa Monica remains a safe city and a city of well-being,” said O’Connor, who has served on the council for 24 years.
On building more affordable housing, Himmelrich, O’Connor and McKeown suggested using city-owned parking lots.
Each of the incumbents agreed that the city could have done a better job of addressing electric scooters after Bird began deploying them downtown without any notice or precedent.
“We were in charge and we did a terrible job with Bird,” Himmelrich said.
Powell argued that scooters have a place in the future of local transportation and that technological change can lead to economic opportunity.
“We should be embracing the gig economy,” she said.
Himmelrich, who touts voting against a controversial large development and helping to enact new government oversight, argued that candidates for office should be judged by what they’ve done on the council or explain in detail how they would do things differently.
“Talk is cheap. Look at what we say and what we do,” she said. “What we do and say is a reflection of what we’ll do on the council.”
Two years ago a divisive ballot measure that would have restricted development was a focal point for city elections, but this year there’s no hot-button city initiative before voters.
Measure TL, which would start the clock on a three-term limit for city council members (impacting incumbents in 2030), barley received mention.
Santa Monica resident Dan Johansson, who wanted to hear more about term limits, said he wasn’t very impressed with the forum. He was hoping to see more interaction between candidates
that would further drill down into contrasting ideologies.
“They were too gentle on each other,” he said. “They were just putting out statements.”
Visit smvote.org for official candidate statements and more information about Santa Monica elections.