SGV Tribune

Rick Cole quits Santa Monica post, telling city to get real with viral budget

So if you’re a responsible city manager, you don’t sit by while your budget goes deeply into the red.

Rick Cole’s political life has been lived throughout Southern California.

He was a City Council member in his native Pasadena, where he served two years as mayor.

He was the city manager of Azusa, and then of Ventura.

He was deputy mayor of Los Angeles, overseeing that big city’s budget and — and its innovation.

Then, for the last five years, he has been city manager of Santa Monica, which is the dream job for a municipal administrator in this country.

Not just because the bucolic beach town is in a beautiful setting, and filled with interesting people.

It’s because Santa Monica, unlike so many other budget-strapped cities, is bucks-up, with plenty of money to play with.

Or, rather, it was vastly rich, thanks to tourist dollars generated by a healthy hotel tax. It’s a lot easier to innovate in a City Hall and provide generous services and programs for the people when the cash flow is so sweet. It’s even easy, being green.

But what happens when the cash stops flowing overnight? That’s what happened to Santa Monica when the coronavirus shutdown hit in March. No hotel or parking taxes. Empty restaurants. Shops shut down, as did the sales-tax spigot.

So if you’re a responsible city manager, you don’t sit by while your budget goes deeply into the red. You go to your City Council and tell its members where they have to cut — or else.

Ridiculously, and under pressure from a citizenry quite used to only eating Westside cake, the council chose the “or else.” It didn’t want to sit down and choose where the deep cuts would come from. On Friday, Rick quit.

Rick’s no longer the boy mayor of Pasadena. He’ll be 67 in June. A time many people retire. Yes, he’s got twin daughters still in college. But he’s probably got a pension, too. And when your electeds don’t want to hear you reading the riot act, who needs the aggravation? He’d already offered to cut his own pay 20%. But the looming budget gap was suddenly projected at $226 million over the next two years. While Santa Monica was paper rich, it still has a $448 million unfunded pension liability to deal with, and Rick’s austerity measures on that front already weren’t popular in City Hall or the community. So he bailed out. But he sure fought the good fight. And his San Gabriel Valley friends know it’s not the last we’ll hear from Rick Cole. Here’s what he told The Planning Report after his resignation:

“If we were starting from scratch today, we would design a government that looked more like the iPhone than the rotary phone.  But of course we can’t start from scratch — we have tens of thousands of dedicated people in public service trying to use rotary-phone government to meet 21st-century needs.

“So, what does that mean for courageous leaders?  I think it means doing what courageous leaders did a century ago.  In the face of the disorder, disease, illiteracy and land-use chaos of America’s cities, the Progressive Era ushered in a period of historic reform, innovation and institutional change.  It sure wasn’t easy then.  It sure won’t be easy now.  But I can’t believe we are any less far-sighted or courageous than the leaders of 100 years ago.”

Q: What does 21st-century government look like — besides an iPhone?

A: “First, it is focused not around providing services, but around producing outcomes. Let’s take homelessness. The 20th-century response would be to create a Homelessness Department to battle homelessness, just like we created fire departments to battle fires.  But here’s what we learned from history about fires.  It’s not because firefighters got really good at responding to fires that today we have only a fraction of the fires we did 100 years ago.  It’s because we got really good at preventing them — with rigorous building codes that require sprinklers and firewalls enforced with annual inspections.  It also helps that people no longer smoke in bed.”

Except that Santa Monica council, which is surely still smoking something in bed.

Wednesday at random:

Recently on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the host showed newspaper headlines from other significant moments in history. One of them read: “Victory! Japan Quits.” It was the Pasadena Star-News for Aug. 16, 1945.

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