Mayor Himmelrich's Vendetta Against Housing Commission After Husband Ineligible to Serve Due to Anti-Nepotism Policy
Tuesday's proposal to suspend Housing Commission meetings because special interests lost control is a stepping stone to dissolve the Commission altogether.
May 9, 2022
Amid an affordable housing and homelessness crisis, why would the City want to suspend all meetings of the Housing Commission "until City Council considers its annual appointments in June 2022" (May 10, 2022 agenda item 13C)? And why are the Mayor and Councilmembers insisting that "once the Housing Commission resumes meeting following the appointments, it shall immediately hold elections for Chair and Vice Chair"? Those elections are already compulsory per Council Resolution 11337 (CCS) and Housing Commission bylaws; mentioning the elections in item 13C on Tuesday's Council agenda only underscores the Mayor's and Councilmembers Davis's and Brock's focus on changing the Housing Commission leadership.
"What in the world is going on?" you might ask.
Why the sudden need to suspend all meetings of one of the most important City commissions? And has the Council suspended the meetings of any City board or commission before without a valid reason? Better still, has any board or commission had their meetings suspended because the City Council does not like the leadership? Are we looking at censorship here? Is there a precedent for this? Wait--does the Council even have the authority to suspend a commission's meetings?
Let's start with the last question.
The Santa Monica City Charter gives the Council discretion to create advisory boards such as the Housing Commission, and to establish the powers and duties of all its advisory boards and commissions.
However, in order to exercise this discretion, the City Council would first have to amend the ordinances establishing and directing the Housing Commission.
And yet, even if the Council did all of that, item 13C would still be unethical, unlawful, abusive government overreach, because they are not simply attempting to suspend an advisory body. They are specifically attempting to suspend the current particular makeup of the Housing Commission, and the suspension's end is predicated on the new appointments and new leadership. This does not reflect the City Council attempting to change or improve the means by which they receive advice about housing in the City. It reflects the City Council attempting to influence the content of that advice. This violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which safeguard free speech and equal protection.
Again, this is unethical, unlawful, abusive government overreach stemming from private and political interests that conflict with the City's welfare.
That's it. That's the answer.
The proposal to suspend Housing Commission meetings is another example of abuse of power by Mayor Himmelrich, the initiator of item 13C? (We have seen the Mayor successfully push for the unlawful reappointment of Renee Buchanan to this very Commission last year, with the support of Councilmember Gleam Davis. That unlawful reappointment had to be reversed later upon public outrage and complaints to the City Clerk, City Attorney, and City Manager. No acknowledgement of error or an apology was issued by the Mayor, Council members or City Clerk Anderson-Warren, who had allowed the original unlawful reappointment.)
There is no precedent for suspending a single board or commission until new annual appointments. For good reason, because the City Council is supposed to receive advice from boards and commissions, not influence or censor the advice they give.
But if the City Council approves item 13C on Tuesday, it will have a chilling effect on every resident who volunteers their time and skills to serve on a City board, task force, or commission. The advisory bodies will continue their work in fear of being suspended should the City Council not like what they say or how they say it. How is that not censorship and suppression of free speech? How is that not complete disregard for the diverse public input of Santa Monicans?
Ah, reasons. Let's talk about what the real motivation for sponsoring this unprecedented move by the Council might be.
For the Mayor, who initiated item 13C, this is a personal vendetta for her husband, Michael Soloff, having to obey the City's new anti-nepotism policy that rendered him ineligible to remain on the Housing Commission.
As soon as Santa Monica's anti-nepotism policy was first proposed in July of last year, and for several months until it became effective, Mayor Himmelrich and Councilmember Davis subjected the Housing Commission to a variety of political games trying to retain control of the Commission. In an attempt to delay new appointments by Change Slate Councilmembers Brock, De la Torre, and Parra, the annual appointments, originally scheduled for late June, did not happen until December.
Mayor Himmelrich and Councilmember Davis also orchestrated appointing Theresa Marasco to a different seat on the Commission than the one she had applied to, so that special designated seat would remain open for their lackey on the Commission, Renee Buchanan. Then they orchestrated the unlawful "reappointment" of Buchanan to the Commission despite insufficient votes, in violation of procedure, in an attempt to maintain their power. Buchanan is widely considered a puppet of special interests and was then Housing Commission Chair.)
Ultimately this effort failed; the Council had to redo the appointments in a lawful manner and Buchanan was gone. Marasco was appointed to the seat she had applied for and is now the Vice Chair of the Housing Commission. The remaining seats on the Commission were not filled until January 2022. This half year delay weakened the Commission, impairing it for half of the fiscal year. All because Mayor Himmelrich and Councilmember Davis wanted to hold on to their control by proxy of the Commission.
Now let us look at the Mayor's fluctuating feelings regarding the Housing Commission.
The extent of Mayor Himmelrich's trauma over her husband having to obey the new City anti-nepotism policy was on full display on February 22, the night City Council attempted to remove Leonora Camner from the Housing Commission amid allegations of conflict of interest. Mayor Himmelrich, a self-professed supporter of slow growth, stunned everybody with an over the top recusal worthy of a soap opera, complete with quivering chin.
"I'll be recusing from item 13-G. This has been very painful for me. I want you to know this whole thing. I believe that this Council mistreated my husband to advance the political agendas of various of its members when it refused to let him serve out his term on the Housing Commission. Because of that, I have become personally embroiled in this controversy and have a strong bias around this item, that I can't separate from my personal feelings, which are very strong and very hurt, and I am therefore recusing myself from this matter. Thank you." (Emphasis added)
Now, in a surprising turn of events, it appears that the Mayor has suddenly recovered from the trauma of her husband having to leave the Housing Commission, and is able to request that same Commission's suspension from an unbiased perspective. This is even more odd considering her husband went before the Council a year ago to advocate for the Housing Commission to be allowed to resume its normal monthly meetings despite other commissions holding quarterly meetings, due to the large amount of work and responsibility of the Housing Commission. Soloff, then Commission Chair, said to the Council:
"I'm addressing the issue of how often we're going to be allowed to meet moving forward from this point. At our last meeting we voted seven nothing to urge the council to permit us to resume our normal operations. Affordable housing is one of the key issues in the City right now. We're faced with the idea of coming up with 6158 additional housing units, we have to get homeless folks into temporary and permanent housing, and we have to keep our residents housed who are under severe rent burden shortage.... and we can't do that work for you unless we're allowed to meet.... We strongly urge that you authorize us to resume our normal operations. We challenge you to show that you're seriously committed to affordable housing in the City." (Emphasis added)
The Council considered the input offered by the Mayor's husband, confirmed with City Clerk Anderson-Warren that the Housing Commission was adequately staffed, and in recognition of the important work the Housing Commission is tasked with, allowed it to resume monthly meetings.
That was a year ago.
With the Mayor's husband now gone from the Commission, and power squarely in the hands of the Change-Slate-appointed majority on the Commission, the Mayor has done an about face, deciding the Housing Commission's work is no longer that important.
As for Councilmember Davis, she (and Mayor Pro Tem McCowan) represents the interests of Santa Monica Forward (SMF) on the dais. Both of their 2020 re-election campaigns were supported by a SMF Political Action Committee. (McCowan is poised to once again benefit from the support of SMF in her bid for re-election this fall.) And they both participated in the discussion and vote on a Council item that sought to remove Leonora Camner from the Housing Commission amid allegations of a conflict of interest. They should have recused themselves. Why? It so happens that Ms. Camner serves on the steering committee of SMF-the very organization that helped Davis and McCowan get on the Council....
See how this works?
Camner is likely not going to be reappointed to the Housing Commission in June as she is persona non grata in the City, and Councilmember Davis--Camner's ally--will lose her own influence by proxy on the Commission with Camner's departure in July. With the current Change Slate appointments to the Housing Commission, Councilmember Davis and her mothership, SMF, cannot push their agenda through the Commission any more, and won't be able to again until they can appoint one of their lackeys to the Commission. How convenient then that item 13C moves to suspend all Housing Commission business until new appointments are made. It is in Davis's and SMF's private interests to suspend the Commission until July, when they hope to regain power on the Commission through new annual appointments, diluting or taking away the power the Slate Change appointees enjoy now.
Now to Councilmember Brock. Some are shocked to see his name next to Himmelrich's and Davis's as sponsors of the attempt to gag the Housing Commission, whose majority Brock helped appoint. They should not be. In a city government where ethics is optional, this kind of flip-flopping is common practice. We don't know what the deal is, but it must be really valuable to Brock if he is willing to embarrass himself so badly in front of the community who voted for him to reduce, not support, the influence of special interests in the City. Is it about yet another threat of a Brown Act investigation that Brock might not want to undergo, or is it about something entirely different? Whatever it is, it is yet another deal in a sea of questionable deals that Brock is swimming in instead of standing with his spine fully erect.
Elected in 2020 along with Parra and de la Torre as members of the Change Slate, Brock has displayed his greatest weakness--a penchant for cutting deals in an effort to people-please--since day one. When he assumed office, he did not assert himself for selection as Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem, relinquishing considerable power. As a result, we ended up with two representatives of special interests in Council leadership positions. Brock's cowering to the old guard on the Council, and especially to Himmelrich, has continued ever since. So much for his promises to engage in "fighting against an entrenched establishment."
By putting his name on the unethical Council item 13C scheduled for Tuesday, Brock is abandoning the Change Slate's own appointees on the Housing Commission, instead of protecting them. He is showing where his true allegiance lies--with whomever is most beneficial at the moment.
Such flip-flopping does not garner support for a politician, and Brock's stock has been going down for months now. Residents' disappointment is palpable. Unable to affect real change on the Council, he is now eager to clip the wings of his own appointees on the Housing Commission because they ruffled the feathers of the very special interests he once vowed to fight.
This decision to undermine his own appointees, much less an entire City Commission, suggests that while Phil Brock might be the apparent leader of the Change Slate, Mayor Himmelrich is the leader of Phil Brock, and that is why he signed on to item 13C.
So Himmelrich has been offended and hurt since her husband had to obey the new anti-nepotism policy and leave the housing Commission. Davis does not like it that her ally on the Commission, Leonora Camner, is a lame duck now and on her way out. Both Himmelrich and Davis have been unhappy with the new Housing Commission, and threatened by it since the Change Slate took Himmelrich's and Davis's power away by appointing to the Commission four citizens not affiliated with special interests. The discomfort is so deep that they prefer to gag the new Housing Commission until they can make the annual appointments in June in hopes of regaining power. Phil Brock, who never was able to assert the Change Slate's power on the Council, likely has cut another deal with "the entrenched establishment" he had previously vowed to fight in exchange for his gagging and throwing his own Housing Commission appointees under the bus.
But why NOW?
The upcoming vote on the suspension of the Housing Commission meetings until July when new appointments have been made and a new Commission leadership is selected was immediately precipitated by a convenient, if ridiculous distraction--former Housing Commission Chair Richard Hilton's abrupt resignation from his position, then denial that he resigned, then admission that he resigned, then full throated doubling down on his previous denial that he had resigned...and his crying "Injustice!" to well placed friends and acquaintances all over town.
Former Chair Hilton resigned his position as Chair in a signed, handwritten fax sent to the City on March 16, 2022. The letter began:
"I'm resigning as Chair of the City of Santa Monica Housing Commission, please have the Vice Chair, Theresa Marasco, serve as the Presiding Officer for the meeting tomorrow, March 17, 2022."
Hilton's resignation was appropriately announced at the beginning of the Commission meeting the next day, he was thanked for his service as Chair, and it was announced that a selection of new Chair would be conducted at the next Commission meeting in April. There was no objection or comment from Hilton himself, Staff Liaison Kemper, or any Commission member. However, Hilton changed his mind the next day and started claiming he had not resigned. During a 90-minute teleconference with City Manager David White and Councilmember Brock he confirmed his resignation. Then he changed his mind again....
Shortly after his selection as Chair, Hilton's behavior became problematic. Apart from several procedural errors, the issue of abusing his power came into light. According to Vice Chair Marasco, Hilton dominated the Work Plan Subcommittee, imposed his draft of the Work Plan on the Subcommittee, ignored Marasco's input altogether, and presented his own draft of the Work plan to the Commission as if it was the result of the collaborative work of the entire Subcommittee. Hilton's Work Plan entirely ignored issues that residents had brought before the Commission for years, and which Marasco advocated to be reflected in the Work Plan.
Additionally, Hilton unilaterally assigned all Work Plan tasks to the three Subcommittee members, disenfranchising the rest of the Commission for the remainder of the year. Then, according to Marasco, Hilton publicly misrepresented the number of meetings and hours the Subcommittee worked, and misrepresented multiple facts about the Subcommittee process to the entire Commission during the public meeting. It does not stop there. Hilton has made false, disparaging statements to community members about Marasco and a member of the public who called in to the March Commission meeting to comment on the misrepresentation of facts by then-Chair Hilton as apparent at the public meeting.
Throughout all these problems with Commissioner Hilton, including the ever-changing status of his resignation, City staff first ignored Marasco in her role as Vice Chair, then refused to offer the assistance that they had availed to Hilton, and eventually stopped communicating with her when she became Acting Chair due to Hilton's resignation. Vice Chair Marasco pushed back against Hilton's misconduct and, repeatedly gaslit and ignored, eventually escalated her concerns to more senior City staff. However, that staff refused to do their jobs and protect this Commissioner from both Hilton's harmful behavior and housing staffs' refusal to do their own jobs of administratively supporting the Housing Commission.
And so turmoil escalated. Vice Chair Marasco continues to pursue remedies for both Hilton's and City staff's misconduct, Hilton continues to cry wolf, and City staff continue to ignore Vice Chair Marasco's efforts to uphold an ethical and productive Housing Commission. Gossip has spread, creating a conveniently distracting pretext for suspending Housing Commission meetings until new appointments are made--"there's too much drama".
Of course, that's not what item 13C says. But it's what Councilmembers have said privately, while also raising the specters of recalls and dismantling the Housing Commission entirely. So despite the fact that City staff and Mayor Himmelrich have claimed that the issue of whether Hilton is Chair or not is solely the business of the Commission, Mayor Himmelrich and Councilmembers Davis and Brock are now trying to make that resolution impossible--and moot--by bypassing the remaining meetings of the current Housing Commission entirely. Score one for kakocracy.
So, here we are now. The high drama caused by a health impaired Commissioner opened the door for the "entrenched establishment" to jump on the opportunity to gag the new Housing Commission by suspending its meetings. It is a convenient cover for their real motivation, which is to incapacitate the new Commission until Mayor Himmelrich and Councilmember Davis can attempt to populate it with their special-interest lackeys again in July, or dissolve it altogether if they feel like it, thus depriving the public volunteers the opportunity to directly participate in City housing concerns. And the Change Slate leader, Phil Brock, is there to help them carry out this destructive plan. Tune in to the City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 10, to see your elected representatives abuse their power to advance their personal agendas--again.
To submit comments to Council item 13C send an email to: [email protected]
This article has been updated at 12:15pm on May 9, 2020 to reflect new information from the Santa Monica City Attorney's office.