In the time that I have participated and written about local political issues in Santa Monica, one of the nuances that I’ve increasingly become acutely aware of, is the deceptive manner in which the word “residents” is frequently employed. Most aggravating to me is when “residents” is spoken of as though it were always a solid block, a united local consensus on some matter of interest, when the reality is far more complex.

This has been particularly frustrating when I’ve been in a debate with someone, in which we sharply disagree, but yet they claim to speak for “the residents”, when I and others present who agreed with my stance, are also residents of the City of Santa Monica. I’ve been expressing my opinions regarding the direction of Santa Monica publicly for about seven years now. Something I am careful not to do, is pretend that I broadly speak for “the residents”.

Via: Residocracy
Via: Residocracy

I thought now might be a pertinent time to talk about the nuances of employing “residents” in local debates. Among the contention over the recently approved Hines project, with rhetoric often articulating residents as unified against the project or any new development, there is the website launched just last month.

Jason Islas published a synopsis of the Residocracy launch in the Lookout for some additional background on this venture with statements from the website’s creator, Armen Melkonians, who ran for Santa Monica city council in 2012 (coming in 11th of a large slate of 15 candidates). In short, to quote from the site itself, the bold intent is that “Residocracy is the Simple, Efficient, and Effective Direct Democracy Solution for the Resident.” The text goes on to state “Residocracy is a unified voice of the Residents against corporate, business, and outside influences at City Hall“. So we have right there the presumption that “Residents” (note the capitalization, this is capital R residents) are “unified. Also notable from the about page are bullet points including Residocracy is: “The most important stakeholder in all local government decisions” & “The ultimate Veto Power of the Residents on any decision or law passed by City Council“.

Wow, most important stakeholder and veto power, those are some strong words.

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While I happen to believe a radical transformation of governance in the U.S. may in be warranted for a variety of reasons, I’m also tempered by a certain amount of pragmatism and working within present structures. I am open to exploring, considering, possibilities for alternative systems, but an unaccountable faceless website with no transparency of its operations or members declared as a replacement for, or having superiority over, our present local government authority, is not what I have in mind for any possible desirable alternative. I have lot more faith in Santa Monica’s elected and staff officials of local government than I do some of the people whom I know to be pushing the Residocracy concept.

That there would be any dissent, disagreement or the necessity of comprise between a range of views, is not a possibility allowed for, at least in the articulation of the Residocracy mission as I’ve seen it declared. If this were simply intended as an open digital means by which to invite residents to participate and express their views, it would not come prepackaged with an upfront agenda and priorities. Color me incredibly skeptical of an opaque project with an unknown number of members, espousing democratic sounding rhetoric, and that believes itself a “unified” voice for 90,000 residents with a diverse range of interests and priorties. Genuine unity, when it exists, takes incredible effort and time to forge, it cannot simply be declared by a handful of people in an echo chamber. You don’t get to speak for me without asking me first, but that is what I feel some people are doing when they so casually declare “the residents” think this, or think that.

Residocracy is perhaps the boldest effort to manipulate and control what is meant by “residents”, but it certainly has no monopoly on the longstanding practice in local discourse. The word resident, or residents, is not necessarily inherently problematic, it is often just to describe a simple matter of fact, a statement defining where one lives. It is not as though I never use the word, however I try to be mindful of how it’s used, it’s that context that matters. When ever I encounter the “residents” this, or “residents” that publicly, there are some of the questions I ask myself about the usage:
    • Is this use of residents attempting to speak for all residents generally and uniformly on a political issue or range of issues?
    • If the perspective claimed as being of “the residents”, is spoken as uniform when disagreement exists, which is nearly always to varying degrees, who are the residents being erased by the claim?
    • When “residents” is invoked, it places a hard line between those who have official residency here and all others, a “locals” versus “outsiders” dichotomy, so who are the “outsiders”?
    • For those “outside”, how many are directly impacted by or connected to outcomes in Santa Monica? For example those employed here, often contributing tax revenue here, but do not live here, in many cases because housing is unattainable to them.
    • Residents, from a city of Santa Monica municipal perspective, also broadly divides local interest from regional Los Angeles, but in what ways are there mutual interdependencies, and significant influences, operating at the level of regional scope?
    • When businesses or business interests are intended to be excluded from “the residents”, how is the real picture complicated by residents who own, work for, or depend on various business interconnections within the city.

This may all sound like hair splitting semantics to some, but I happen to believe word choices, and word context, are powerful influencers in our society, as well as hinting at intentions that are not always clearly stated at face value. In the local scene of columnists, bloggers, forum contributors, and public speakers, a claim upon speaking for “the residents”, is often attached to almost any argument, seemingly to pad and bolster authority and legitimacy for their view by making it sounds like everyone already agrees.

At times this way of employing “residents” dives into outright dishonesty. If someone has a strong case to make, they should be able to make it without pretending to be a universal authority speaking for all residents. I also believe that the interests of our city, and of our region, should extent beyond a narrowly defined self interest of residents versus the implied “outsiders”. The region is too complex, too interdependent, to imagine ourselves an island that would sit with unchanged circumstances if we simply walled ourselves up with local policy. I want to see Santa Monica be a place of expanding opportunity, not contracting toward a “get off my lawn” defensive stance.

I want the diversity of Santa Monica’s residency to one day more closely reflect the day time population of workers and visitors upon which our economy depends, which can only come from allowing accessibility to a broader spectrum of newcomers.

I care deeply about Santa Monica, and the quality of life for our residents. However, I do not feel some hyper localist allegiance that ends at the edge of our municipal border. I feel as much a part of the community of the broader Los Angeles region as I do Santa Monica. So I am resident, in so much as I reside in Santa Monica, and have done so now longer than any other city I’ve lived in during my lifetime in Southern California, but I will not be lending my backing to the isolationism of the capital “R” Residents of Santa Monica.