For the third episode of the What’s Next podcast, Damien Newton interviews Rick Cole, the former city manager for the City of Santa Monica. Cole has also served as City Manager in. handful of other Southern California Cities and is currently the Chief Deputy Controller, City of LA. He also served as Mayor of the City of Pasadena.
If you enjoy this podcast and want to hear more Rick Cole (or more of me), I also interviewed him for a recent episode of SGV Connect at Streetsblog L.A. Check out that interview here.
Next week, we’ll be back with a podcast featuring Abby Arnold, a long-time Santa Monica advocate who may be most familiar to our younger readers as the co-chair of Santa Monica Forward and a member of the Next advisory board. Arnold is leaving town to be closer to her children after a lifetime in Santa Monica and we look forward to hearing her parting thoughts.
Below the audio of the podcast is a lightly edited transcript.
DN: So again, for anyone that’s listening to this podcast that’s interested, we did also do an interview earlier this month with Rick Cole at the SGV Connect podcast at Streetsblog LA. You can go back and listen to that, if you’re interested. One of the things that we talked about in that podcast, as we were talking about your politics, it’s pretty clear that you’re a little bit left of center. How do you balance when you’re sort of in that CEO, city manager position when you have a council that’s doing something that you don’t necessarily agree with, or pushing a policy on? And how do you sort of balance your own politics with sort of the city’s politics that you’re working for? And how is that different when you’re a city manager versus a city’s mayor?
RC: I think it’s an interesting question. I hope I can answer it in a way that isn’t too inside baseball for people who haven’t paid close attention to how local government works. I think among most city managers, there’s a little bit of disrespect for the elected officials. And it’s, I don’t mean that in any personal sense. I just mean that if you’re a city manager and come up in a typical way, you’ve spent 10,20, sometimes 30 years of schooling, experience, and job training; and then these amateurs get elected who are your bosses.
There’s this sense that, “I know how to run the city. And I have these people that don’t.” I remember when I first got a job as a city manager, the city manager of Culver City came up to me, long gone, of course, and said, “Well, now you, you will understand what it’s like to care and feed five idiots.” And I thought, “Do you know who you’re talking to? I used to be one of those idiots.” So, I have a tremendous respect for the role of elected officials, because they represent the people of the community who are ultimately who we serve. And I think their role is to be in charge. And I respect that, probably more than most city managers do. On the other hand, I think that the role of a manager is also to lead, and not just to manage.
Too many city managers, for all kinds of reasons, manage not to get fired, manage to get through the day, manage to balance the budget, rather than leading and thinking about where the city needs to be in five or 10 or 20 years from now when none of us are in charge. But the decisions we make today will have consequences. So in that sense, I think it’s the job of the manager to lead and when the city council says, “No, that’s not exactly what we have in mind,” then you stand down.
There was tension, I think it had something to do with my departure, over the project there at 4th in Arizona. From the day that I arrived there, I made it clear that I thought that that was a poorly conceived project. That it was too big for the context. And that it wasn’t the right mix of uses. And I continued to tell the council, “I know that a majority of you support it for a variety of reasons. And so we will continue to move forward with it. But I don’t think it’ll ever be built. And I think we’re wasting our time continuing to push it up the court.” Well, of course, I left and the project cratered. But in the end, I was right. But I had to take that balance, even though I firmly believe that that was not a good project for the city. And there were a couple of council members who shared that view. The majority did. And so we continued to push it forward through the process. And ultimately, as I predicted it, it fell apart from its own dead weight.
DN: Was there ever a time where you were in a situation where for whatever reason, you really thought that a city council, and again, this doesn’t have to be Santa Monica’s, wasn’t necessary really representing the people very well? They were pushing their own politics for whatever reason. And, again, you don’t have to get into too many specifics. I’m not asking you to burn anybody. And if that comes up as a city manager, how do you balance that?
RC: I think that comes up for every city manager.
People have a wide range of motives, from personal aggrandizement to fiery idealism. Very few people don’t have some mixture of, of a number of agendas going on. And ultimately, it is the people’s decision about who to vote for not me. I’ve had some council members that I was uncomfortable with why they were pushing particular agendas. But they’re elected officials, and you have to respect the role.
I’ve had a lot of people try to analyze what goes on between my ears. And I’m always surprised, “Oh, Rick Cole thinks this, or Rick Cole must be doing that.” And I think, “Boy, they don’t know how busy I am. Because, because they think I have time to think up these very convoluted motives.” And I think that’s the same for most people. I think most people don’t have deep dark motives that they’re pursuing. They’re just trying to get through the day, trying to get reelected in the case of many politicians, and trying to do a good job in the case of the vast majority of elected officials and, for that matter, city managers.
So that’s one thing, I think you develop a certain relativism in these roles, of accepting that the people have their own agendas, their own motives, their own mix of ideological and personal fixations, and you work with it. We live in a diverse society, democracy is not perfect, and you figure out a way to get through the day. At the point in which your ethics are at stake. It’s your responsibility, either to blow the whistle or resign, or both.
DN: I think you’re different from a lot of people that get the city manager job that you have a public persona sort of outside of the city manager when not just as Mayor of Pasadena. Your Twitter handle is “urbanistcole” . It’s not, you know, Samocitymanager or Venturacitymanager, or…I don’t remember exactly what your title is in the comptroller’s office, but like comptrollerexecutiveguy. If you have a reputation outside of outside of your sort of government roles,…if you’re being seen as an urbanist, and you’re with the City Council that’s not doing you know, good urbanism, how does that impact you and impact your own brand? And how much of that own brand management has to factor in? This is also a question that a lot of people that do solutions or impact journalism have to think about also. So you know, not just, this isn’t just a youth thing. It’s more about just how how, advice maybe for people that have to do reputation management with a job that doesn’t always match up with their public image or nonprofit image or activist image, or whatever.
RC: Yeah, I guess in that sense, I’m probably more old fashioned, at least in vocabulary. I don’t think so much about my image, my reputation, or my brand. I think about my record and my legacy. And I think it’s my job to do the best job I can in every job I have and recognize, as I said, a moment ago, politics and democracy are messy. And that’s okay. I started out as a journalist, and I was fascinated by how power plays out in institutions, which didn’t necessarily always make for the most compelling stories, but I thought the most in depth stories. I tried to look at not just the personalities, but how systems shape outcomes. And for me, I decided that I needed to test these grand theories that I was writing about.
And it turns out it’s hard work.
I’ve made mistakes. I have regrets. But overall, I think my north star has been not my reputation, not my brand, not my image. My north star has been how do you positively impact the lives of ordinary people in cities? Because that’s where a majority of humanity now lives. And we live together particularly here in Southern California, in incredible diversity and getting that to work is not easy.
I’ve thoroughly loved the challenge of trying to figure out how you can navigate that. I think at a certain point, your reputation and your brand and your image, you know, take care of themselves. There are people who think that I’m a wild eyed crazy maniac. There are people who think that I am much more sober, conservative and, and methodical than that. And I’ve had the privilege of being hired by people who saw what I could bring to the job, rather than hiring a name or an image.
DN: Alright, so it’s been a little over 10 minutes. This is usually when we switch tracks from “what I want to talk about” to “what you wanted to talk about.” And you said that you wanted to talk about sort of the transportation opportunities and what’s going on in Santa Monica. You know, Santa Monica next was actually originally founded by Streetsblog, just to sort of try and be a mini-Streetsblog. And because there was so much fun, progressive transportation things going on. Turns out, it was hard to do a daily story in a city that’s eight square miles. So it started to venture into housing and other topics as well. But I have always found Santa Monica to be sort of an exciting city to talk about transportation, because even people and leaders that are much more conservative than me and other issues seem to be on board with the general ideas of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through progressive transportation. Is that statement I think you would agree with?
RC: Well, I came to Santa Monica at just an ideal time on that score. After decades of hoping to be connected by rail to the rest of Los Angeles, The Expo Line was just about to open. The city council had adopted as one of their five priorities (when I prodded them to, to narrow it down from 20, top priorities) that we would be a new model of mobility. And so we jumped on that opportunity. Not only should people try the Expo Line, but that we will really focus on the first mile-last mile issue. How do people get there without putting a bunch of parking lots and parking structures next to the stations? So, of course, walking is preeminent…than biking, public transit, we ran the Big Blue Bus. And then of course, the scooter revolution happened a couple of years later, and we were right at the epicenter. We were literally the place where the first 12 scooters for rent in the world were dropped off on our streets.
DN: Alright, can I ask quickly? Is it true? You found out that they were going to do it through LinkedIn?
RC: And there’s a truth to that. But that’s not exactly what happened, Travis VanderZanden had this idea. And he came to our transportation folks, and he pitched the idea. And they said, “Oh, this sounds really interesting. Why don’t you write us a little report? And we’ll think about it.” And of course, his reaction as a tech entrepreneur was, “Oh, that’s not a good idea. Someone else is going to jump on this before I do.” So then he reached out to two Mayor Winterer on LinkedIn and said, “Hey, I’m trying to do this thing.” And Mayor Witter didn’t check his LinkedIn. And so Travis said, “Well, I tried the Transportation Department, I tried the mayor. I’ll just put these 12 things out on the street and see what happens.” And then of course, all hell broke loose.
DN: Oh, that is so much less interesting than the urban legend. That’s a shame. I always remember seeing people like random conversations about scooters and they told the city by texting Rick Cole on LinkedIn. But it was Ted, not you. And they met with some city staff first. I’m sorry to interrupt. I couldn’t help but mention the scooters.
RC: Well, the scooters, I think were the transportation challenge on steroids, right? The challenge with the scooters (which have just been banned in Paris by a 90% vote of the populace) is that when they showed up in Santa Monica, we were completely unprepared. And so was the population. And Travis started running them in May, it might have been April or June.
He caught the tourist wave.
We have hundreds of 1000s of people who visit Santa Monica during the summer and every single one of them wanted to ride the scooter for the very first time. And it turns out that after people have gotten the hang of it, they’re as responsible, or irresponsible, as car drivers or bicyclists or what have you. 99% of the people are, are pretty well behaved, and then 1% Act like crazies. The trouble is, the first time you write it, the ratio is reversed. 99% of the people act like crazies, until they get the hang of it. So we had two and three people with kids hanging on the handlebars and zooming down the street, and cutting in front of cars, and nearly running over pedestrians, and leaving them scattered on the sidewalk. To the credit of the city council, they said, “You know, we’re going to tough this out. It’s miserable. Our constituents are calling us every day screaming and yelling. But if we’re going to be on a new model of mobility, we’ve got to see this experiment through.”
So we moved to impose regulation on them. And I knew that that classic 100-year-old Progressive Era, FCC, FDA, Public Utilities, Commission regulation was just not going to work. This was something that was changing in real time. It wasn’t like you could give a seven year study before you release a drug. In seven days, the technology was changing. Instead of spending six months writing rules, we had a selection process.
We selected four vendors, and then and then we told them, “Look, you have a license to operate in our city. And we will make the rules up as we go along. And as a part of this experiment, you will have to follow the rules. We will give you notice like Friday will tell you on Monday, this is going to change. And you need to be prepared. If we’re going to be nimble on the government side, you need to be nimble in response.” And I think it was a remarkable success in real time public policy.
DN: Sorry, I got us off on scooters for a while. You wanted to talk about The Big blue bus, some of the opportunities presented by the airport, etc…I’m assuming you meant the opportunities the airport closing is going to create for the community. So why don’t we start with the Big Blue Bus. BBB is a kind of a unique transit agency, in how it operates. Santa Monica is surrounded by LA, so the bus doesn’t just serve Santa Monica; it provides access for people in Santa Monica to get to LA and vice versa. I live along one of the routes that goes towards UCLA. And I know people that ride the bus every day that never set foot in Santa Monica, they live and work in LA. So let’s talk a little bit about the Big Blue Bus and some of the challenges and opportunities that having that kind of transit system has for a city.
RC: I think the holy grail that we’re still pursuing is a seamless, integrated multimodal approach. Rather than think, “Well, I have a car. So if I want to get from point A to point B and then to point C; I’ve got to get in my car, I gotta park it at point B. I’m going to park it at point C. I’ve got to get gas. I’ve got to insure it. I’ve got to take care of it. I’ve got to park it when I get back.”
And that’s the end of the story. Right?
Or if you don’t have a car for whatever reason: you’re environmentalist, you’re too old, you’re too young, you’re disabled, you’re too poor. Then, then you got to figure out “Oh my god, I gotta get to, to my doctor’s appointment at Kaiser and it’s four buses in three hours.” And that’s an unfortunate dichotomy.
And I think that where we need to be going is, “Okay, we want to get from today we’re gonna get from point A to point B and maybe change your mind and instead of going to point C, we’re gonna go to point D. How do we integrate walking, biking, transit, autos, for all all the other possibilities that are out there?” How do we make it so that we put the person who is traveling in the proverbial driver’s seat where they can choose the cheapest, the fastest, the healthiest, the most environmentally responsible? And they can mix and match, right? “I have time today so I’m going to ride the bus because I’ll have less stress. I don’t have time today, so I’m going to take my car. I don’t want to park because it’s really expensive there. So I’m going to take on demand transit. I want to go to UCLA or USC for the book fair this weekend. So I’m going to take Expo, and I’m going to get there by walking to the train station.”
That’s what I think Santa Monica was trying to do in 8.3 Square Miles: figure out how to make that possible for people to have those kinds of choices. You walk into a coffee shop anywhere in Los Angeles, and there’s 47 different ways of having coffee. And yet, when it comes to transportation, we have this binary. If you can’t afford a car, you got to have a car. And if you can’t afford a car, you can’t drive a car, then you’re screwed. We need to do a much better job of making biking safer, walking pleasant, transit faster, and have cars pay the actual cost that they inflict on society, so that we’re all sharing that in an equitable way.
DN: We’re a little over but I feel like the airport’s an important topic that that we could probably just do podcast after podcast about. Look at where we are now, I think we’re, what, seven years away from being able to close it.
DN: Five? Oh my gosh, that that pandemic really has changed the timing in my head. So we’re only five years away. The city is starting its planning process for what to do afterwards, in sort of a more tactical way, as opposed to “let’s just let’s build a park.” which is a great idea, I think. But they’re starting to look at the costs of that. So where do you see what was? What should the city be doing? Where should it be going? What are some of the opportunities that you see there? And how can the city be doing what the city is doing now to make sure to take advantage of those opportunities?
RC: So anyone who goes to New York City, and spends more than one day there, is going to be struck by, “Oh my god, what vision it took to put Central Park in the middle of this place, and have everything grew up around it, and have this extraordinary jewel, right in the center of it.”
And I think we need to think in those kinds of 50-year terms with the redevelopment of the Santa Monica Airport. It’s over 200 acres, in the heart of one of the most consequential pieces of real estate on the planet, the affluent West Side center of media in the world. And here’s this unsafe anachronism that is going to go away and leave a hole that’s going to be filled by something. What does that something look like? And not only what goes in, in the airport itself, but what goes on around it? What’s the transportation connection?
It’s right on the edge of Santa Monica, it borders on Los Angeles. So it’s not going to be a Santa Monica asset, it’s going to be a Los Angeles County Asset like Griffith Park. And while the neighbors immediately there should have some say in what happens; what really we need to do is think about the long run potential of this as an asset for Los Angeles County, for the c\City of LA for Santa Monica Culver City, etc. There really needs to be a joint powers authority. Santa Monica, because it owns the land, should be in the driver’s seat. But it’s going to need partners to develop that and there needs to be real thought about, “Right next door is a bunch of parking lots that are on a major transit corridor, and not far from the Expo Line.” So all that stuff needs to be thought about in terms of a 50 year or 100 year or, New York terms, 200 year kind of timeline to think about what the evolution of the Westside should be. It’s a huge opportunity, but one that if we act parochially and think small, we will miss the opportunity that New York has.
DN: I don’t know if people find these fun, but we still have “five fun questions.” And we give people the opportunity, and this is partially to keep me honest and keep me from asking questions that are too crazy, that they can ask me one at the end of it. One of the five that is not one of their own. And also for people that are just joining Santa Monica next, it gives them a chance to learn a little bit about me so that they can always judge the articles with some knowledge of what it is that goes into them. We always say, “There’s no journalist and no outlet that’s completely non biased in the universe. And the more readers can learn about the bias of the people that are writing, editing the pieces, the better, they can understand what’s going on, and perhaps make their own judgments:”. So I have no better way to do that with fun questions. The first one is of the cities that you have managed or were mayor of which one has the best food.
RC: Well, I’ve been blessed that the food has been great everywhere. I’ve gone, Azusa had absolutely fabulous Mexican, homegrown Mom and Pop restaurants and, and bakeries. And of course, Santa Monica is world renowned for its cuisine. Pasadena holds its own. But I think that the most consequential is when I worked in Ventura. Right after I got my job as city manager, the Taj restaurant opened on Main Street two blocks away. And I hadn’t really had much exposure to Indian food. And I started going. I felt from the moment I walked in that I was visiting my cousins. It didn’t feel like a restaurant, it felt like the hospitality of your relatives. And so I began going and eating Indian food at lunch twice a week and bringing my family and Friday night. Indian is now my favorite food. Because of the Taj restaurant on Main Street, I would recommend it to anyone.
DN: All right, I wasn’t expecting that. I like it. I only wrote four questions, because one of these was an explanation of the other one, so you’re gonna get off a little easier. This one came from a reader who I guess is familiar with regional politics. If Kenneth Mahir lived in Santa Monica, would he be mayor of Santa Monica by now?
RC: Well, I think that Santa Monica politics is in flux. And given the miraculous campaign that he ran in the city of Los Angeles with 4 million people, and got more votes than anyone in the history of the city for any office. He might very well be the mayor, although as you know, the mayor is not directly elected in Santa Monica. So he’d have to wait his turn or get a majority of his colleagues to endorse him. But after 30 years of stability in Santa Monica politics, the last four years have been pretty tumultuous. So it’s hard to predict what Santa Monica will do next.
I don’t see Kenneth living there, frankly. Not just because of the stereotypes. If you just spend five minutes there, you think, “Oh, what a what a wealthy, gilded place it is.” But in fact, 13% of the people live below the poverty line. The majority of people, as we all know, are renters, and many of them are struggling to hang on. So it’s not the Gold Coast although it certainly has some very wealthy people in neighborhoods.
But I think Kenneth would have done well there. I think Kenneth would do well, anywhere.
DN: I agree with you. And you talk about the demographics of Santa Monica a lot. We get people all the time that ask, when we’re talking about the sort of the Streetsblog people, why Santa Monica, why Santa Monica Next? It’s really a fascinating and interesting city, the demographics. I sort of have state/half brag that I probably spend more time on foot the city than most people because I’m a distance runner, and I run from my house to the beach or run from my house zigzagging through neighborhoods with my little watch telling me how far I have to go and how far away from home I am and all that sort of stuff. And I don’t see a city full of extremely wealthy older people, which is I think a lot of what the stereotype is. I mean, that’s certainly a reason that stereotype exists, but no city is exactly what it stereotype is. And I think that’s really true of Santa Monica. So speaking of Santa Monica and we’re on Santa Monica Next and we talked about mobility, what do you think is the best bike ride in the city?
RC: Well, I lived on the northern edge in a condo building where I rented an apartment for myself and my daughter when she was at Santa Monica College. And so you can’t beat the beach bike path which was a recently enhanced, spectacular, world class route. I used to bike frequently, all over the city. First on my regular bike, and then I kind of enjoyed the electric bikes that I forget Lyft or somebody running.
DN: Oh, I loved those when they were here.
RC: But because I lived on the northern edge I would go down Seventh Street, down to Chautauqua and then over to the bike path. And even though that’s just outside of Santa Monica, it’s where the Santa Monica stairs are. That’s a very nice bike ride. A little tougher on the way back up though.
DN: This one wasn’t on the list, but I only had four on the list. So you get an extra one. Did you ever ride one of the scooters? The Birds are one of the other brands that were out?
RC: You know, I’ve never admitted this before, but no, I never did. I thought I should live to tell you about it. So I decided that I would avoid all that. I’ve never been on a scooter.
DN: I only did once right after Jason Islas left Santa Monica Next to go to Bird I wrote a Bird once. And I honestly was terrified. I don’t understand how anyone would do this. But apparently I was in the minority on that one.
RC: I did love Our bike share, which was manual and then and then the electric bike share. Those were great for me.
DN: Yeah. Oh no, the Lyft bikes were when I don’t know if they’re still in Santa Monica or not. But when they were in West LA, they were tremendously convenient for me because I kept being able to meet my family places we’re a one car family, I would be able to meet my my wife and kids or vice versa, she’d be able to meet us someplace, we wouldn’t have to all pile in the car together to do any sort of kid event or anything like that. It gave us just that little bit of extra mobility. Because if I took my own bike, then I’d have to bike home, which was fine, too. But then you ‘re not all together in the car. Last up, is there one secret about Santa Monica you’d like to share with us and where we define secret pretty broadly. As far as what that could be.
RC: You know, it’s certainly not a secret. But I think that Marian Davis’s old place which the city took over and made into just a fabulous public place. It’s called the Annenberg Center now and it’s Annenberg Beach House. It’s just fabulous. Fantastic pool, right on the beach, some history. And it’s just a great place to hang out. And a remarkable number of people do not visit there. The other absolutely marvelous place that I think is underappreciated is on Pico: Pico Library and that park there. You see every kind of person imaginable. In Southern California: NBA players, shooting hoops, Kids dancing in the water fountain, young college students doing their studying at the library, Farmers Market on Saturday, neighbors having birthday parties and quinceaneras. Those are two of the underappreciated gems. There’s the pier there’s there’s a there’s a lot of iconic places in Santa Monica. But those are I think two of the less appreciated places not a secret. I think people don’t don’t realize just how great those places are.
DN: Thank you for your time. Thank the city of LA for your time on our behalf. And we will. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of chances to check in over the years on both Streetsblog and Santa Monica Next. Any other publications have they come with Pasadena Next? I don’t know. So thank you for your time, and it was great to see you.
RC: Thank you, Damien. Be well.