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“Courage, Tenacity, and Imagination”: An Interview with Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole, Part II

City Hall

Santa Monica Next sat down to talk with Rick Cole, who took the reins as Santa Monica’s city manager on June 29 after leaving his post at L.A. City Hall as deputy mayor in charge of budget and innovation. The Pasadena native and 30-year veteran of local and regional politics spoke with us about his goals at his new position in Santa Monica. This is part two of a three-part interview. Read Part I: "A City on the Beach" and Part III: "An Exemplary Model" here.

Santa Monica Next: We are at an event right now that exemplifies the sort of innovation that comes out of dynamic urban environments, Hack the Drought, which is bringing people together to find solutions to a major problem. You’ve been a major proponent of Open Data and using technology to better the work of government. Do you see yourself bringing that to Santa Monica?

Rick Cole: That was one of the strong appeals of Santa Monica to me. I’m not what anyone would call a technophile and I’m certainly not a digital native, but technology is driving the planet today and unless we embrace its positive possibilities, we’ll be overwhelmed by its negative externalities.

The vitality of Silicon Beach needs to be harnessed to a higher civic purpose and city government and civic life need to embrace the potential of both data -- to better understand our real challenges versus anecdotal -- and the power of virtual communication to amplify the opportunity for face-to-face democracy.

Santa Monica has the human and the financial resources to show a much more benign potential for technology than the darker scenarios that we are, I think, all petrified of and have brought us both Edward Snowden and a recoiling by people against invasions of their sense of privacy.

Technology is an incredibly powerful tool and either we’ll use it for incredibly positive things or it will become our master. I’d much prefer the former.

SMN: Do you think we really get a choice of either/or?

RC: No, it’s not either/or. I’m saying, technology is really transforming our lives so we have to grapple with it. There have always been Luddites and, in a Romantic sense, it’s easy to identify with simpler times. But, without losing our souls, we need to engage with these new tools precisely in order to guide them to more positive outcomes because they are going to drive outcomes and we can’t simply resist them. We need to shape them.

SMN: For example, this Hack the Drought event today is designed around the idea of using technology to help address the drought, arguably one of the biggest problems we are facing.

RC: It’s been the central frustration of my 30 years in the public sector that some of the smartest people in the world employ sophisticated tools, whether it’s technology, communication or organizational, cultural intention, to create incredibly powerful companies and institutions. And, the public sector has been so slow to innovate and so resistant to change and so wedded to 150-year-old models.

Almost everything single thing the city of Santa Monica does -- its fire department, its police department, its library, its water service, its bus company -- was the product of radical innovation and political struggle. None of them simply fell out of the sky. People saw a tremendous need to help people get around the city, to keep them safe from fire and flood, to protect them from predators. All of the [services] we take for granted came from people who were passionate reformers and who were willing to create something entirely different than what existed before. They had the courage and the tenacity and the imagination to shape these remarkable institutions we now take for granted.

Take the library. Thirty years ago, a library was judged on how many books circulated in a month or a year. That didn’t tell you everything a library did because often times, kids would come in and get help for their school or even discover something that might have turned into a lifelong love or career just by connecting with a librarian, but the number of books circulated was a great analog that distilled how much activity was taking place inside the four walls of the building.

Today, that’s not a very helpful statistic, which raises the question, what should we be measuring? And, what is a library? And, what is its purpose? Is it to warehouse books? Or is it what Benjamin Franklin conceived of when libraries did not exist and someone had to invent them?

Benjamin Franklin assembled America’s first library and it lent more than books. In fact, it lent out scientific instruments like test tubes and microscopes and telescopes because, like books, those were tools that were out of reach of ordinary working people. By pooling resources, the library opened the door to learning and advancement and personal growth and community civic capital that was impossible [for] individuals [to be] able to afford... on their own.

In the 21st century, libraries, just like fire departments and bus companies, have to reinvent themselves for grappling with the emerging opportunities and challenges of the city today. We can’t be wedded to models that are out of date.

The proof of that is to look at the L.A. Times, which, when I was growing up, was the most powerful institution in Southern California, by far more important than Los Angeles City Hall. Today, it continues to shrink. It plays an important role, but people of my generation are the last that will fish a newspaper out of their driveway. The generations to come are simply going to get their news and their worldview from other media.

The public sector also needs to be on the cutting edge, lest we fall behind and the world overtakes us far sooner than we ever imagined. 

SMN: Is the need more urgent now to innovate in the public sector than it was 30 years ago considering the exponential rate at which technology is improving?

RC: Absolutely. One way to measure that is to look into our pockets and see the change that is happening to our phones is vastly outpacing the changes that are happening to our local governments.

But, another way to look at it is to see what is happening in China, which is both frightening and fascinating. There has never been a society in human history changing so quickly and at such a scale. They are essentially compressing what happened in England in 200 years and American in 100 years into the next 25.

For those of us in Los Angeles, it’s frightening both because of our concern about what the endgame might be for China -- we certainly can imagine an extremely dystopian one in terms of oppression of personal freedoms and environmental damage -- as well as fear that they will simply out-hustle us and grab a disproportionate share of the resources that Americans have taken for granted for many generations.

But, [China is] one-seventh of humanity and it’s really not sustainable to think that the world can live divided between one group of people going one way and one group of people going in the opposite direction, or not going nearly as fast in any direction.

We have to be, in the words of the environmental ethos I grew up with, people who think globally and act locally. We have to be careful in grappling with change that we are fiercely dedicated to timeless values -- personal freedom, democracy, compassion for others, justice -- while being incredibly open to new ideas about how to achieve all of those goals and how to enable all of those goals because a horse-drawn democracy is not going to survive in the 21st century.

SMN: That’s a very big picture view. If we want to be a city on a hill, though, we should be striving to affect world outcomes.

RC: A remarkable statistic that I learned from reading the comprehensive annual financial report of the city of Santa Monica is that the general fund reserve for the city of Santa Monica is greater than the general fund reserve for the city of Los Angeles. Santa Monica’s population is a little over 90,000. Los Angeles’ population is a little less than 4 million.

It’s a tribute to the leadership both of council and staff over the last 30 years, as well as to the citizens who have supported an extraordinarily responsible stewardship of public resources.

SMN: While at the same time being, I think, pretty progressive in the use of those resources.

RC: Which is why I am so excited about becoming the city manager of Santa Monica. Throughout my public life, most people have paid attention, until very recently, to my overtly and unashamed progressive outlook about issues of social justice and equality. I learned those in Pasadena and practiced them from my days as a high school student fighting for integrated schools.

Those of us who believe in progressive social outcomes should be, and unfortunately often are not, the most fanatic about the stewardship of public resources because without public resources, the public sector can’t sustainably deliver the things that the private market cannot.

Those who lose the most when governments are financially irresponsible are the most vulnerable in our society, first, and public employees, second.

I think we’re entering into a period in California where that is becoming increasingly clear. You have the enormous popularity of Jerry Brown, who is the classic social progressive and fiscal conservative. You have local leaders like [Los Angeles] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti, who embody that same commitment. And, you have cities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood that have been practicing that for the last two or three decades.

It’s a model that works because you can’t build high speed rail, you can’t take care of people in desperate need, unless you have the resources. Those are not just financial, but you can’t train people if you don’t have the resources, you can’t have the latest technology unless you have those resources, you can’t build robust partnerships with nonprofits and businesses unless you have those resources.

Santa Monica has been blessed by enlightened leadership who have stewarded those resources and who continue to employ them for progressive ends.

Read Part I: "A City on the Beach" and Part III: "An Exemplary Model" here.

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