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The Martyrdom of Leonora Camner

COMMENTARY - On Friday, February 18, Santa Monica city housing commissioner, Leonora Camner, ruefully announced on Twitter: “Getting kicked off the housing commission because I advocate for housing.”

This unleashed a veritable shitstorm of sympathy, support, and rage from the Twitterverse’s WIMBY clerisy towards her antagonists. 

From WIMBY elected officials in other cities to urban supremacist UC professors, WIMBY Twitterers expressed shock and outrage, while issuing a call to action: their comrades and coreligionists should raise holy hell, by calling and sending emails to the obnoxious Nimby councilmembers who were looking to depose Camner at their next council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22, just because she “advocates for housing.” 

Aaron Green, the president of the Afriat lobbying firm, which has built its business on getting cities to hand out massive quantities of FSD (Free Shit for Developers) sent out a Twitter SOS: “Attention readers! Please flood Santa Monica’s council inbox with your dissatisfaction.” Another supporter seemed to make a threat straight from the Trumpian playbook of vengeance and retribution: “It’d be a shame if some very bad and compromising information were to surface on those trying to oust you.” 

Imagine that! A housing commissioner getting the boot because she “advocates for housing.”  The injustice, indignity, and unfairness of it all.  And the dozens upon dozens in the WIMBY choir who responded to Leonora Camner’s call for martyrdom were nothing, if not proof that the evil Santa Monica councilmembers were intent upon removing this indomitable force for housing from Santa Monica’s housing commission. 

Camner’s supporters undoubtedly know that she is the Executive Director of a pro-density lobbying group with the name “Abundant Housing LA,” whose funding is shady, but whose goal is clearly to force density and growth upon cities, to eliminate single-family homes, and to make single-family neighborhoods themselves illegal. 

With all the usual false WIMBY narratives, which craftily invoke the language of affordability, equity, and the environment in an effort to promote perpetual growth, Abundant Housing LA employs all the same, tired false narratives we are regularly served up WIMBY groups such as “Up for Growth” (one of Leonora Camner’s avid Twitter followers). 

And yet if Camner really were an advocate for housing – housing for people, that is, rather than housing as an investment vehicle for private equity, investment funds, global capital, Wall St. and money launderers -- she would support and actively advocate for robust anti-speculation housing policies, policies that put people over profits. It should hardly be surprising that Abundant Housing LA’s efforts all fit squarely into the mainstream neoliberal WIMBY orthodoxy that has forced density and forced growth as its core articles of faith.  In other words, Camner could not possibly advocate for the decommodification of housing or housing policy within the context of the steady state economy without alienating her growth-addict funders. 

Here St. Leonora is at odds with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.  

Greta once famously remarked: “Our environment is being sacrificed for the opportunity for a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.”  No, Greta wasn’t talking about people from all walks of life who like living in a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens.  She was talking about the major WIMBY funders and the corporate interests behind groups like “Up for Growth,” as she made clear in her searing indictment in front of the UN: 

“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” 

For all the moral outrage of Camner’s growth-junkie supporters, as well as the martyrdom she seems intent upon staging, the Santa Monica City Council, if they can withstand the onslaught from the WIMBY mob, would be completely justified in removing her from the commission.  In fact, they would be correcting a mistake that never should have happened in the first place. 

Paid lobbyists should not serve on city commissions. The disqualification should be automatic, obvious, and non-negotiable for anyone who cares about ethics and who, notwithstanding SCOTUS, wants to create a level playing field. Especially in a country in which money is speech and corporations are people. Especially in a country in which money is not only the “mother’s milk of politics,” it is also the antidemocratic toxin that has completely corrupted our system and turned us into a plutocracy, which, if we are not careful, will morph into a dystopian neofeudal future in which corporations and oligarchs will do all they can to perpetuate the illusion of democracy, long after it has vanished from the real world. 

Removing a paid lobbyist from a city commission is a matter of ethics, transparency, good government, and sensible policy. 

As the paid Executive Director of an Urban Growth Machine funded advocacy group attempting to influence city policy, Leonora Camner never had any business serving on a city commission, any commission, let alone one whose function was and is to recommend policies that benefit the entire Santa Monica community, not just the organization she is paid by. It is a clear and complete conflict of interest. 

Even in full knowledge of all of these facts, it hardly surprises me that the WIMBY Twitterverse couldn’t give a hoot about such niceties as ethics or transparency.  As their behavior demonstrates time and time again, these values aren’t exactly high on the WIMBY Maslow scale, which is all about growth, upzoning, build baby build, and a list of grievances, many of which likely originate in unhappy childhoods in suburbia. 

For all her whining, it seems that Camner herself is not really a huge fan of transparency or public participation, at least if the public participation allows anyone to be critical of her pro-developer, anti-resident agenda.  At Thursday’s housing commission meeting, Camner blocked public comment at the beginning of the meeting, forcing those members of the public seeking to give input to wait two and a half hours until the end of the meeting. (For the record, there should always be at least a reasonable amount of public comment at the beginning of every meeting – yes, that goes for the Council, as well). 

Neither has Camner ever publicly revealed her own compensation as the Executive Director of a lobbying group nor the funding sources of “Abundant Housing,” beyond the sketchy and opaque forms required by the federal government. 

Aside from the ethical problems with paid lobbyists serving as city commissioners, we need stronger disclosure laws about those being paid to influence public policy.  Groups like Abundant Housing LA should have to reveal their funding sources in a detailed and direct fashion. Disclosure shouldn’t require people to be experts at peeling onions.  And Leonora Camner should, commissioner or not, disclose her compensation if she ever attempts to influence Santa Monica’s public policy in her capacity as a paid executive of a lobbying organization.  Clearly, she already has attempted to influence Santa Monica’s policy so there are two key questions that remain to be answered: 

What is Leonora Camner’s compensation as the Executive Director of “Abundant Housing”?

What are the detailed, individual funding sources of “Abundant Housing,” which at one point had over a million dollars in the bank? If they come from other organizations, then just who and where do those funds come from? 

If, for whatever reason, the Santa Monica City Council fails to correct an ethical mistake that should have never happened in the first place, and Leonora Camner, despite her unresolvable conflict of interest, is allowed to remain on the commission, one is going to have to wonder if the mafia methods suggested by her Twitter goon supporters may have actually worked. 

It just is another example that proves there are seemingly no lengths to which the Urban Growth Machine won’t go in their efforts to commodify our communities in the pursuit of eternal economic growth and developer profits. 

The good news is that there may still be a place in the sanctified pantheon for Camner.  It seems St. Joseph is already considered to be the patron saint of Real Estate.  Move on over St. Joe, here comes Saint Leonora, the newly minted patron saint of the Urban Growth Machine, the financialization of housing, and developer profiteering.

 

(John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, including three terms as mayor. During his first term as mayor, he created the city’s Sunshine Task Force to increase transparency and public participation in local government. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.)