Twenty years ago, if you’d told me that I would get a cease and desist letter from a neighborhood group I’d just joined, and that Mike Houston would be the attorney who fought it on my behalf, I would have laughed. A lot.
This is not a slight against Mike. Back in high school he was whip smart, had a razor wit, and was a lover of fine meat products (namely In-N-Out). We fell out of touch after high school, ran into each other a few times, then reconnected on Facebook. I knew that he’d become an attorney, and one who ran (and ran in) some pretty powerful circles. I figured we’d probably get together again over a fine meal at Haven or The Playground or any of the other fine OC gastropubs that I’d recently sampled (and that he’s a regular at, apparently), and that would have been great.
And then I had to be stupid and get involved in local politics.
There’s this group, the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition, and they have bugged the hell out of me for the past five or six years. It started with calling my neighborhood “Wilmont,” a name I’d never heard until I got their newsletter, and I’d been here for a good ten years before that. Once a year, the group (Wilmont, they called themselves, after our neighborhood…I mean, who comes up with this crap?) sent out peppy notes in envelopes with the City of Santa Monica’s letterhead, and they would talk about all the awesome things they’d done for our neighborhood, and that they were looking out for our neighborhood, and it would be so great if I joined and got involved (for a minimal fee). I would get this newsletter, and I’d look at the school across the street, where a dozen parking places had been turned into a student loading zone that the parents never used, and I’d look at all the staffers from UCLA Santa Monica Hospital who would steal all the parking spaces in the neighborhood, and I’d look at all the vacant storefronts on Wilshire and Montana, and I’d think that Wilmont was a bunch of self-serving, useless wankers who were using city stationery to feel important. I would throw the thing away and think nothing more of it.
Until the Fairmont happened.
The Fairmont Miramar is a hotel complex that takes up the entire block between Ocean and Second Street on Wilshire. It’s big. It’s expensive. It’s old and a little run-down on the edges, and I once pool-crashed the place with my kid and a friend and her kid when the pool at the Y was closed (in our defense, my friend’s grandmother was staying there…but, yes, we totally crashed the place and used their towels and drank their fancy water with orange slices floating in the carboy). It was one of those places in Santa Monica about which I could not give two shits, because it was out of my price range, and would always be so.
The Fairmont is owned by a group that’s owned by Michael Dell, and, like any other budding young capitalist, he wanted to maximize his investment. And, like any budding young capitalist-cum-developer, he wanted to maximize his investment by knocking down everything, digging a bloody great hole in the ground for parking, and jamming a new hotel, retail space, and condominiums into that one block.
I was not thrilled with this idea. A lot of people in the neighborhood were not thrilled with this idea. Wilmont, apparently, loved it.
The Santa Monica Mirror, one of our local papers, landed on my doorstep one Friday in spring, and there was a big ad from a group calling itself Friends of the Miramar (or something to that effect). The “revitalization” would bring all sorts of benefits to the community. It would provide jobs. It would provide parking. It would provide a new public park right across the street from a whole lot of other public park, albeit this public park would probably be patrolled by rent-a-cops and free of sleeping bums and the heady perfume of urine. It would be eight kinds of awesome, and the Friends of the Miramar wanted this Unicorn Farm and Rainbow Factory to happen.
One of the signatories was the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition.
Longtime readers and my South Korean fan club will know that I can’t stand idly by when bullshit is being flung about. I posted a bunch of comments on various newspaper articles and on Wilmont’s website, and then I joined the group. If this organization was supposed to represent my neighborhood, and this kind of crap was going on, I had to get involved, and I had to get involved the proper way. In May, I sent in my ten bucks and got a peppy letter welcoming me to Wilmont. The annual meeting was on June 9. Please join in!
Oh, yes. I would.
Except that Anne was training for Vineman Half Ironman Triathlon, and June 9 she had a long run scheduled. So, I stayed home with Grace, loaded up a bunch of local news sites, and wondered what would happen.
A whole mess of trouble, that’s what happened.
The upshot of all the hullaballoo is that a new board was voted in, and the old board said, “No, you weren’t,” and then a lawyer got involved, and a bunch of cease and desist letters got sent.
I got one of them as Anne, Grace, and I were en route to Vineman. I was a little preoccupied with keeping Grace calm and dealing with the collapsing underpanels on the car, so when my phone pinged with this email, I was a mite peeved. It said that a) I was kicked out of Wilmont because b) I’d taken place in an illegal election and c) people didn’t feel safe around be because of my behavior during (b) and that I was “further cautioned that: (1) any attempt to mislead the Organization’s membership, the media or the public that you are a member or an elected director of the Organization; (2) any unauthorized use of the Organization’s name, its confidential membership information; or (3) any other false, misleading defamatory, libelous or slanderous statements or acts made against the Organization may give rise to criminal or civil action against you, and you are advised to refrain from any such activity.”
This little love note ended with: “Please govern yourself accordingly.”
So, like any good American citizen who’d just been bullied by a lawyer, I did govern myself accordingly. I forwarded the C&D to Santa Monica Patch, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown. I told all of them that I had never attended any meetings of Wilmont, and I had just been kicked out. I spoke with two reporters and got a reply from Councilman McKeown (who said he’d look into it).
I also posted a bit on Facebook, and that’s when Mike, or, rather Michael R.W. Houston, Esq., contacted me.
There’s a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Jailbird” that I’ve always liked. Vonnegut wanted to use Roy Cohn as a character, and received Cohn’s permission, provided Vonnegut “present him as an appallingly effective attorney.” When Michael and I spoke, I couldn’t help but realize that the guy I had gone to high school with, the guy who wore the same snappy polyester blend band uniform as I did, the guy who used to hop around at school dances with me…well, he was now an appallingly effective attorney.
And, luckily for me, this stuff was right up his alley.
We talked a bit over race weekend, and I told him the whole story, and I think the C&D offended him professionally more than anything. He cranked out a letter that took the C&D apart piece by piece, laid out those pieces on an iron rack, and beat them senseless with the California Corporations Code, the California Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, and a smattering of righteous indignation. It is an awesome letter, and I mean that in both the traditional sense and the Jeff Spicoli sense. You ought to read it.
(If you don’t, it boils down to three points. First, under the Corporation Code, I am entitled to certain rights of due process, and the terms of the C&D violated those rights. Second, the reasons for the termination are false because I wasn’t at the meeting. Third, threatening me with criminal or civil action is a violation of the Bar’s Rules of Conduct. The entire thing is a beautifully crafted, lovingly detailed, double-barreled middle finger to the C&D.)
When we got home from Vineman, Michael then forwarded on a transcript from a voicemail that Wilmont’s attorney left with his office. This was the first time my anger turned to pity, because the C&D sounded like someone who’d tried to scare me off with a barking dog, only to find that I’d returned with an atomic-powered, laser-guided attack wolverine. That line about “simply responding to facts” when there was nothing factual about what the C&D said about me sounded like someone who was trying to save face.
Jump a few days later, and Michael calls me. He’s spoken with Wilmont’s lawyer, and, after the two stopped dueling and started talking, my appallingly effective attorney made it clear that Wilmont had screwed up in roping me in with the rebel group (and, special note to the Wilmont Board: Sweet Cupping Cakes, guys, do you have any idea how much you’ve done to legitimize your opponents by suing them and calling them rebels? You realize how much people love a rebel in this country, right? I swear, I should run for the Board just to make sure boneheaded PR moves like this don’t happen), and that I would take nothing less than a restoration of my membership, a full retraction, and an apology. And, what do you know? I got them all.
So, now what? For starters, I’m bloody well going to make a point of going to every one of Wilmont’s board meetings, though my Spidey sense is telling me that it’ll make my time as CCC rep look like Burning Man. The kicker of all this is that Wilmont doesn’t have any real authority in the city. They don’t pass laws, they don’t hire and fire police or city personnel, and whatever resolutions they may pass probably don’t mean squat to the everyday life. They may crow about getting permits for this neighborhood or shutting down that shitty sports bar on Wilshire (and the Parlor was a shitty sports bar, no matter how you slice it), but there are still bums sleeping in Reed Park and pissing all over the place, and there are still tags in my alley, and there are still maniacs driving without any regard for human life on my street. And, let’s face it: the Fairmont is going to get what it wants. Money doesn’t just talk: it demands, and the more money one flashes in front of a city desperate for cash, the more one’s demands are going to be met. Michael Dell is going to get his bloody great development, and the traffic around that block is going to suck, and the edge of my neighborhood is going to become a great, big mess.
The best we can do is speak up and fight, even if all that fight does is make sure the groups that are supposed to represent us and look out for us actually do their fucking jobs. I can’t wait to look at Wilmont’s finances, as is my right as a member, and I can’t wait to do what I can to make sure the rebels eventually get back into the fold, the chair’s snits be damned. Democracy is messy, but chaos is messier, and chaos that benefits some wealthy assholes who don’t live in my neighborhood is the messiest of all. There will probably come a time when I wish I’d just been kicked out and gotten my ten bucks back, but, for now, I’m going to stand up and make my voice heard.
And, if you live in the neighborhood, I think you should make your voice heard, too. If anything, just so I’ll have some company at the meetings. The Board meets tonight at 7 at the Ken Edwards Center on 4th between Broadway and Colorado. I’ll be the guy in the back, taking notes and wondering when I’m going to learn to keep my goddamn mouth shut.