Lane Dilg hadn’t planned to become a city manager. Not even in Santa Monica, a community she loves, and certainly not during the start of a global pandemic.
She was content as city attorney, an impactful role in which she had successfully fended off challenges from two sharing-economy touchstones, Airbnb and HomeAway, to a local law that regulated vacation rentals in an attempt to help ensure sufficient housing stock for permanent residents of the area.
So Dilg was torn when Santa Monica’s city manager stepped down in April 2020, and the City Council approached her about the job.
“I had very little time to decide. I told them the truth – it wasn't something I was seeking and I probably didn't want to; but I would, because we were in a local and national emergency,” she recalls.
The beachfront community of 90,000 residents and hundreds of thousands of visitors needed someone who could hit the ground running, Dilg says, and “as city attorney, I knew the city backwards and forwards. I was already involved in all of the emergency operations.”
She also had valuable government experience, having served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, working with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and senior counsel at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The school’s chancellor, Gene Block, taught her the decisiveness needed as city manager during a crisis, she says.
“I knew when I made the job switch that part of my job would be to make hard decisions – to assess staff recommendations, make decisions, and be accountable for the results,” says Dilg, who holds a law degree from Yale and a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.
Lawdragon: So take me back to April 2020, when the council said, “Would you mind steering this ship?” and you agreed. What did you do next? How did you organize the focus of the city, and prepare to lead through what was going to be a truly horrible year?
Lane Dilg: We did see it coming. I was consulting with health experts and following health research closely. In the spring of 2020, our finance team made key projections. They projected that Covid-19 would devastate city revenue streams – parking, tourism taxes, sales taxes – and create a $224M budget deficit over three fiscal years. They projected a second shutdown of the economy in December 2020. And we correctly anticipated that we would receive no meaningful federal aid in 2020 to fill the gaps.
Based on those projections, we used $117M in one-time funds; and we reduced our city budget by 20 percent and realigned our city operations to focus on community needs during the pandemic. By doing that, we retained our AAA bond rating, and put the city on what is a stable course for the future.
Since that time, we've been stabilizing the government within the new smaller budget, focusing on the services that people rely on to live in the community: water, fixing traffic signals, transit that carried our healthcare workers to work throughout the pandemic, EMT, public safety services and so much more.
We have also been providing new services like a new food pantry at Virginia Avenue Park and curbside and enhanced virtual library services. We've run childcare at every possible opportunity during the pandemic. And we focused tremendous energy on getting our community and our visitors from across Los Angeles County outside safely and healthily. That has included bringing as many restaurants, fitness operations, and others out to operate in the Santa Monica sunshine as possible.
On our internationally known Ocean Avenue, we've built new pedestrian walkways, so we could bring the restaurants onto the sidewalks. On Main Street, which is smaller and more local, we removed parking lanes to create new parklet-style outdoor dining. We’ve even had fitness activities like yoga over the ocean happening for our community members on the Santa Monica Pier.
Lawdragon: I hope you take a lot of pride in what you’ve managed to do in such hard circumstances.
Dilg: It really has been beautiful. One of the things I'm most proud of is that – even with our reduced budget and reduced staffing during the pandemic – the Santa Monica Beach was among the safest and happiest places to be in all of L.A. County. And that was harder than it looked to operate.
Because so many people were coming to the beach, we had to constantly change our maintenance operations to accommodate larger crowds and new patterns of people, and also provide health enforcement and other entirely new services. With respect to our small businesses, we did additional things that were less visible, like capping the fees that online delivery services could charge our restaurants.
I am deeply proud to have been part of providing this unbelievable outdoor space for families from across L.A. County to step out of their homes, to look into the Pacific and see hope on the horizon, and to see their children laugh in the water. Personally, watching my son play in the waves was among my greatest joys in a very challenging year. And I know that was true for so many people from across LA County.
Lawdragon: Can you please tell me a bit about some of the real stress points, such as ambulance services?
Dilg: During the very worst days of the pandemic, we worked through our fire department to realign our ambulance services. We brought additional ambulances into service to ensure we could provide continuous services to our hospitals and worked closely with our hospitals to create triage plans in the hardest days.
We were constantly developing new plans to adapt to changing situations. Among the most difficult, as a city we actually run a historic cemetery and had to bring in a mobile mortuary at one point.
Lawdragon: You’ve really accomplished so much, and in a period that was completely baffling. Not just dealing with the pandemic, but also social upheaval on a variety of fronts.
Dilg: I often use the word historic: It has been a historic year. But I think Santa Monica has a very bright future, and I'm proud of the work we've done to make sure that's the case.
Santa Monica’s civic discourse is deeply engaged, sometimes fierce, and always vibrant. That makes working in this community both challenging and also tremendously rewarding. I think one of the things we've learned in the pandemic, though, is that the untethering of political discourse and truth can be extremely dangerous.
We're fortunate in Santa Monica to have three local newspapers. That’s a very important thing for local communities, and I am deeply grateful to all who support and fund those media organizations. Even when I disagree with some of their coverage, I'm still so grateful that they're there. For thriving local communities, we need responsible media organizations and responsible community leaders. We need our community leaders to take seriously their role in fostering a responsible, truthful, and constructive discourse, because that community discourse ultimately crafts our democratic communities.
Lawdragon: You were city attorney for several years before you stepped up to interim city manager. What brought you to city government?
Dilg: When the city attorney position opened up, I was at UCLA. People think of UCLA as a school, which it is, but it’s also a billion-dollar research enterprise. They have 40,000 employees, a police department, and extensive operations to create a campus where thousands can live. I also worked closely with UCLA athletics, a nationally recognized entity in its own right.
I was at a Federal Bar Association meeting, and a U.S. Magistrate Judge who was a friend and mentor said that she had been approached about the position but wasn’t interested. She was kind enough to say, “It occurs to me, you'd be perfect for this position, you should apply." So I did. I was extremely fortunate to step into that position leading an office of about 40 attorneys and staff.
It's a full in-house legal office. We defended the city in all litigation, provided legal advice across all the city's operations, and brought important affirmative litigation to protect tenant and consumer rights. One great example of public service law from the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office arose when Airbnb and HomeAway.com challenged our local ordinance regulating vacation rentals.
In Santa Monica, housing is scarce, and it's important that our housing be used for housing. Airbnb and HomeAway were represented by three law firms I respect greatly; but, as I told the lawyers originally assigned to the case, "We're right on this one. Just keep your heads down and let's litigate," We ultimately prevailed in an important published Communications Decency Act opinion in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and we reached what I believe is a win-win settlement and partnership with Airbnb that helps us as a local government make sure that our housing is used for the community good. I was proud that we handled that case entirely in-house.
Lawdragon: As you should be. I mean, you went against the best with your in-house team. Tell me what you’re focused on now, as the outlook for the pandemic appears to be growing more hopeful. What are you doing with vaccines?
Dilg: So with the combination of the American Rescue Plan, vaccination and reopening, we not only have hope on the horizon, we are in the earliest days, stepping out into the sunshine of our recovery.
One of three priorities the council has set going forward is to ensure that we have an equitable and inclusive economic recovery. I think it's very important that we are stating clearly that that is among our very top priorities as a city and as a community.
We will also take steps to make our work to cultivate our thriving outdoor commercial districts permanent, seeing what worked in our pilot pandemic days and reshaping the future of our public rights of way. When I look at the economic trajectory of Santa Monica, I look toward 2028, and the L.A. 2028 Olympics. From here, we will see our thriving outdoor restaurant scene, redevelopment of Santa Monica’s historic Miramar Hotel and new economic vitality work on the Third Street Promenade. We’ll be on the international stage during the Olympics, and communicating to the world about our culture built on sustainability, arts, architecture, surfing, and, of course, beach volleyball.
Lawdragon: That sounds awesome. Now, I know you’ve also announced that you’re stepping down. How has the past year affected your career plans? What’s next for you?
Dilg: Years ago, I pursued my degrees in law and theology to enter nonprofit leadership. I thought I had veered away from that when I became a real lawyer. But somehow I've come full circle. This has been an extraordinary year leading a staff of 1,800 with such deep dedication and talent to craft the future of a thriving community on a globally loved beach.
My next role will be to support my husband and 6-year-old son as we move across the country for public service on the East Coast. Once my son is settled in, I hope to be in a leadership role again. I don't know exactly what I’ll decide on that front; but I do know, coming out of this year, that my first love is my true love – working hand-in-hand with others to craft strong, thriving communities.
I recently asked a friend who works with women leaders, “How do I explain that I’m not looking for another job right away?” She gave me great advice: “Life is different now. Lean into the truth – you’re supporting your family, and you’ll be back.”
Lawdragon: I think she’s right. We perhaps don't need to be so linear as maybe we would have been required to be in the past. And leadership is obviously a thread running throughout your career that you can weave into whatever you decide to tackle next. How would you describe your leadership style?
Dilg: When I was in divinity school, I was trained in community organizing. In community organizing, your focus is never simply on a project or a specific goal you’re trying to achieve – instead, your work is always first and foremost about developing new leaders and community partnerships.
That really is, I think, the most important element of my leadership style: An organization’s strength never resides in a single person. Leadership is always about cultivating broad and deep leadership across the entire organization.
I’ve also quickly learned that decisiveness is critical. As a lawyer, you strive for perfection. As a chief executive, you make decisions based on imperfect information and then adapt and adjust as circumstances change.
And the last thing, I also learned in divinity school. That is the need really to look people in the eyes (even over Zoom) and say, "I see you, I know how hard this is. And we can do this together." That's what leaders across our essential workforce did each and every day of the pandemic.