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Chamber Forum a Rally for the Insiders

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

October 15 -- Held in an auto dealership showroom Wednesday evening, the Chamber of Commerce's candidates forum resembled more a campaign rally and fundraiser than one of the election year's hottest debates.

With the annual pre-election event restricted to only the City Council and School and College Board candidates who received the group's first-ever endorsements, there was little room for disagreement. Other than one sticking point between two College Board candidates, few records were challenged or differences of opinion expressed.

The forum -- held in the Santa Monica Lexus showroom -- showcased the four chamber-endorsed City Council candidates, who praised each other and spoke of working together to wrest control of the council from the tenants' group that has long controlled city government.

"We really need to all pull together," said candidate Matteo Dinolfo, who ran as an independent in 2002. "The strategy is not to rotate one seat so we can keep a 5 to 2 minority."

Dinolfo added that the powerful tenants' group Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights would run a campaign in which they told "half-truths about their candidates."

"I feel the city government, especially the majority on the City Council, has just simply lost touch with what you really want," he said.

Candidate Kathryn Morea said the four chamber candidates had a chance to "let people go in front of the City Council and not already know what they're going to say and that the decision is already made."

Chamber Chair Nathaniel Trives, who moderated the debate, interspersed plugs for campaign donations with the questions.

"We will be known as an impotent chamber if we don't support our candidates," he told the three dozen chamber members present.

Trives asked the council candidates only two questions, one on school funding and one on tourism. They agreed almost entirely on both issues.

All four said they supported the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), a group of education activists that pressured the City Council into striking a long-term funding agreement with the school district last year by threatening to place a school funding measure on the ballot.

"This City can afford and should afford to continue giving to our schools," incumbent candidate Herb Katz said. "I thank CEPS for what they did."

Candidate Bobby Shriver, nephew of John F. Kennedy, said he had been swayed by CEPS when he invited its members to his house to brief him about their work.

"I was so scared of them after forty minutes that I would have done anything they told me," he said.

Shriver, who is the brother in law of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, encouraged CEPS to use its persuasive power to lobby the State for better school funding.

"There's no reason there shouldn't be more pressure on the State to put up some money," Shriver said. "Meanwhile, of course, the agreement (with the City) needs to be executed and funded."

Asked whether they favored giving more money to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the candidates were in near, but not perfect, agreement.

Dinolfo, Katz and Morea said the City should spend more to promote tourism, noting that visitor dollars allow the City to fund public schools and other programs.

"We need to promote tourism because that's where we can really get something done, where we can really increase our budget," Katz said.

Shriver did not reject the idea of increasing funding for the Visitors Bureau but answered the question by saying that solving the city's homeless problem was key to making tourists want to visit Santa Monica.

The only real point of contention between two candidates came during the College Board forum, when challenger Doug Willis and incumbent Margaret Quinones debated what accreditation rating the college had achieved this year.

Willis, who has joined the five other challengers in charging Quinones and the other current board members with mishandling Santa Monica College's budget, said the school received a weak rating, but Quinones insisted SMC had been rated "outstanding."

A review of the March 2004 accreditation report reveals that the accreditation team did praise the college on some counts, but the word "outstanding" appears only once, when the report states, "The tuition international students pay helps support Santa Monica College in its efforts to recruit and retain an outstanding faculty and support staff."

The report goes on to state that there are "several serious problems" at SMC but the college was not out of compliance with any standards. It does not indicate that any overall rating -- outstanding or otherwise -- was given.





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