Independent Groups Push for Change at City Hall
By Susan Reines
October 26 -- Thanks to two new well-heeled groups, candidates challenging the City Council majority have received unprecedented support and publicity this year, and more money keeps flowing to help them wrest control of City Government from Santa Monica’s powerful tenants group.
While the first-ever Chamber of Commerce endorsements gave the four candidates challenging Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) the business community’s blessing, it has been two new groups – Santa Monicans for Change and Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities – that are doing the grunt work of campaigning for the business slate.
With the chamber only urging its members to contribute to the endorsed candidates' campaigns, it is the two independent committees that have sent out a slew of mailers promoting the four candidates and criticizing a council controlled by SMRR, which has run City government for most of the past 25 years.
Chamber President Kathy Dodson said the chamber decided it would collect more money for its candidates by urging its members to contribute the maximum allowed under City law -- $250 -- to each candidate, rather than creating a committee to advocate for the entire slate, in which case members would only have been allowed to give $250 to the slate as a whole.
"We've been publicizing it very much to our members, which is what we're legally allowed to do” without setting up an independent expenditure committee, Dodson said. "It's on the front page of our newsletter; we're sending weekly updates. We thought that it was better and more cost effective for members to give their $250 to each candidate."
Dodson has repeatedly denied any coordination between the chamber and the two groups that emerged shortly before the November 2 election, but she did say she welcomed the help.
"By promoting the candidates to the local businesses over and over again, we're hoping that they'll take it upon themselves to set up yard signs, and maybe some of them will set up independent committees," she said. "I've heard that there are more out there that are going to be gearing up, and I hope that that's true."
Mailers sent out by Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities have blasted the current City Council, and its SMMR majority in particular, for allegedly being out of touch with its constituents and the real problems facing the city.
As a non-profit "nonpartisan organization," rather than a political action committee, the group is not required to reveal its members or how much it has raised until after the election. However, it also cannot back candidates or take positions on election issues.
That task has fallen to Santa Monicans for Change, which is reportedly comprised of many of the same business owners. As an independent expenditure committee, the group is helping the chamber candidates more directly, sending canvassers to walk precincts and distributing mailers urging voters to choose chamber-endorsed candidates Herb Katz, Bobby Shriver, Kathryn Morea and Matteo Dinolfo.
The two-week-old group made waves in the election last week with its first mailer, which promoted Shriver, the nephew of John F. Kennedy, and incumbent Katz. Shriver quickly moved to distance himself from the business community’s backing, issuing a press release that stated, "My candidacy is not part of any slate, nor have I endorsed any other City Council candidate."
Santa Monicans for Change, which has received $170,000 from the owners of Shutters on the Beach Hotel and Hotel Casa del Mar, has now decided to push all four of the chamber candidates, the group's founder said.
"Originally we were looking to narrowly focus our efforts because a lot of the people who formed the group were very supportive of Bobby and of Herb," founder Seth Jacobson said. "But we've gotten so much good feedback from residents and voters that we decided to take on additional candidates."
The group is also campaigning for Measure S, the $135 million Santa Monica College bond to renovate facilities and acquire land.
Jacobson said Santa Monicans for Change had grown rapidly since it was formed October 11.
In addition to major backers ET Whitehall Seascape and Edward Thomas Management, the companies that own Shutters and Casa del Mar, smaller businesses like Patty's Pizza and the Marmalade Café and about 30 individuals have joined, Jacobson said, making the group large enough to deploy 100 canvassers to walk door-to-door this week.
Jacobson is not a Santa Monica resident but owns property and has business offices in Santa Monica. His Jacobson Communications Inc. is a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Asked why he began an advocacy group in Santa Monica, Jacobson said members of the tourism industry, for whom he had done marketing and publicity in the past, approached him, saying they were not happy with the status quo.
"Essentially, coming off of the elections four years ago there was a lot of concern by the business community about the future of Santa Monica and what was going to happen," Jacobson said.
"The business community had sort of come together to decide how they were going to develop new strategies for the future of the city. And they tried to work with the existing SMRR-dominated council, and it just hasn't worked."
The group's mission, Jacobson said, is to elect council members who would focus on homelessness and education funding, rather than on minor zoning issues he said have occupied the current council.
Mayor Richard Bloom, who received SMRR’s backing in his re-election bid, said he believed the group's real goal was more political -- and linked to the chamber.
"This is about political power," he said. "The Chamber of Commerce and the development community want to control the next council.
“And one of the main reasons for that is the next council is going to control the revisions to the land use element, which is going to control development for the next couple of decades, and if they get their hands on that, they're probably going to do things very differently than we would," Bloom said.
Two letters that appeared on mailers sent by the two groups criticizing the current council were signed by people Bloom said he had known for years and had never complained about City government.
"There is a puzzle here, but there's just no question in my mind that they've gone out of their way to obscure what the real linkup is, and that, in my opinion, is individuals within the chamber who are anxious to not appear as if they are the chamber," the mayor said.
"And they may get away with it,” Bloom said. “When you're really, really sneaky, sometimes you get away with it."
Bloom speculated that the chamber influence is running through the new groups, both of which have been linked to Jacobson and other chamber activists.
He noted that the groups have cast themselves as separate entities, but, in an apparent slip-up, Santa Monicans for Change recently listed the name and address of Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities on the bottom of its website before correcting the information.
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