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Santa Monica League of Women Voters Accused of Bias for Opposing LUVE Slow-Growth

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

This article has been updated to reflect that The League of Women Voters Board voted on May 31 not June 4 and that Santa Monica Forward was established to counter the slow-growth movement.

June 8, 2016 -- The League of Women Voters of Santa Monica voted last weekend to oppose a ballot initiative that puts many development decisions in the hands of local voters, triggering accusations of bias because some of the group's officials belong to an organization opposing the measure.

During its June 4 annual meeting, the League’s Board of Directors announced the board had unanimoualy decided on May 31 to oppose the Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative (LUVE), according to Barbara Inatsugu, who was elected president of the chapter at the meeting.

The initiative “would not result in an increase in transparency, engagement, voter empowerment, responsiveness, accountability and democratic process in the City of Santa Monica,” the announcement of the decision on the group’s website said.

Backers of the measure quickly accused the league’s Board of Directors of a conflict of interest because several of its members belong to Santa Monica Forward, a group established last year to counter the slow-growth movement.

“It’s completely biased,” said Armen Melkonians, who heads Residocracy, the slow-growth group behind the measure. “It was rigged -- the vote was stacked against us. We were never even invited to debate the issue.”

“Unfortunately, this is the state of our democracy and it is time for a change,” he added in a Facebook post.

Supporters said they were taken aback by the League's unanimous decision to oppose the measure, given the group's reputation for impartiality.

Inatsugu said Santa Monica’s chapter has staked positions on other ballot measures, including opposing an aviation-backed initiative in November 2014.

“Some people who were very supportive of the process we used then are now upset by the same process,” Inatsugu said.

Inatsugu would not release the names of the league’s entire board, which she said has about a dozen members.

“It’s not a secret. But they may not be aware” of the questions now arising about the League’s impartiality. “Maybe I’m over-protective. I need to contact them.”

A search by The Lookout of League officials posted on the group's contact page found that at least four are prominent members of Santa Monica Forward, which last month established a campaign committee opposing LUVE.

Three of those officials -- Sharon Hart, Joanne Leavitt and Natalya Zernitskaya -- have signed Santa Monica Forward opinion pieces that have appeared in the local press. Former City Council candidate Frank Gruber, another of the group's officials and a former columnist with the Lookout, is prominently listed on Forward's website.

Gruber told The Lookout that he was absent from the meeting and the vote.

Inatsugu acknowledged that “three or four” League board members belong to Santa Monica Forward and said that one board member offered to resign “because she knew what it looked” like in terms of a possible conflict of interest.

“But we asked her not to because it’s a clean (impartial) process,” Inatsugu said. “We knew what we would do would be policy-based decision making.”

The Santa Monica League’s decision to oppose LUVE was preceded by two hours of discussion and was based on months of study on the complex initiative’s language that resulted in a 15-page final report, Inatsugu said.

She said the report is not publicly available at this time.

A link to a two-page statement outlining the decision and the reasoning behind the study was posted on the League's website, but the link is not active.

Inatsugu said the website is undergoing several changes and that the link does not work yet.

The League of Women Voters, a nationwide organization with about 800 state and local chapters, is non-partisan and as such does not endorse political parties or candidates, according to League officials.

It does, however, engage in voter education and in advocacy on various issues at the national, state and local levels, according to officials.

In 2014, the League opposed Measure D, an aviation-backed initiative that would have required voters to approve major changes to Santa Monica Airport, and supported Measure LC, which it said would "enable the City to retain its governmental power as spelled out in the City Charter.”

In a letter explaining the League's decision in 2014 to take a position on D, LC and three other ballot measures, then president Ann Williams said that the organization "is political."

"Although the League is strictly non-partisan and never supports or opposes individual candidates, our organization is political, and does advocate for or against policies based on principles we have arrived at through study and consensus," she wrote in a statement released a month before the election.

In 2002, the League came under fire when it opposed a ballot initiative that would have created seven election districts giving neighborhoods a chance to elect representatives to the City Council.

Paul DeSantis, a sponsor of the measure, said that by opposing Proposition HH, known as the Veritas initiative, group officials were "shirking the League's traditions of fairness."

League members in general tend to be active in other community and political, organizations, Inatsugu said. But the League’s board members are required by overall League rules to decide stances based on already agreed-upon policies on basic issues like good governance, traffic, land use and the environment.

Deciding to advocate against the measure was strictly optional for the League, Inatsugu said. The League could have limited itself to explaining to voters what LUVE’s provisions include. But the board decided the issue was too far-reaching to not become involved with its future, she said.

“They (LUVE supporters) have every right to go to ballot, and we have every right to a civil discussion before the ballot.”

Last month, Santa Monica Forward was one of two group's that filed paperwork with the City to form a campaign committee to oppose LUVE. The other is called Housing and Opportunity for a Modern Economy (HOME) Both are expected to receive donations from Santa Monica developers ("Campaigns Against Santa Monica LUVE Initiative Form," May 25, 2016).

The LUVE initiative is a reaction to what Residocracy sees as the rampant overdevelopment of Santa Monica. (“Residocracy Vies to Become a Political Force in Santa Monica,” May 5, 2014).

If adopted, the measure would generally require new developments higher than 32 feet to go to voters for approval, instead of giving the City Council the final say. Major changes to City planning policies and “development agreements” would also require voter approval.

Affordable and moderate-income housing developments would be exempted from LUVE, as well as projects that are 100 percent senior citizen housing and single-unit dwellings.

More than 10,000 signatures supporting the measure were submitted to LA County elections officials, who qualified the measure for the ballot late last month("Santa Monica LUVE Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot," June 1, 2016).

The City Council has until late July to adopt the measure or place it on the November ballot.

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report.

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