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City Review of Santa Monica Election Law Addresses General Issues

 

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

March 22, 2018 -- A City Attorney review of Santa Monica’s election laws, ordered after a local hotel violated state election laws, does not weigh in on whether the City needs a separate probe but suggests steps to guard against possible violations in the future.

The City Council ordered the review in November in reaction to a $310,000 fine imposed by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) against the Huntley Hotel for disguising contributions to four council candidates and others in the 2012 and 2014 elections ("Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Facing $310,000 Fine for Concealing Contributions in 2012 and 2014 City Elections," August 8, 2017).

Findings in the City review do not specifically address some of the original concerns, such as whether candidates including Ted Winterer, now mayor, and incumbents Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, knew they were receiving contributions from Huntley in the names of others.

“The FPPC stipulations in this matter give no such indication,” said the report by City Attorney Lane Dilg and City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren, who also heads City records and election services.

“The FPPC had authority to investigate and find violations based on knowing receipt of unlawful contributions if any candidate was so aware,” the review said.

The item goes to the council at its meeting Tuesday.

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Among other regulations, the City’s election law prohibits any individual from making contributions totaling more than $340 to a candidate or controlled committee of a candidate in each election.

Candidates or their committees are also prohibited from receiving such contributions under the City law.

The review was ordered by the council in a politically energized atmosphere.

Brought to a vote by Council Members Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich -- both up for re-election in November -- the motion does not specify Huntley as a target ("Santa Monica City Council to Consider Probe of Possible Election-Law Violations," November 27, 2017).

Nonetheless, the review was ordered on the heel of letters calling for a City investigation of Huntley from the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, Santa Monica Forward and the League of Women Voters.

The three organizations are high-profile players in Santa Monica politics.

In any case, the resulting review makes no judgments of Huntley’s political wrongdoing in a longstanding campaign to undermine redevelopment plans for the rival Miramar Hotel.

It does, however, include a list of possible changes to the law.

To enforce the City’s Election Code, the council could create an “Election Law Commission,” the report said.

Staff does not recommend the move because “such Commissions lack the training and experience of career prosecutors and require appointment by City officials, reducing the ability to remove any appearance of bias.”

The council and public also could begin discussing public financing of campaigns.

The review notes four of the ten largest cities in California -- Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco -- have some form of a public financing grant or matching programs.

Smaller cities with some form of public financing include Richmond, where voters approved a measure in 2012, and Berkeley, ushered in by voters in 2016.

On the list as well is either increasing or eliminating the current $340 per person limit on total contributions.

The report said the staff has previously suggested both possibilities.

“The majority of local jurisdictions in California do not have campaign contribution limits," staff said.

It noted that the courts "invalidate limits that are so low as to interfere with a candidate's ability to communicate her or his views.”

 


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