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This Thing Called Democracy

By Frank Gruber

May 16, 2011 -- You can’t beat local government for putting the focus on the big issues of how we govern ourselves, and this past week in Santa Monica was no exception.

Take Police Chief Timothy Jackman’s interdepartmental memo to City Manager Rod Gould, which came out last week. ("Memo on Santa Monica Police Reforms Published," May 16, 2011) This is apparently what the two of them intend will constitute the report that they promised in February to detail the Police Department’s response to the recommendations in the OIR Group’s report about last year’s botched police investigation of School Board Member Oscar de la Torre. ("Santa Monica City Council City de la Torre Reort," ebruary 24, 2011)

The memo is written in bland bureaucratese despite the fact that it deals with one of the more explosive political situations to arise in Santa Monica in recent years. It doesn’t answer the central issue of the case: what will the police do the next time they have the opportunity to investigate a local politician or activist who has opposed them politically?

But it is hard to fault Messrs. Gould and Jackman. They, in our city manager form of government, are trained to think and behave non-politically, even though they operate in a political world, where, for instance, the police union is a major player in local politics. (These days the power of municipal unions is usually a Republican issue -- but that’s a topic for another day.)

Imagine what the situation would be in the City of Los Angeles, which is run by a mayor not a city manager, if the police investigated a controversial politician like Mr. De la Torre -- the issue would be political, as it should be, not some kind of administrative matter.

I've written a number of columns about this case and I haven’t even mentioned the name of the investigator who went after Mr. De la Torre. He is not important. What is important is whether the City Council is going to ensure that the police department operates within the control of elected government or outside of it.

* * *

As if wondering about the limits of politics wasn’t enough in the political science department last week, the City Council conducted a fascinating discussion at its meeting Tuesday night about limits on campaign donations. ("Campaign Contribution imits Removed for Independent Committees," May 13, 2011)

The issue is a classic: the friction point where the First Amendment rubs up against a sense that politics should be fair and not dominated by money -- its “mother’s milk” in the famous words of Jesse Unruh. Last year in the Citizens United case the Supreme Court overturned a century of law and expanded the First Amendment rights of corporations to contribute to independent campaigns.

In response to that case and other developments, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie asked the council to revise the City’s laws on campaign financing by eliminating the restrictions on contributions to independent committees (to make the law consistent with Citizens United) and by increasing the limit on direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns from the $250 limit set in 1992 to $400 (to take inflation into account).

The five members of the council who were present at the meeting last week could agree on eliminating the limits on contributions to independent committees, but could not agree on raising the $250 limit; they will now wait until all seven council members are present at a meeting to resolve that. The discussion should be a good one.

As Council Member Bobby Shriver pointed out, there’s a problem if it is easier for independent committees to raise money for campaigns than it is for candidates themselves. Mr. Shriver’s point was that this makes it harder for independent candidates to raise money for themselves to run against entrenched interests -- whether those interests are Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (which operates as an independent committee) or, say, the hotels or other business interests.

There is also a problem with independent committees because the candidate can lose control of his or her message. In Santa Monica politics, there has been a history that independent campaigns can embarrass candidates more than they help them.

As I see it, there are more difficulties with a small number of donors than with a lot of money. If a candidate receives large donations from a few donors, I’m more concerned than if he or she receives large donations from a lot of donors. But how to legislate about that, I have no idea.

In Santa Monica, it seems that the low maximum makes it difficult for any candidate to generate money for an independent campaign. It’s true that the low maximum means that a candidate hoping to run an independent campaign must tap into a large number of donors, but in practice that means the candidate needs to link up with political advisors who have run campaigns before in Santa Monica and have lists of donors.

One way or another, whether candidates have money or can keep the opposition from getting it, Big Daddy Unruh was right.

* * *

As for the City’s plans to develop the real estate it has acquired on Arizona Avenue between Fourth and Fifth, the topic I wrote about last week, the council members discussed the project at their meeting and made a number of good points, but what they said raised as many questions as they answered. Questions that will come up in June when city staff presents their alternatives analysis.

But in the meantime, some second thoughts. Last week I wondered about the rent AMC will pay to the City for the site on Fourth (the current site of Parking Structure 3) where AMC will build new movie theaters. The column came out on Monday and then on Tuesday as if to rebut my implication that AMC should pay a lot, the L. A. Times ran a story about a deal to bring new Laemmle movie theaters to North Hollywood.

According to the Times, “The developer of the North Hollywood Redevelopment Program, J.H. Snyder Co., contributed land and parking for the theater as well as nearly $500,000 in development funding. Snyder also secured city entitlements for the project and provided Laemmle Theatres with a $2.6-million construction loan.” And that wasn’t all; the L.A. Redevelopment Agency had previously given Snyder the three acres of land that included the theater site.

So maybe theaters are such a loss leader that mall owners – and let’s face it, downtown the City acts like a mall owner -- will do anything to get them. Call it the kind of socialism businesses like.

One interesting idea that came out of the council meeting was Council Member Gleam Davis’ suggestion to extend the downtown parking district east from its present boundary, the alley between Fourth and Fifth. Her idea was that if owners of properties east of the alley could be assessed to build more parking at the Arizona site, and then not be obligated to build on-site parking, that might encourage them to develop the lots there that are currently empty.

Extending the district is a good idea, but the City has already built parking underground nearby -- the parking that is underneath the main library. The library parking was expensive and goes largely unused. Why not use that parking for the extended district and save some money?

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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