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Election Spurs Challenges to Campaign Finance Laws

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 13 -- A stringent anti-corruption law narrowly survived the City Council’s stab at weakening it at the ballot box Tuesday, but will it stand up in court against a challenge by the mayors’ wife?

One day after 53 percent of Santa Monicans voted against watering down the Oaks Initiative -- a controversial campaign finance law that bars officeholders from receiving cash, jobs or gifts from persons who benefit from their actions -- there are rumblings of a lawsuit.

Jean Ann Holbrook – married 40 years to the City’s newly reelected council member and current Mayor, Bob Holbrook – was one of nearly 20 contributors whose check could not be cashed because she sits on the board of a non-profit group or City board that receives funding from the City.

“I don’t think that because I volunteer, I can’t support my husband,” Jean Ann Holbrook told The Lookout last week. “I lost my constitutional rights to fully participate in this election.”

As a board member of the Santa Monica Historical Society – which currently is leasing “valuable space” at the new public library and receives a city grant – Holbrook had to return the $250 donation she made to her husband’s campaign.

To make sure they were abiding by the letter of the law, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie advised incumbent candidates that any volunteer on a non-profit board or City board or commission that receives money from the City cannot contribute to an incumbent who voted for the funding.

The three incumbents in Tuesday’s race for three open council seats had to return nearly $6,000 in campaign contributions under the Oaks Initiative, which the City fought in court until abiding by its provisions in the recent election, according to an analysis by The Lookout.

Now the Holbrooks – who have been heavily involved in local politics for a quarter century – said they may attempt to nullify the measure passed by local voters in 2000.

“We may take this all the way,” Mayor Holbrook said. “We are talking very seriously about a lawsuit.”

If filed, the City would find itself defending a law it spent nearly four years and $400,000 trying to overturn on constitutional grounds.

In an effort to overturn the measure – which has been implemented with changes in Pasadena -- the City took the unusual step of suing its own City clerk. But an Appeals Court decided not hear the case, in part because it did not feel harm had been inflicted on a member of the public – a concept generally referred to as “standing.”

“This would certainly give her standing,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said of Holbrook’s contemplated suit. “While it is not unprecedented, it is unusual for the City to be in this position.”

Moutrie said it would be her office’s duty to defend the law it fought hard against in court.

Given its past legal battle, the City may consider hiring outside counsel to defend Oaks, Moutrie said.

”We’d have to give it some thought… if this office is capable of giving a defense,” Moutrie said.

Supporters of the Oaks Initiative, which fended off a City Council measure that garnered 47 percent of the vote without a campaign, encouraged voters to keep the law intact in Santa Monica.

“By and large, the law is working the way it is supposed to,” said Carmen Balber of Election Watchdog, which opposed the City sponsored measure. “The next step is strong enforcement.”

Balber said she had not confirmed if the returned contributions were from city volunteers and non-profits that receive grants from the City, something that was not intended in the spirit of the law.

“I’m skeptical of the examples that are being cited,” said Balber, who is also an advocate with the non-profit Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumers Rights based in Santa Monica.

“In no way does it bar volunteer commissioners from contributing,” she said of he current law.

However, the City Attorney’s office believes the provisions of the Oaks Initiative are clear.

“Anybody who receives a benefit or a contract, including grants… contributions from those individuals cannot be accepted by the candidate,” said Assistant City Attorney Joe Lawrence.

Holbrook is not the only candidate calling for election finance reform. Council member Kevin McKeown, who weathered a barrage of negative ads bankrolled with independent expenditures, also is talking about changing campaign finance laws.

“The reform I’m looking to do is to make it easier to for the residents of Santa Monica to follow the money and for there to be some better accountability as to where political expenditures come from and how they are used here in our local elections,” McKeown said.

Like Holbrook and fellow SMRR incumbent Pam O’Connor, who was also reelected Tuesday, McKeown was forced to return contributions under the Oaks Initiative, in his case two checks totaling $500.

“I don’t think the Oaks Initiative is perfect, in fact it has some serious flaws,” said McKeown, who voted against placing the council-sponsored measure on the ballot.

The current law, McKeown said, should be tackled within the context of larger campaign finance reform, a move lauded by the City Attorneys’ office.

McKeown said he would call for a community task force to study ways to limit contributions by independent expenditure and political action committees, which unlike individual contributions capped at $250, have no limits.

“Among the things the package would do is clarify the donation limits, which work wonderfully on individuals, but do not hold political action committees and independent expenditures accountable,” he said.

While leery of endorsing such reform outright because it could be unconstitutional, Holbrook said he would favor of limiting PAC contributions.

“But that includes Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights,” Holbrook said, referring to the powerful renters’ group that backed McKeown in his election.

(SMRR receives contributions from individuals of no more than $250.)

Holbrook would also be for better reporting the identity of those behind a campaign ad, he said.

In last week’s election, Holbrook, along with Planning Commissioner Terry O’Day, were backed by Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities (SMSP), a PAC bankrolled by the Edward Thomas Management Company, which also used independent expenditures to oppose McKeown.

The company – which owns two beachfront hotels -- spent more than $500,000 on the council race, according to campaign finance disclosure statements.

Yet the problem is that much of the campaign was negative, Holbrook said.

“I think there was a backlash vote against Terry and I,” he said. “People were tired of the attacks.

“I don’t think they understand Santa Monica voters at all,” he said. “They are probably some professional consultants from somewhere in California.”

“We have a really saavy electorate here,” Holbrook said.

In the wake of Tuesday’s race, local officials are expected to tackle campaign finance reform – including talk of publicly financed elections – and possibly revisit the Oaks Initiative, thanks, possibly, to a little bit of help from the Mayors’ wife.





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