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
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
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
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
“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,”
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’
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,”
While leery of endorsing such reform outright because it could
be unconstitutional, Holbrook said he would favor of limiting
“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
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
“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
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’