November 30 -- With the dust still settling after one
of the hardest-hitting and expensive elections in Santa Monica
history, a new dust-up began Tuesday when the City Council returned
to the highly divisive issue of how campaign money is raised,
spent and accounted for.
Keeping an election night promise, Council member Kevin McKeown
-- the target of a $100,000 campaign by local hotels -- sponsored
an item instructing staff to research and return with options
by early February 2007.
From fronting public dollars for campaigns and boosting community
outreach, to cleaning up a controversial anti-corruption law and
tackling the legally dicey issue of capping big money spent on
negative campaigns, council members began staking out their positions
early in a fight that could draw in every political force in Santa
"I'm not tonight proposing a plan, I'm proposing a process,"
said McKeown, a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR),
a big winner November 7, sweeping eight seats on the College and
School boards and hanging on to a one-seat council majority.
"I think there has been some concern raised on the part
of the community on how elections are conducted," said McKeown,
who was opposed in an unprecedented campaign on Cable TV. (see
Perhaps the most controversial proposal includes possibly reining
in groups that are not tied to candidates, including independent
expenditures and Political Action Committees (PAC). Such committees
spent more than $500,000 in the recent council race, thanks to
donations from the Edward Thomas Management Company, which owns
two beachfront hotels. (see
SMRR Council member Ken Genser -- who has been on the council
for 18 years -- supported exploring how such spending can be legally
tracked and finding ways to stop such groups from skirting Santa
Monica's stringent $250 campaign contribution limits in place
since the early 1990s.
"A new phenomenon is happening when an individual or individuals
form a PAC," Genser said. "I don't know what we can
do constitutionally, but we should look at that."
But Council member Bobby Shriver, among others, opposed restraining
PACs and independent expenditures.
"I can't support all” of the proposals, said Shriver
"I think the law is pretty settled in this area."
Shriver cited Buckley vs. Vellajo, a 1976 landmark Federal case
on campaign finance that found it is unconstitutional to limit
some forms of speech by individuals in elections, including the
use of expenditures that are paid for on a candidate's behalf
It would be a waste of time and money, Shriver said, to try and
scale back such spending.
"I'd rather have a citizen panel getting behind homelessness,"
said Shriver, who has been a leading force on the council when
it comes to homeless issues.
Shriver -- who raised some $260,000 in contributions under the
current $250 cap -- said the current limits are working.
"I have to say, when people come in and say they want to
reduce the influence of special interests, I have to say, 'I don't
know what you're talking about,'" Shriver said.
The expensive campaign attacking McKeown may have, in fact, backfired,
"To the extent that it's going on in Santa Monica, it isn't
working," he said.
Foreshadowing a future showdown on the issue, Genser said the
matter may not be as clear cut as many think.
"There's this area in between," said Genser. "What
about when a number of individuals form a PAC, can their contributions
Bob Stern, an expert on campaign finance law who heads the Center
for Governmental Studies, agreed that Genser may have a point.
"Genser's right, it is a gray area," Stern told The
Lookout after the meeting, adding that the issue has not
been fully settled in the courts.
While much of the discussion focused on limiting the influence
of PACs and independent expenditures, the council also prepared
to tackle an anti-corruption initiative passed in 2000 by local
voters known as the Oaks Initiative.
The law – implemented for the first time in 2006 after
the City battled the measure in court for six years – prohibits
incumbents from accepting gifts, jobs or cash, including contributions,
from members who may have benefited from a council member’s
However -- as a Lookout News investigation revealed
-- the law also prohibits contributions from non-profit board
members and volunteers who serve on City boards and commissions
that receive municipal funds. (see
Jean Ann Holbrook has threatened to test the law in court, after
being barred from contributing to the reelection campaign of her
husband, Mayor Bob Holbrook, because she serves on a board of
the Historical Society, which receives money from the City. (see
In an attempt to de-claw the measure, the council sponsored a
measure, Prop W, that failed at the polls.
"This month SM voter rejected prop W," said Carmen
Balber, an advocate at the Foundation for Consumers and Taxpayers
Rights. "You now have the chance to embrace the will of the
Instead of starting from scratch, Santa Monica should copy Pasadena,
which created a task force to implement an identical measure passed
by voters in 2000, said Balber, who worked on the campaign to
oppose Prop W.
"They did a lot of work on it and it is a very good starting
block," Balber said, noting that the council had the opportunity
last summer, before placing Prop W on the ballot, to make such
In addition to revamping Oaks, the council will also look at
the possibility of public financing for campaigns, though council
members said they would have the weigh the costs and benefits.
Forming a task force, or including members of the community will
be another option brought back to the council early next year.
While council members butted-heads on what reforms should be
included, they agreed hat comprehensive finance reform –
if it is truly going to be accomplished – must happen soon.
Several on the council and staff said they would push hard to put
something on the ballot by November of 2007, one year before the
next council race.
"This is the time to do it, as far away from a council election
as we can," said Genser.