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Council to Explore Public Campaign Financing

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 13 -- With local election spending rising dramatically since 2002, a divided City Council Tuesday night will debate the cost of carving out large chunks of public funding for candidates who want it.

Anyone vying for a seat on the City Council could qualify for $100,000 or more in City seed and matching grant money under the staff-drafted plan -- provided they can privately raise at least $3,000 and then only use public funds.

Meant to level the political playing field, the plan could cost the City as much as $1.8 million each election year, perhaps more, according to staff estimates.

Although the voters may ultimately weigh in at the polls, the council is scheduled to decide whether to move forward with the hotly debated issue just months after one of the hardest-hitting and most expensive elections in the city's history.

"Our concern has to be political sustainability," said Council member Kevin McKeown, who helped launch the initiative after a tough re-election bid last fall.

"I want to help create a system where it's easier for voters to ‘follow the money’ from special interests, and where a more level playing field discourages massive outside spending on deceptive attacks," he said.

The staff proposal would likely diversify the field of candidates and give those running for office more time to talk to voters about issues, since they wouldn’t need to focus on building campaign war chests, proponents said.

Tuesday’s vote will not likely be unanimous, with some council members questioning the cost of the proposed plan and the effectiveness of public campaign financing currently used in only two other cities.

"I'm going to have to be convinced on this," said Council member Bob Holbrook, who, like McKeown, was reelected to another four-year term in November. "I'm very concerned about the cost. It could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Proponents hope the reform will stem the increasing use of independent expenditures by non-profit groups and individuals not affiliated with a campaign, who avoid the $250 cap on individual contributions to candidates under local election law.

McKeown was the target of negative cable television ads bankrolled with independent expenditures by Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities, as well as a letter to voters from the head of the Edward Thomas Company, which runs two luxury beachfront hotels.

The independent expenditures helped boost the amount of money spent by groups not affiliated with a campaign from an average of $16,167 in 2002 to nearly $136, 424 last November, according to an analysis by City staff.

Such spending is on the rise in California and the nation, according to campaign finance expert Steven Levin, political reform project director for the Center for Governmental studies.

"It's a good starting point," Levin said of the staff proposal he plans to push for Tuesday night.

While proponents said public financing could discourage groups that use independent expenditures to outspend their opponents, there is no guarantee in politics, Levin and others agreed.

"There is a lot of talk in Santa Monica about independent expenditure being a big problem, and the clean money reforms are one of the ways to make change, but it’s not a silver bullet," Levin said.

In fact, some, including Holbrook, believe the public financing model may only boost the amount of money spent on elections in Santa Monica to record levels.

"I don't think the financing is a disincentive at all," he said.

Not only does Holbrook worry the measure would drain City funds and possibly impact City programs, he is concerned candidates could work the system.

"I talked to one guy who said he would use the money to throw a political party for himself," Holbrook said.

Although audits would be performed to make sure the money is used legally, at least one reported case of abuse has already occurred in Portland, according to Levin.

Former Mayor Michael Feinstein -- who has run as both an independent candidate and on the slate of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) -- backs the proposal.

"Right now, the only people who can run viable City Council campaigns -- other than the independently wealthy -- are those who can win the blessings of local key political players who, behind the scenes, direct the influential independent expenditure committees in this city," he said. (see letter)

"Elections are not only about which candidates win and lose -- they are also about the entire community discussing its direction," said Feinstein who lost reelection in 2004.

"I don't see this as a gift of public funds for candidates,” he said. “Rather, I see this it as a public investment for the community."







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