By Olin Ericksen
March 15 -- For the first time in 15 years, Santa
Monicans are going to have a serious talk about money and
After flirting with launching discussions on whether to grant
millions in public financing for council candidates, the City
Council Tuesday opted instead to take a step back and let
the community dissect the city's larger electoral process
in coming months
At a time when record amounts of money are being pumped into
local elections through independent expenditures, Tuesday's
5 to 1 vote means residents and council members will weigh
in on plans to carve out public funds for campaigns.
But in addition to the controversial proposal, other issues
-- including some long-held concerns of council members --
will also be up for community and council debate.
"I think we should throw the doors open to everything,"
suggested Council member Herb Katz, whose motion to explore
diverse issues ultimately prevailed.
Under the motion, council members and residents may revisit
individual contribution limits to campaigns, which were reduced
in 1992 to $250, down from an average that year of $1,491,
according to City records.
Laws governing how non-profits and political action committees
operated during last November’s race for three open
council seats will be more closely examined by the City Attorney's
Office and weighed by the public.
Last year, the average funds spent by groups not associated
with a campaign skyrocketed from $16,167 among six candidates
in 2002, to nearly $136,424 among five candidates last year,
the City Clerk report showed.
Katz's competing motion trumped Council member Kevin McKeown's,
which would have used a City staff report establishing as
much as $100,000 in public financed money for City Council
candidates as a starting point for community talks.
McKeown began pushing for campaign finance reform shortly
after facing of a barrage of negative television ads, mailers
and even DVD door-hangers paid for by independent expenditures
and Political Action Committees (PAC).
Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities (SMSP), bankrolled
by the owners of two luxury beachfront hotels, became a key
player in local politics, opposing an unprecedented living
law that failed at the polls six years ago and targeting McKeown
A member of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, which holds
a one-vote majority on the council, McKeown had been a major
player in the push for a living wage law that covered businesses,
such as hotels, with no direct financial ties to the city.
Some political observers saw Katz's counter motion as a way
to steer the council towards a more watered down finance law.
"I'm happy that there were at least four votes to move
the process ahead, however, the motion's overall lack of specificity
may have been a step backwards," said former mayor Michael
Feinstein, who won as a SMRR-backed candidate in 1996 and
2000, but lost his seat in 2004, when he ran an independent
"That means the workshops can be taken off-track by
any number of factors or individuals with strong voices or
personal agendas -- and this is too important a topic to leave
to that kind of chance," Feinstein said.
While there are differences, most council members agree that
too much money is being poured into local politics by both
SMRR, which raises more than $100,000 every election year
in individual $250 contributions, and SMSP, which raised and
spent some $400,000 on last year’s race.
"I think that it's a problem that the public would like
us to address," said council member Richard Bloom of
the negative campaigning and flood of independent expenditures.
But council members remain skeptical that public financing
would limit the role of such groups, despite the urging of
all five neighborhood groups, the Center for Governmental
Studies, Common Cause and the Foundation for Consumers and
"I'm not sure it's going to get us where we need to
go," said Katz.
Several council members argued that Federal rulings since
the landmark 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act do not allow
regulation of spending limits for independent expenditures
for mailers and other campaign related issues made by groups
not tied to candidates.
"Whether a Renters' Rights political action committee
or a hotel political action committee, we can't change that,"
Proponents of public financing said using government dollars
would help level the playing field, discouraging groups from
spending as much because they know their attacks can be countered.
It would also result in a diversity of candidates, lower
the chance of corruption and give candidates more time to
talk about the issues, proponents said.
But other council members -- including Bobby Shriver and
Bob Holbrook -- worry that such a system could actually increase
the amount of money in politics, if several candidates decide
to opt for public campaign funds.
The council could decide to take up the issue of public financing
-- which could be placed before voters as a ballot measure
-- after the next General City Council election in 2008.
"I think you all need to look at this without looking
at your own election," said former mayor Dennis Zane,
a co-founder of SMRR.
Although he said he does not believe the spending in the
last election was "corrupt," he did think “it's
While some openly questioned the motivations behind the drive
to change the local campaign laws, McKeown said he the issue
of the increasing role of money needs to be addressed.
"It's not about me, it's not about any one of us…its
about political sustainability," he said.