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Council Votes to Explore Alternatives to Public Financing for Campaigns

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 15 -- For the first time in 15 years, Santa Monicans are going to have a serious talk about money and politics.

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 last year.

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 campaign.

"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 Taxpayers Rights.

"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," said Katz.

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 been excessive."

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.


"I think we should throw the doors open to everything."
Herb Katz


r"It's not about me, it's not about any one of us… its about political sustainability."
Kevin McKeown



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