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Santa Monica Council to Delve into Public Campaign Financing After Elections


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

March 29, 2018 -- Santa Monica City Council members said Tuesday they want to delve into public financing for City races after the November election, one of several steps being explored to prevent violations of local election laws.

In the meantime, the council said it would rely on outside prosecutors to investigate allegations of violating the City’s election code -- a move that help would avoid conflict of interest issues for Santa Monica’s City Attorney’s Office.

It also asked for more communication with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state watchdog organization which in August fined the Huntley Hotel $310,000 for disguising its campaign contributions to City Council candidates in the 2012 and 2014 local elections.

Although it has the authority, the FPPC did not address the issue of whether any of the candidates -- including several current incumbents -- were aware the Huntley was making contributions under the names of others, and then reimbursing them.

The illegal contributions were part of an effort by Huntley to fight expansion plans by rival Miramar Hotel ("Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Facing $310,000 Fine for Concealing Contributions in 2012 and 2014 City Elections," August 8, 2017).

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It ended up before the council in November, when several pro-growth groups asked for an investigation of whether the Huntley also violated the City’s election law ("Santa Monica City Council to Consider Probe of Possible Election-Law Violations," November 27, 2017).

The council ordered a review of the Huntley case by the City Attorney’s Office and whether the City’s election laws needed more protection and stronger enforcement ("City Review of Santa Monica Election Law Addresses General Issues," March 22, 2018).

Among the findings, City Attorney Lane Dilig said violations of City election laws are misdemeanors, but that the one-year statute of limitations had already lapsed.

“We really don’t have much we can do” about the questions still swirling around the Huntley issue, said Council Member Kevin McKeown. “The time has passed for us to take action.”

Pro-active measures, including creating an Election Law Commission, increasing or eliminating the $340 per-contribution limit and instituting public campaign are thorny issues that council members said shouldn’t be tackled until after the November election.

Some of the proposals have already won the support of the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a local citizen’s watchdog group.

“We think increasing or eliminating campaign contribution limits is the best option since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has resulted in unlimited contributions to PACs,” Mary Marlow, the organization's chair, wrote in an email to the council.

“Public financing simply can’t compete with union and corporate donors with deep pockets,” Marlow wrote. “Unless most candidates opt into public financing, the option becomes a liability for candidates competing against better-funded opponents and/or incumbents."

Marlow said said it costs between $150,000 and $200,000 to compete in a Council race, with half of the amount contributed by PACS with no contribution limits.

"This gap in contribution allowances makes PACs and their special interests contributors a primary factor in who gets elected," Transparency's letter said.

“This dynamic needs to be changed. Increasing the cap on contributions to candidates to $4200 would match the limits on state legislators and empower candidate committees,” Marlow wrote.


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