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by Joe Piasecki

Santa Monica City Council members want a do-over. Last Tuesday, they voted 4-1 to place a measure on the November ballot that, they say, would simplify and streamline campaign finance law. Others, however, including a former state attorney general, believe the council is trying to "trash" voter-approved reforms that help curb corruption.

In 2000, 59 percent of Santa Monica voters passed Proposition LL, which at its most basic made it illegal for city officials to accept campaign contributions, gifts, or jobs from those who received the benefits of their votes on city contracts or other matters, such as building permits. Some have called it an anti-kickback law.

Rather than adopt Prop. LL, officials ordered City Clerk Maria Stewart not to certify the results of the election. Then they filed a lawsuit against her to test the new law in court, which they argued was unconstitutional in that it restricted potential donors from exercising free speech.

In 2001, more than 60 percent of Pasadena voters approved an identical law known as Measure B, and city officials there also refused to certify the election and chose to fight the initiative in court, a case that was eventually combined with Santa Monica's.

Last year, however, a state court of appeals ruled against the both cities' attempts to strike down the law, a decision that was upheld when the state Supreme Court refused to take the case. The loss cost the city more than $200,000 in fees paid to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), a Santa Monica-based consumer rights group who defended the law.

Pasadena officials, who spent more than $500,000 attacking the measure, were still not satisfied, arguing that the law was simply too complex when it came to tracking who was benefiting from city decisions, and was unfair to volunteer directors of nonprofits who don't personally benefit from city help to their organizations.

To help them implement the law, Pasadena City Council members convened the Task Force on Good Government, and appointed former Attorney General John Van de Kamp as its chair.

Late last month, the Pasadena City Council approved recommendations by the task force which, along with clarified tracking methods and nonprofit exemptions, actually strengthened the law by making it illegal for an official to accept any contributions from anyone applying for a city contract or development agreement until the deal is done. Those changes will also go before voters in November.

Van de Kamp said Santa Monica, however, has taken a much less-laudable action in dealing with the measure, one that undermines its reputation as a progressive city.

"They basically trashed Proposition LL and showed really utter disdain for campaign finance reform," said Van de Kamp, who had urged Santa Monica officials to take a page from Pasadena's playbook. "I'm disappointed, because I always thought Santa Monica has been considered a relatively progressive community and they're, I think, turning backwards," he added.

What Santa Monica City Council members chose to put before voters, according to Center for Governmental Studies President Bob Stern, does away with much of the intent of the original law. At its core a simple re-affirmation of state ethics rules, the council proposal does away with the basic anti-kickback provision and no longer restricts future employment or applies to all city decision-makers.

"I call it a tale of two cities - one city spending hundreds of hours looking at this and coming up with a plan to amend it, the other spending a few hours on a plan to repeal it. We'll see what the voters say," said Stern, who was hired by Pasadena as a consultant for the Task Force on Good Government.

Santa Monica Mayor Bob Holbrook, however, described Proposition LL as "a nightmare," and said he voted to get rid of its provisions because he felt them unfairly complex for elected officials and discouraging for others who might seek city office.

"The thing that's most troubling: If you cast a 'yes' vote for a project, then you disqualify yourself from accepting any donations from anyone who's ever involved in that project. But if you cast a 'no' vote, which may be very beneficial to someone who's opposed to the project - maybe it's another developer or a neighbor of the project - then there's no penalty," said Holbrook, a veteran council member who is running for reelection this fall.

Holbrook, who works as a pharmacist, said the restrictions of Proposition LL - also known as the Oaks Initiative after the Oaks Project, a group under FTCR that drafted it - were unnecessary, because the city already limits campaign contributions to $250 per candidate per election cycle.

"It's less than half-a-day's pay for me. You think someone's going to give me $250 and buy my vote?" asked Holbrook, who believes the initiative was something of a solution in search of a problem. "I've been elected for 24 years in the city of Santa Monica, and I've never seen any corruption by a City Council member."

In Pasadena, a task force recommendation to limit political donors to $1,000 per election cycle failed to get majority support.

Santa Monica City Council members Pam O'Connor, Herb Katz, and Richard Bloom joined Holbrook in voting to put a Proposition LL rewrite on the ballot, but did not return calls or could not be reached by press time.

"It's really important to take action on this measure now, because it's affecting us now," said Bloom at the meeting. He also argued that he couldn't afford to pay a professional treasurer enough to make sure he didn't run afoul of the law.

"The measure makes it more difficult to fund our own campaigns and shifts the balance of power to where nobody in Santa Monica would have us shift that balance," he said. "Do you want to encourage small, $250 contributions across the board, or shift the balance to hundreds of thousands of dollars [in independent expenditures] from people you don't know and can't identify?"

Kevin McKeown, the only council member to vote against scrapping Proposition LL, said he felt campaign finance reform should have been dealt with more holistically. Two weeks ago, McKeown, who is also running for reelection, sought to put public financing of elections on the ballot, but that motion failed to get a second among council members.

"The council refused to consider putting clean money on the ballot. So it surprised and disappointed me that they rushed this change to the Oaks Initiative before the voters in isolation," said McKeown.

Campaign finance reform "must include not only kickbacks, which the Oaks Initiative addresses, but also public financing of campaigns and how to track and report independent expenditures. In Santa Monica, independent expenditures by cloaked entities who don't reveal themselves to voters have historically been our biggest problem," he added, naming a recent campaign against living-wage laws orchestrated by local business interests.

Ironically, McKeown - who several years ago quit the California Green Party over a disagreement about the handling of political donations - benefits from the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, an independent expenditure organization that Holbrook claimed holds too much sway over city electoral politics.

Van de Kamp warned that keeping Proposition LL protection in place, at least for now, may be a safer approach in the long run.

"Basically, they walked away from this. One of these days there will be some problems there, the problems that are found at the foot of big money and attempts to influence elected officials by people with big money. While no system will ever totally prevent that, having a balanced, intelligent system intended to reduce that type of corruption makes good sense," he said.

Trashing Clean Votes

August 17, 2006

Former attorney general John Van de Kamp says

Santa Monica is trashing its anti-corruption bill