Ballot Item Proposed To Restrain Special Interests

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Citizens Group Seeks Votes In Irvine, Five Other Cities Next Fall. Critics Say The Proposal Is Misguided And Would Be Ineffective.

Los Angeles Times

A citizens group unveiled a special ballot item Thursday that aims to restrain the hand of special interests in local governments across California, but some municipal officials have criticized the measure as misguided and ineffective.

In simultaneous gatherings across the state Thursday, members of the Ralph Nader-led Oaks Project announced that they had successfully collected more than 50,000 signatures for special ballot proposals next fall in Santa Monica, Pasadena, Claremont, Irvine, San Francisco and Vista. The measure, proponents say, would prohibit public officials from receiving gifts from contractors, developers or others who are doing business with municipalities.

On the steps of the Santa Monica and Irvine city halls Thursday, supporters said they were not focusing on these cities because they believed they were corrupt. Instead, supporters said they hoped these six cities would act as role models for other California municipalities where developers were successfully pushing unpopular developments after influencing politicians.

“This measure is preventive medicine, a speed bump, a stop sign, to make sure politicians serve only the taxpayers and not special interests,” said organizer Ted Cahill in Irvine.

The measures would bar local elected officials, for the two years after their term expires, from receiving campaign funds or gifts from any entities that had received a “public benefit”–defined as payments for services of more than $ 25,000, tax abatements, exemptions from master plans, purchase or sale of city property valued at more than $ 25,000, or an exclusive business franchise valued at more than $ 50,000.

Although supporters insisted that the laws were designed to run special interests out of government, at least one local government veteran in Santa Monica expressed serious doubts about the measure.

“I think it’s absurd,” said Ken Genser, a 12-year Santa Monica City Council member. “This proposal doesn’t deal with the real problems in politics and it purports to correct problems that don’t really exist in the first place.”

Genser said that in Santa Monica, public contracts were scrutinized in a lengthy process of sealed bid submissions, and recommendations on who would be hired were made by city staff members, not the City Council.

Genser said problems with local government and special interests more often cropped up in matters of policy and legislation, areas he said the proposal wouldn’t affect.

In a recent interview, Irvine Mayor Christina Shea called the initiative pointless, particularly the portions that would affect former officials after they leave office. “It does not make a lot of sense to me,” she said.

Irvine council members have not taken a formal position on the initiative, said city staff member Jeri Stately. Volunteers said many of the people they asked to sign the petition were surprised when they discovered they weren’t being paid to collect signatures–a common practice in ballot initiative campaigns. Volunteers in Irvine carried tags with them that read “I’m Not Paid to Collect Your Name.”

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