City’s Lawsuit Against Self Dies

Published on

Councilman not surprised about high court’s decision

Santa Monica Daily Press

SACRAMENTO, CA — City Hall suffered a third strike last month when the state Supreme Court refused to hear a case that involved the city suing itself, losing, appealing and losing again, over an initiative approved by voters more than four years ago.

The California Supreme Court decided last month not to review a previous decision made by the court of appeals in upholding Proposition LL, an initiative approved by Santa Monica voters in 2000 that limits public officials from receiving gifts and campaign contributions from companies that contract with the city. It blocks officials who award contracts of more than $50,000 from receiving campaign contributions, gifts or employment from the party to whom the benefit was awarded.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case means the lower court’s decision to put the initiative into law will likely be final. The law has never been implemented.

Nearly 60 percent of Santa Monica voters in November of 2000 voted in favor of Prop. LL, which was designed to stop city workers and elected leaders from collecting cash, gifts and other perks from individuals who are affected by their decisions.

Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the Santa Monica-based group that drove the initiative, said the decision means officials in Santa Monica will have to ensure the public projects they approve are not funded by campaign contributors.

“The city needs to accept responsibility after a four-year battle and accept this is what the voters wanted and that only Santa Monica has had a problem with implementing it,” Balber said, adding other cities in California passed similar ballot measures.

Officials at City Hall immediately criticized the new proposition. They called it poorly written, overly broad and a threat to the constitutional rights of everyone from low-level city workers to elected leaders sitting on the Santa Monica City Council.

City Hall had several major problems with the initiative. Among them are the city’s contention the language of the law would unnecessarily affect low-level workers, put too stringent fundraising limitations on local officials running for state and federal office, unfairly keep officials from taking certain types of jobs after leaving their posts, put too heavy a burden on officials to know the economic interests of outside parties, and conflict with state and federal law.

Officials also contend that civil and criminal penalties spelled out in the initiative are vague and overly broad, and that the initiative unfairly hinders donations from nonprofit groups.

To illustrate the impracticality of the law, the city argued a zoning administrator, an appointed official who has discretion to approve routine applications for zoning permits, would violate the law if he accepted sports tickets from a family friend who happened to be a partial owner of a construction company that does business in Santa Monica.

Just how to avoid those problems without blatantly ignoring the will of voters was a major concern for city officials. In May 2001, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie recommended, and the City Council agreed, that the city file a lawsuit against itself. It sued City Clerk Maria Stewart, who, on Moutrie’s advice, had refused to implement the law for fear of treading on the constitution.

What followed was a legal struggle that has lasted more than four years, consumed untold hours of city attorney time and cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, which were spent hiring outside law firms to help handle the case.

The city and Stewart hired separate, outside law firms to represent both sides because the city attorney’s office couldn’t represent either of them. It’s unknown how much lawyers have billed both city entities in the case.

City officials, who are normally supportive of campaign finance reform, think the measure — levied by a local taxpayer and consumer rights advocacy group — violates constitutional rights mostly because it’s full of holes. The law was so poorly written that the city was forced to sue itself just to enforce it, city officials said.

When Prop. LL was supposed to go into effect, Stewart was unsure on how to enforce it because it was riddled with confusing provisions and is widely deemed too broad, therefore it violating due process, city attorneys argue.

The City Council wanted clarification too, but it also wanted to make sure the city was honoring the “will of the people” — the 59 percent of Santa Monica voters who approved the law. And suing the group that forced the measure onto the ballot, the Oaks Project, wasn’t an option because city officials didn’t want to appear to be going against that will, officials said.

So the only way city officials thought they could clarify the law’s constitutionality was to sue its own city clerk for not enforcing it, then wait for a judge to rule.

Marsha Moutrie, Santa Monica City Attorney, was unavailable to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. Other city attorneys declined to comment because they hadn’t reviewed the high court’s opinion.

Councilman Richard Bloom, who said he had heard of the court’s decision not to review the case, said he was not entirely surprised.

“The California Supreme Court takes few cases,” Bloom said. “It comes as a disappointment but not a huge surprise.”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

Latest Videos

Latest Releases

In The News

Latest Report

Support Consumer Watchdog

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More Releases