The LookOut/SurfSantaMonica.com (Santa Monica, CA)
Over the outcries of consumer advocates and testimony by a campaign finance expert that more can be done, the City Council voted last week to place amendments on the November ballot that many say will weaken an anti-corruption measure approved by Santa Monica voters six years ago.
The 4 to 1 vote came after council members argued that the “Oaks Initiative” — which prevents kickbacks to office holders and was approved in 2000 by 59 percent of the voters — is cumbersome and discourages people from running for office.
“I think it’s really important to take action on this measure because it’s affecting us now,” said Council member Richard Bloom, who was one of three council members that suggested a personal staff would be needed to implement the law’s reporting requirements.
“It’s a very complex and arduous process. I think it drive(s) people away from the political process, a process we are going through right now as we head into the elections,” Bloom said.
As written, the law prohibits City officials from accepting gifts, jobs or campaign contributions from a person or group that benefited from a vote or decision made by that official.
Under the council’s proposed amendments, while public officials would be limited to accepting gifts of $50 or less, they could still accept a future job or receive contributions, according to Bob Stern, a campaign finance expert who testified before the council.
In addition, there is no restriction as to when a gift can be received, Stern said.
“You will be allowed to receive gifts of more than 50 dollars forever from people who are financially affected by your decisions,” Stern said.
While Stern testified Tuesday that the current law is difficult to understand, consumer advocates argue the City should have piggy-backed on Pasadena’s efforts to streamline and strengthen the law.
In Pasadena, where voters approved an identical version of the measure, a task force put in nearly 200 hours of work to make the law more efficient — including expanding its scope. A copy was of their report was given to Santa Monica officials.
Consumer advocates argue that the amendments approved for the ballot by the council Tuesday would essentially gut the law.
“If you do place this on the ballot, we’ll make sure the public knows this is a bait and switch, (replacing) true reform here in Santa Monica with a measure that would override the prevention of kick-backs,” said Carmen Balber, consumer advocate for the Foundation for Consumers and Taxpayers Rights, which sponsored the initiative.
City officials, Balber said, are exaggerating the effect the law may have on candidates running for public office.
“Despite your worst predictions, City Hall has not ground to a halt,” Balber told the council, noting that as many as a dozen candidates will be seeking City Council seats on November 7. “People are not avoiding public service.”
Since pushing for the anti-corruption initiative six years ago, the non-profit has been at loggerheads with City officials, who refused to implement a measure they argue is unconstitutional.
But a protracted legal battle that saw the City take the unusual step of suing its own City Clerk failed to overturn the measure. Despite a series of rulings upholding the law, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the constitutional merits of the case remain undecided.
Stern, president for the Center for Governmental Studies and a member of the Pasadena task force, enumerated eight different ways that the council’s proposed amendments — if passed — would weaken the law.
Noting that the “Oaks Initiative” is problematic, Stern suggested several ways the amendments proposed by the council could be improved — from expanding the law to cover more office holders who make financial decisions, such as the planning director and City Clerk, to eliminating redundancy with State law.
“The bottom line is I had lots of problems with the (Oaks Initiative) when it was first proposed,” Stern said. “It’s the first-of-its-kind law, and I understand your concern about it because it is so unusual. But Pasadena has shown that given testimony by its employees, campaign consultants, council members, by citizens there that the (Oaks Initiative) can be improved, if you take a look at it and we’re happy to help you,” he said.
p>Stern’s offer was overlooked by four of the five council members present, with Council member Kevin McKeown casting the only dissenting vote.
“I’m happy to place this matter before the public,” said Mayor Bob Holbrook, who along with McKeown and Council member Pam O’Connor, who voted for the proposed amendments, is seeking reelection.
“As a person campaigning, I need to raise thousands of dollars to hire a professional treasurer to run my campaign according to the laws of Santa Monica,” Holbrook said.
Last week’s council meeting was the last chance for the council to place the amendments on the November 7 ballot.
“It’s all or nothing tonight,” Holbrook said.