Law Stands Limiting Gifts to Officials

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Citing procedural grounds, judge dismisses a challenge to measure approved by voters.

Los Angeles Times

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a voter-approved measure in Santa Monica that would limit the gifts elected officials can receive from companies that have done business with the city.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Debra Yang did not rule on the constitutionality of Proposition LL, passed by Santa Monica voters in November 2000. Instead, she set aside the lawsuit on procedural grounds.

She left the door open for future challenges, but it was unclear whether the city would continue its legal fight or allow the law to take effect. Voters in Pasadena, Claremont and San Francisco passed similar initiatives in recent years promoted by the Oaks Project, a Santa Monica-based organizing branch of Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Of the four, only San Francisco is enforcing the proposition, which bars elected officials from accepting gifts, jobs or campaign donations from anyone to whom they awarded a “public benefit” within five years of a vote or one year of leaving office.

Carmen Balber, Oaks Project director, said the law would prevent Enron-style relationships from developing between elected officials and private companies. Elected officials would be required to provide–to anyone upon request–a list of their yes votes on city contracts, she said.

Critics of the initiative, however, said the bill is vague and unjustly restricts the rights of elected officials.

“These things can just be a ruse to strip the rights from some citizens and amplify the voices of others,” said John Ramirez, an attorney representing Santa Monica City Clerk Maria Stewart.

Laws must be applied evenhandedly, he said, and it is unfair to impose limits only on those who vote in favor of a contract. It’s conceivable, he said, that an official could benefit from denying a contract, and the law does not take such instances into account.

To obtain a clarification of the law, Santa Monica took what, to an outsider, might appear an unusual step–it filed suit in June 2001 against its own city clerk.

The suit, said Mayor Michael Feinstein, said that Stewart chose not to enforce the law because she believed it to be unconstitutional.

Such “contrived lawsuits”–filed to obtain validation on legal grounds by a judge–are a “recognized method” of testing certain laws and have been filed since 1935, Ramirez said.

After Santa Monica sued Stewart, the Oaks Project filed its own motion, asking the judge to dismiss the city’s suit. Yang allowed the Oaks Project to act as intercessors in the case because it was involved in placing Proposition LL on the ballot.

In her ruling, Yang said the city’s suit had no merit because Proposition LL was aimed at office-holders, not the city clerk, and did not directly affect her duties. “There is nothing in the language of the initiative that can reasonably be construed as requiring Defendant Stewart to act as a monitor or enforcer over the city officials to whom the initiative pertains,” she wrote.

Balber said the judge recognized that the city’s method of attacking the measure lacked merit. “The posture of the case had been pretty farcical,” she said. “Because the city was on both sides of the case, we didn’t feel there would be an adequate defense.”

Yang did not rule out future legal challenges, but suggested they be filed by other parties.

Feinstein said the City Council has not had the opportunity to meet in closed session yet to decide whether to appeal.

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