Responding to a recent outcry over the perception that developers who help finance city lawmakers have an inside track to having their projects approved, Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown recently asked for the consideration of a policy that will make public any campaign contributions by anyone who wishes to build in the city.
McKeown's request came at the Jan. 11 council meeting, where a number of neighborhood and public interest groups also backed his policy recommendation. The motion was rejected by a 4-2 vote.
Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition Chair Valerie Griffin cautioned that she and her organization are not accusing certain lawmakers of being ethically compromised by accepting donations from developers, only that the public deserves to know who has taken contributions from someone seeking a public benefit.
“We're not suggesting that they are taking bribes,” Griffin said. “We're simply saying that (this recommendation) should address transparency, and transparency is good.”
McKeown also clarified the reason why he feels this recommendation would help the public be more aware of the entities that have a financial interest before the council.
“The intent is only to disclose that money has been spent by an applicant, not that it directly influenced or might influence the council's votes,” he explained.
Several days before his policy motion to the council, McKeown discussed the reasons why he wanted to seek more transparency to what he and others believe is a growing problem.
“Since the (November 2010) election, I've heard concerns from a number of community organizations about the growing role of non-resident contributions in our local elections, sometimes deliberately ‘hidden' through one-time organizations,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “The main concern seems to be the voters' inability to track those donations in a way that connects them to decisions, primarily land-use decisions made by the City Council.”
The city has several development projects pending that are scheduled to come before the City Council this year, and residents who live on the east side of Santa Monica have raised concerns about the Bergamot Transit Village, a proposed transit-oriented mixed use complex of nearly one million square feet and six stories that is being proposed by the Hines Group.
In addition, at least five other projects are being proposed within several blocks of the Bergamot development, which planners and the developer say will work well in conjunction with a future light rail stop at Bergamot Station.
Planning Director Eileen Fogarty has previously stated that most of the projects in the pipeline have not reached the stage of being recommended for environmental analysis.
Ocean Park Association President Mary Marlow said the Bergamot development was the turning point for members of her association as well as others with whom she has discussed the matter.
“One of the things that we want to look at is what some council members might consider to be a public benefit might not be beneficial to the public,” said Marlow. “We're very concerned about all of the projects that will be coming before the council very soon and from whom they have received contributions.”
McKeown said after hearing from slow-growth activists and others concerned with development, as well as members of the council taking donations from developers who have business before the city, he decided to act.
“I've told these community groups that I'm willing to agendize discussion of some solutions, if they ask for it. It's important to me (and to the ultimate success of the process) that the request come from members of the public,” McKeown explained.
Griffin thinks municipal legislators should not be afraid to make public who had given them money if they have nothing to hide. “If people are willing to take money from someone, then they should be willing to stand up and say so,” the association chair asserted.
During his conversations with various community groups, McKeown said he became convinced that the vast majority of complaints centered around more openness regarding who had taken campaign contributions from entities or individuals that want to build a project or are seeking a community benefit, such as a favorable zoning change.
“The consensus so far seems to be that the democratic process would be best served by simple disclosure of campaign contributions at the time of council discussion or action on development agreements, zoning variances,contracts, franchises, etc.,” the councilman said.
In addition to Ocean Park and Wilshire/Montana, the Pico Neighborhood Association, the Sunset Park Neighborhood Association, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and the Santa Monica Democratic Club, among others, backed the councilman's request. All of them sent letters to City Hall in support of the councilman's request.
Organizations with financial ties to developers like the group Santa Monicans for Quality Government came under fire from public interest organizations during the Nov. 2 election for a slate mailer that featured Councilwomen Pam O'Connor and Gleam Davis and Councilmen Robert Holbrook and Terry O'Day. The mailer cited the union support the abovementioned lawmakers enjoyed, but did not include McKeown, who was supported by the same unions.
A city law requires local organizations to report campaign contributions of $1,000 or more, but the pro-development group that supported O'Connor and the other candidates was able to skirt that provision.
Fred Huebusher, the president of the entity that produced the mailer, was also a campaign consultant to both O'Connor and Davis. Both councilwomen denied allegations that they were behind the mailer.
Carmen Balber, the Washington D.C. director of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, said her organization is a strong proponent of campaign finance disclosure.
“We support any proposal that would be clear to the public where and to whom campaign contributions are going,” Balber told The Argonaut. “Voters can only benefit from knowing about any connection between the city council and companies that are asking for a public benefit.”
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumer and taxpayer rights, has sponsored many conflict of interest measures in the past, including the Oaks Initiative, a 2000 Santa Monica law that prohibits city officials from taking campaign contributions, large gifts or jobs from people who receive city contract work worth more than $25,000.
The initiative was created under the organization's former name, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
McKeown said his suggestion is not reinventing the wheel, as there is already a disclosure precedent among city commissioners.
“This would be parallel to what our Planning Commission already does,” he noted.
Marlow does not believe that O'Connor and Davis were unaware of what Santa Monicans for a Quality Government was doing in the last election. “They did not disassociate themselves from (the slate mailer) or the group,” she recalled.
McKeown said his initial request would be to have the city's staff explore how disclosures at the council level might be handled.
“As the campaign contributions eventually become part of public documents, even if that doesn't happen during theelection itself, information on what interest gave to what candidate should not be all that difficult to compile,” he said. “ The City Clerk's Office already does that sort of reporting on contracts and the like under the Oaks Initiative, an existing campaign contribution control in Santa Monica.”
Huebusher, Davis and O'Connor did not return calls for comment.