Santa Monica Petitions Court to Gut Conflict of Interest Law in its “Defense”

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Arguments Reinforce Oaks Project’s Contention that City Lawsuit Aims to Overturn Popular Reform Measure

The City of Santa Monica failed to make a pretense at defending its voter-approved conflict of interest law in papers filed with the Court this weekend, challenged citizen organizers with the Oaks Project. The City’s arguments as plaintiff mirrored earlier filings by City Clerk, Maria Stewart, the purported defendant in the case who has argued to the Court that she feels the measure is unconstitutional. The brief gave weight to the Oaks Project plea that the lawsuit against Santa Monica’s voter-approved conflict of interest law is collusive and should be dismissed.

Disgusted at the City’s thinly-veiled attempt to nullify the law, Carmen Balber, director of the Oaks Project who sponsored the measure, declared, “The duplicitous nature of the City’s lawsuit is made blatantly obvious in their so-called ‘defense’ which would gut the measure to keep it on the books. The Santa Monica citizens who approved this law cannot, and will not, believe their city officials are legitimately defending their vote to prevent political kickbacks with arguments that aim to invalidate – or render toothless – most of the law’s provisions.”

Santa Monica challenged the voter-enacted law, Proposition LL, by suing itself on June 12 with the filing of a lawsuit entitled City of Santa Monica v. Maria Stewart. The measure was adopted by Santa Monica’s voters nearly a year ago, in the November 2000 election.

Oaks Project organizers contend that their fear that the City Council’s hostility toward the law will prevent it from receiving an adequate defense in court has been justified by positions taken in the City’s brief. The weak, and often negative, language is nearly identical to portions of the City Clerk’s arguments, and includes assertions that: “the Initiative is troublesome in its overbreadth” and, “the vagueness of the Initiative is also troubling”.

Superior Court Judge Laurence Rubin agreed to allow the Oaks Project to intervene in the case, and to hear their argument that the suit is collusive, at the end of August. Fredric Woocher, counsel for the Oaks Project, argued that, “This Court should not allow itself to be a participant in this abuse of process and illegal expenditure of taxpayer funds nothing less than the integrity of the democratic process itself is at issue in this case.”

Grassroots Campaigns for Real Reform

The measure, Proposition LL on the November 7, 2000 Santa Monica city ballot, qualified for the ballot with the signatures of over 12,000 Santa Monica residents collected by volunteers, and was enacted by 59%. The law prevents city officials from accepting campaign contributions, gifts or employment from entities that benefit from the official’s decisions. Examples of ‘benefits’ include city contracts, land deals and tax breaks.

The Santa Monica measure was part of an unprecedented campaign in cities across California, and was also approved by the voters of San Francisco (82%), Claremont (55%), Vista (58%) and Pasadena (60%). The signature gathering and get-out-the vote efforts for the propositions were done by volunteers, unprecedented in this age of multi-million dollar paid signature gathering operations and equally high-priced campaigns run by public relations firms. In stunning contrast, Oaks Project volunteers handed out tens of thousands of flyers, made thousands of phone calls and knocked on thousands of doors to educate voters and get out the vote.

Pasadena and Claremont officials voted to intervene in the Santa Monica case and challenge the similar initiatives in their towns. Judge Rubin found that the Santa Monica lawsuit does not directly affect the laws in those cities and did not allow Pasadena and Claremont to intervene.

Oaks volunteers in San Francisco, the only city which has not attempted to challenge the measure in court, met with members of the City’s Ethics Commission to discuss facilitating enforcement of the initiative. The law went into full effect in San Francisco on July 13th, 2001.

In Irvine, where the Oaks Project missed qualifying the initiative for the ballot by just 81 signatures, volunteers have met with a city sub-committee to discuss adopting the measure as a city ordinance. An Irvine councilmember was caught taking kickbacks just weeks after the initiative failed to qualify for the ballot.

The Oaks Project

The non-profit, non-partisan Oaks Project was founded in 1997 by consumer advocates Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield to train citizens to participate more effectively in CaliforniaÕs democracy. To become an Oak, volunteers attend monthly trainings in practical political skills and agree to spend 10-15 hours per month putting those skills to work on legislative and initiative campaigns to create a more democratic political system. Oaks volunteers also agree to raise $500 per year, and collect 1000 signatures on all Volunteer Qualified Initiatives (VQI). The Oaks Project played a decisive role in passing HMO patient protections in the California legislature in 1999 and spearheaded the 1998 drive to lower utility rates for California ratepayers by co-sponsoring Proposition 9.

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.

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