City Refuses to Provide Adequate Defense of Voter-Approved Conflict of Interest Reform
Santa Monica abandoned its progressive mantle with its’ attempt to harpoon an anti-kickback initiative passed by 59% of Santa Monica voters. The City has filed a collusive lawsuit and sued itself in order to kill the popular conflict of interest measure. Santa Monica has refused to hire impartial counsel to defend the voter-approved measure.
“The People’s Republic of Santa Monica, a town that bills itself as the seaside progressive’s haven, has dropped to an all-time low to evade a simple good government reform,” stated Carmen Balber, director of the grassroots citizen group that sponsored the measure, the Oaks Project. “It’s embarrassing that the city which should have been first to embrace this reform is leading the fight to defeat it. They’ve turned a deaf ear to the public’s demand for conflict of interest protection.”
The suit, City of Santa Monica v. Maria Stewart, was brought by Santa Monica against the City Clerk for her refusal to implement the anti-kickback reform measure. However, her actions were in direct response to the City’s continued opposition to the law. The City’s current position as both plaintiff and defendant in the same case places it in a conflict of interest to avoid implementing a conflict of interest reform.
“If Richard Nixon had sued his staff for insubordination when they broke into Watergate, and then hired his own lawyers to defend them, would you trust the outcome of the case?” questioned Balber. “Now Santa Monica has sued their City Clerk and expects us to believe they have the public’s interest at heart? The lawsuit is a farce.”
The City has a long history of opposition to the reform. In the months before voters approved it at the polls last November, Santa Monica City Council voted to allow several Councilmembers to sign a ballot argument against the measure. The City Attorney filed papers with a Court of Appeal in San Diego joining others which argued that the initiative was unconstitutional. With the City’s position against the measure well-established, it is impossible for the measure to get a fair trial without a defense independent of the City.
“If the City remains on both sides of this case, a ruling will resolve nothing,” asserted Susanne Griffin, Santa Monica attorney and citizen volunteer with the Oaks Project. “However, the City has refused to hire impartial outside counsel to vigorously defend the will of the voters. The public’s trust will continue to erode the longer they continue this charade of a 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 have voted to intervene in the Santa Monica case and challenge the similar initiatives in their towns.
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 CaliforniaÃƒÂ•s 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.