Stronger than ‘Oaks’?

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Council set to debate initiative that aims to clarify campaign contribution law

The Santa Monica Daily Press

CITY HALL — After five years of legal wrangling, a law aimed at curbing campaign contributions is being called into question by elected officials concerned that it infringes on residents’ rights to participate in the political process.

The City Council tonight is scheduled to debate whether or not they should place an initiative on the November ballot that would alter the Taxpayer Protection Act of 2000, otherwise known as the “Oaks Initiative,” which places strict limits on campaign contributions.

Supporters of the initiative, including the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, who authored the ballot measure, claim elected officials are revamping the law because it limits their ability to raise funds for re-election campaigns. They say the law’s new versions — prepared by the City Attorney’s Office — would weaken current standards and allow for City Council members and others to receive kickbacks in exchange for their votes.

Elected officials contend their interest in reforming the initiative is not self-serving, but rather an attempt to clarify a confusing and cumbersome law that not only prohibits free speech, but discourages residents from serving on boards and commissions, as well as running for City Council.

“I don’t believe that this is a watered-down version of Oaks,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who drafted several alternatives for the council to consider. “I believe that (the staff recommendation) is different from the Oaks Initiative in that it contains a flat prohibition against accepting anything in return for a vote, regardless if it was a ‘yes’ vote or a ‘no’ vote. It also contains more stringent gift restrictions than Oaks does.”

Passed by 60 percent of Santa Monica voters in 2000, the Oaks Initiative, identified on the ballot as Proposition LL, blocks officials who award contracts of more than $25,000 from receiving campaign contributions, gifts or employment from the party to whom the benefit was awarded. The ban includes anyone who has a 10-percent equity interest in a corporation which receives the benefit. The term “personal or campaign advantage” outlined in the initiative includes any gift or honoraria valued in excess of $50, any employment or compensation, and any campaign contribution.

The ban can last as long as six years after a vote is entered if the official is still serving in public office.

“What the council proposal does is rewind time to pre-November 2000, before voters approved stronger rules. That’s why we have such a problem with this,” said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the foundation, which is calling on the City Council to adopt standards similar to those proposed by the city of Pasadena, which she claims strengthens the Oaks Initiative.

“This action is really just the latest salvo from the City Council, which has been trying to get rid of the measure for the last few years,” she added.

Oaks has a long and complicated legal history. It was proposed in several Southern California cities in 2000 and 2001. The cities of Santa Monica and Pasadena filed lawsuits against their own city clerks because they refused to enforce the initiatives, arguing that the law was too vague and unconstitutional. The suits were an attempt to test the law’s constitutionality.

It was the belief of attorneys representing opponents of the law that Oaks chilled a person’s willingness to participate in the political process by severely limiting money they could give to elected officials if they were granted something as simple as a variance to put in a new restroom in their garage.

The law also failed to distinguish between a “yes” vote and a “no” vote, given that either one could yield a valuable result for an interested party, such as when a homeowner tries to block the expansion of a nearby business, an expansion which, if approved, would negatively affect their property value. If a “no” vote was issued, it could be worth a lot of money for the resident, who, under Oaks, would still be allowed to contribute money to a public official because of the “no” vote.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed that there were serious constitutional questions, but refused to decide on claims brought by both cities, explaining that those questions would have to be answered by future litigation where the city wasn’t suing itself, Moutrie said.

In light of that decision, City Hall implemented the Oaks Initiative in 2005 and the City Clerk’s Office has kept a record of decisions made by elected officials to see if they are complying with the law.

Balber said fears that the initiative has cooled public participation in politics is unfounded.

“This hasn’t been a problem,” Balber said. “The sky hasn’t fallen’ The council is arrogant in thinking that it can simply change the rules because they don’t want to play by them.”

Moutrie, who studied the recent moves in Pasadena, has offered the council several alternatives. If the council wishes to place a measure on the Nov. 7 ballot, it has until tonight to do so.

Moutrie said her recommendations do not include a section on campaign contributions because the City Charter already includes strict rules governing contributions, limiting them to $250 per person for each candidate.

In her report to the council, Moutrie warns that placing a measure on the November ballot could be problematic given the number of local initiatives already present. She suggested the council consider postponing action on Oaks until a later date, at which time they can also discuss the public financing of campaigns.

Council members contacted said they were still reviewing the alternatives and could not comment. There is support amongst the council to create the public financing of campaigns, which members hope will eliminate kickbacks.

Consumer Watchdog
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