Santa Monica landlords, traditionally characterized as seaside Scrooges by their opponents in the tenant movement, are fighting back with a prize-laden promotional campaign for a plan to soften the city's rent control law.
The controversial promotion offers voters a chance at winning a Hawaiian vacation and other prizes for considering the merits of Proposition M, a June 3 initiative that would permit landlords to raise rents on vacant apartments.
Landlords, who have described the promotion as a good-will gesture, are distributing about 65,000 copies of the campaign brochures.
Under the heading, "The Everyone Wins Giveaway," the sweepstakes-style promotion features drawings of a hula dancer, a smiling couple, a television and a bicycle. It also includes a "quiz" on the benefits of Proposition M. People who submit their answers and pass the quiz qualify for a prize drawing to be held after the election.
Geoffrey S. Strand, a spokesman for backers of the plan, said the unusual promotion is designed to grab the attention of voters.
"We're trying to get voters to understand the real facts about Proposition M," Strand said. "This is not a bribe. It is a good-will gesture on the part of landlords. . . . It is a revolutionary approach to politics."
But Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers said it may also be an illegal approach. Myers, who received a copy on Monday, has asked his staff to review the brochure and determine whether any laws have been violated. He said he did not know exactly when his office would render an opinion.
"I reviewed the matter, had some concerns and requested that someone look at it," Myers said. "This is quite unusual in the context of a campaign."
Tenant activists who oppose Proposition M also raised questions about the campaign circular. David Finkel, a Santa Monica Rent Control Board member, said backers are using a "gimmicky" approach to attract attention.
"You may end up with tenants who have grass skirts and bicycles and color televisions," Finkel said. "But they'll also have no place to live."
The sweepstakes controversy is the latest in a series of disputes over Proposition M, perhaps the city's most hotly contested ballot measure since the rent control initiative of 1979. It has sparked four separate lawsuits and has dominated discussion at most recent political gatherings in the city.
The initiative seeks to abolish the section of Santa Monica's rent control law that prohibits a landlord from raising rents on a vacant apartments. Supporters contend that the plan benefits everyone because tenants would share in the profits realized when a landlord raised rents. Opponents have said that the plan is fraught with problems and guarantees nothing to tenants.
Given Proposition M's history, Strand said he expected the sweepstakes promotion to generate controversy. For that reason, Strand said backers had an attorney thoroughly review the plan and kept it secret until last weekend, when about 75 volunteers distributed the brochures door-to-door.
Strand maintained that the brochure captures the spirit of Proposition M.
He said the "Everyone Wins" circular makes the group's case by listing a number of benefits renters would receive under Proposition M. Those points are stressed again in a four-question voter quiz. One question reads:
"Who benefits most from Proposition M? (A) Elderly tenants. (B) Stable tenants. (C) The city. (D) All of the above.
"Answer: All of the above."
Strand said the brochure and prizes will cost about $7,000 and will be paid for by donations from apartment owners, homeowners, businessmen and some tenants. He called the brochure a bargain, estimating that a direct-mail flyer or a more traditional campaign mailer would have cost upwards of $16,000.
"This is basically our big push," Strand said. "A lot of landlords are also sending letters to their tenants. But this is the major campaign drive."
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the organization that represents tenant activists, is running a more traditional campaign. The group is operating a telephone bank and has distributed flyers urging the defeat of Proposition M.
In a flyer mailed this week, the organization reminded voters that all seven City Council members oppose Proposition M and accused the backers of running a "dirty" campaign. In seeking contributions of $15 and up, the group warned that the future of rent control is at stake.
"If this measure passes, key protections of our rent control law will be lost," the long, typewritten mailer stated. "As people move, rents all over town will go up. Our community will become closed to most seniors, young people and families who wish to come here. In fact, most of us, if faced with the need to move, could no longer afford to live in Santa Monica."
Leaders of the tenant movement have said they expect to spend about $50,000 on the anti-Proposition M campaign. Councilman Dennis Zane, a leading tenant activist, said Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights is confident of victory.
"I doubt that the (landlord) effort is going to be particularly effective," Zane said. "It's like asking renters to give up rent control and go to Hawaii. I think that's silly. And I think the voters will agree."
Strand said he expects the opposite to occur. He predicted that voters will appreciate the prize offer and take the time to read the brochure. And even if Proposition M loses on June 3, Strand said the prizes are guaranteed.