The Santa Monica Rent Control Board has violated the state election code by providing publicity in a publicly funded newsletter for three board members running for office, City Atty. Robert. M. Myers has said in an opinion.
In a memo written to the City Council last week, Myers noted that the most recent issue of the Rent Control News, which is published by the rent board and distributed to Santa Monica tenants, "prominently displays the names, photographs and activities of elected officers who filed nomination papers" for the November election.
Pictures of David G. Finkel, who is running for City Council, and Wayne Bauer and Eileen Lipson, who are seeking reelection to the rent board, are featured in the fall issue of the publication. Each picture accompanies stories about rent board achievements. The newsletter also contains a story reminding residents that three rent board seats are open in November and encouraging them to vote. There are no photographs of the two board members not up for reelection.
Myers said there is no specific penalty for the election code violation. But he added that he had forwarded a copy of his opinion to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office as a matter of routine.
Myers acted on a complaint filed by City Councilman David G. Epstein. Epstein, a tenant and an attorney, who also is running for reelection, charged that the board had blatantly violated the election code. He called on the board members depicted in the newsletter to repay the cost of printing and distributing the mailer.
"They don't know the difference between public money and private political money," Epstein said. "They should be more aware of what the law is in that area. It looks like a campaign brochure. And it's not a very good one."
The board did not formally respond to the accusations. But Finkel denied any wrongdoing and said Epstein's complaint was politically motivated.
"This is the other side's way of saying that the campaign is under way," Finkel said. "It says that they have nothing to say about the (issues)."
Finkel is affiliated with the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. Epstein is aligned with the rival All Santa Monica Coalition. Both are running for the City Council in November, when four at-large seats are up for grabs.
Lipson said she would withhold comment until she had reviewed Myers' opinion. Bauer said the newsletter did not violate any laws. Like Finkel, he accused Epstein of attacking the board for political purposes.
"Neither myself nor the agency was involved in any specific wrongdoing," Bauer said. "If we did it we did it inadvertently. And I'm not sure we did it at all. . . . If a judge told me I have done something (wrong), certainly I'll pay the money back. But in my own mind I have not done anything wrong."
The Rent Control News is published quarterly and is put together by the rent board staff. Finkel said that board members are given an opportunity to review individual articles. But he said the board does not, as a matter of course, review an issue in its entirety before the newsletter goes to press.
The newsletter is printed in English and Spanish and paid for by the rent board. Board administrator Howell Tumlin said he was asking his staff to file a report on the exact amount of public money spent on the fall mailer.
Mayor Christine E. Reed, an ally of Epstein, also called for the board members to refund the cost of the newsletter after hearing of Myers' opinion. Reed, who is also running for reelection, said the mailer "clearly was intended for the self-aggrandizement" of the board.
Epstein said he would consider taking the board members to court if they refuse to repay the cost of the mailer. But Finkel said he does not expect the board members to offer any type of an apology or reimbursement.