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Changes in Council Races Proposed in Santa Monica

January 08, 1987|ALAN CITRON and JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writers

Santa Monica City Council candidates would be forced to engage in the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat instead of gang war under a dramatic election reform proposal.

Councilman Alan Katz suggested Wednesday that each candidate run for a specific seat in future races. He said that the current system, pitting every council candidate against every other, reduces accountability and fairness. Katz will introduce the plan, called the Campaign Accountability and Simplicity Act, at Tuesday's council meeting.

The plan could have a broad impact on Santa Monica politics. The two groups that have controlled city government for the past several years, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition, probably would be weakened because the plan would allow individuals, independent of slates, to challenge incumbent council members. At the same time, specific candidates could be targeted for defeat by their enemies.

"The current system in Santa Monica is a mob scene that allows candidates to be less than fully accountable and requires an advanced degree in mathmatics for voters," Katz said. "A candidate should not be able to hide."

Field Usually Crowded

Candidates for the seven council seats now run at large. Election dates are staggered so that no more than four of the council members are elected at one time. But the field of candidates is usually crowded and political allies are forced to vie for the same votes.

In the November election, three incumbents from the All Santa Monica Coalition ran against three challengers from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. Two coalition members, William H. Jennings and Christine E. Reed, were reelected. The third, David G. Epstein, finished with fewer votes than David Finkel of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and lost his seat.

Each of the seats would be numbered under the idea proposed by Katz at a news conference Wednesday. There would be no geographic designation. However, each council member would represent a specific seat.

Alan Katz, the council's only independent, said he will urge the council to direct the city attorney's office to draw up a formal proposal and hold public hearings on his idea. If the council voted for his plan, it would go before the voters. He said the city could put the item on the June, 1988, ballot and avoid the cost of a special election.

The plan received mixed reviews from Katz's colleagues.

Mayor James P. Conn, of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, said he will have to study the effects of Katz's proposal before taking a position. "The trick in public policy is to solve more problems than you create," he said. "I will be looking carefully to see if that is the case in this instance."

Conn said he had not had time to evaluate what the proposed reform would do to slate politics in Santa Monica.

Special-Interest Fears

Councilman Herb Katz, a member of the All Santa Monica Coalition, was the most negative. He said incumbents would still be heavily favored and that certain council seats could fall into the hands of special-interest groups.

"I could see people playing certain games where one seat would become known as the OPCO (Ocean Park Community Organization) seat and another would become known as a Chamber of Commerce seat," Katz said. "What we have now is not ideal. But I can't see where creating numbered seats is any more ideal."

Jennings said he would consider the idea, which he said could make it easier for newcomers to run for office. At the same time, he said, a strong incumbent would benefit because he would be less likely to be challenged than a weak one.

"Everyone might figure out which candidate is the weakest and run against him," Jennings said. "But as a public policy matter, challengers should have a real fair shake at knocking off incumbents. It's the democratic way."

Broad Reform Suggested

Councilman Dennis Zane, a member of the renter faction, said Katz's plan could be workable. But Zane said it should be considered in the context of a broad campaign reform package. Zane said he was equally concerned with enacting laws to prevent the distribution of "deceptive" campaign literature. He said the overall system needs to be studied at length.

Councilman Finkel suggested the council commission a study of other cities that have adopted one-on-one council races.

"My mind is open, but at this point I do not know the pros and cons of the idea," he said.

Councilwoman Reed could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Katz said he is confident that, if the council does not go along with his plan, it will qualify for the ballot through the petition process.

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