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Reform Overshadows Rent Control : The New 'Big R' in Santa Monica

January 18, 1987|ALAN CITRON and JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writers

Reform has replaced Rent as the Big R of Santa Monica politics, at least temporarily.

The City Council has ordered its staff to study a package of campaign reform proposals that could cut election costs, reduce the power of the city's political organizations and discourage deceptive campaign practices.

Election reform will be discussed at a special March 17 council session, and a number of council members have said they intend to push for changes in the local laws.

"I would say everybody on the council has some dissatisfaction with some aspect of the way elections are run in this city," Mayor James P. Conn said.

The reform proposals come in the wake of a November council election that cost nearly $500,000. Campaign expenditures have been rising steadily while the number of candidates has declined.

Thirty-two candidates ran for three council seats in 1975, but in last year's race only six people battled for three posts. A campaign that cost $4,500 in the 1970s could cost as much as $100,000 today. And a study by the California Commission on Campaign Financing shows that Santa Monica, where people are allowed to contribute as much as $1,491 to a candidate, has the state's second highest ceiling on political donations for cities and counties.

2 Political Groups Blamed

Some people blame the two political groups that have dominated city politics for most of the 1980s--Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition--for driving up campaign costs and discouraging participation by those not active in the groups. Others say Santa Monica reflects a nationwide trend toward costlier elections.

"Cities that have campaign finance laws are reevaluating these laws in light of a tremendous escalation in costs around the state," said Robert M. Stern, general counsel for the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a nonprofit group that advocates campaign reform. "We have seen a flurry of activity in the last year."

The reform proposals call for stricter limits on campaign spending and tougher laws against deceptive campaign practices. Another calls for numbering the seven at-large council seats. There even has been talk of establishing geographic council districts.

The idea of numbering the seats may be the most significant, several council members said. The current election system pits all of the candidates against each other. Under a plan proposed by Councilman Alan Katz, candidates would run for a specific council seat.

Katz, the council's only independent, said his proposal would weaken Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition because challengers could target a specific incumbent instead of taking on an entire slate.

"In the mob situation we have now it is impossible for someone who is not affiliated with an organization to win," Katz said. "The structure of elections is such that we have no choice in this town anymore."

Katz, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1985, should know. Last year he ran against another independent in a special election and received about 80% of the vote. Had he run in the regular election, against candidates affiliated with the two political groups, Katz believes that he would have finished last.

The proposal has gained support among Katz's fellow council members. Conn, Dennis Zane and David Finkel are members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, and Christine E. Reed, William H. Jennings and Herb Katz are members of the All Santa Monica Coalition.

'Us Versus Them'

"There has been a context in which it's us versus them, slate versus slate," Reed said. "You lose the personalities. Alan's proposal would bring independent-minded people . . . back into the framework of elections."

"If we ran against individuals, there would not be anywhere near the incentive or need to raise vast amounts of money" than is needed now, Jennings said. "The candidates . . . would have to run on their positions."

Katz's plan, which would require a citywide vote to become law, does not call for geographic council districts. He said he rejected that idea because Santa Monica, which is about eight square miles, is too small.

Said Reed: "In a city the size of Santa Monica it is far more important for us to work together than to break into constituent parts. We need people who will look after the needs of all 90,000-plus citizens."

Conn, Zane and Finkel, however, said the idea of geographic council districts may be worth considering at the March council session.

Katz's plan "has renewed discussion of the question of districting the city," Zane said. "There are a lot of advocates of that because the districts create a clearer accountability . . . between a neighborhood and a council member." Zane said district races could also cut campaign costs.

"I've always liked geographical districting," Finkel said. "It's one way to get minority representation in government. I am not convinced that we should have districts, but I am convinced that we should have a study made of the question."

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