The Santa Monica City Council edged closer to campaign reform this week. But action on specific reform proposals has been tabled for several months.
Mayor James P. Conn said the council needs time to digest and reflect on the information gathered during a three-hour public hearing Tuesday night. The council will tackle campaign reform again at a special July 7 meeting.
"What we did was put all of the possible options on the table," Conn said after the meeting. "I assume that what will go on (now) is some serious evaluation of what the various proposals will mean if they work out."
Several possible election law changes were discussed Tuesday.
Councilman Alan Katz reintroduced the idea of numbering the at-large council seats for the purposes of elections. Councilwoman Christine E. Reed and others said the council should make the city's two political slates--Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition--more accountable. And Councilmen Dennis Zane and David Finkel suggested strict spending limits.
Finkel said Santa Monica campaign spending is "obscene." His comments were echoed by council colleagues who recalled that eight candidates spent more than half a million dollars total in last year's race for four City Council seats.
Robert M. Stern, general counsel for the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a nonprofit group that advocates reform, told the council that Santa Monica has the state's second-highest ceiling on campaign donations.
The contribution law, which is based on the city's population, allows personal contributions of $1,491 to each candidate. Other cities have enacted campatign contribution limits as low as $50 per candidate in recent years.
The Santa Monica council favors lower contribution limits. But there were no specific plans proposed Tuesday. Council members discussed a broad range of ideas, including public financing of elections and voluntary spending limits.
Katz said his numbered-seat proposal would discourage high spending. Council candidates currently run in a pack, competing for the highest number of overall votes. Under Katz's plan, each of the seven at-large seats would have a designated number and candidates would run for a specific seat.
Katz said the proposal would make candidates more accountable because voters could choose a specific candidate for each seat. He said it would also open elections to independents who are unable to compete against candidates affiliated with Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the All Santa Monica Coalition.
'Nothing Else Works'
"Under the current system you must be with SMRR or the coalition," said Katz, an independent who won his seat in a special election. "Nothing else works. My proposal gives the people the ultimate choice of whether or not they want to buy into slate politics. They should be the decision-makers, not us."
Paul DeSantis, a real estate attorney active in Santa Monica politics, said geographic districting of council seats is also worth considering. DeSantis told the council that districting may be the only way to ensure that minorites such as blacks and Latinos get fair representation on the council.
"Why are there no blacks and Hispanics on the council?," DeSantis asked in a speech to the council. "Why is there only one woman? Who represents the less affluent areas? A neighborhood activist could run with a few thousand dollars and a good pair of walking shoes with a districting system."
Other speakers focused on deceptive campaign practices. Supporters of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights charged that the All Santa Monica Coalition tricked the voters last year by mimicking the name and slogan of the renters' rights organization.
"If that isn't sleazy and devious, then I don't know what is," said Herman Rosenstein, a longtime supporter of renters' rights. Dan Cohen said that people who use deceptive tactics have a "contempt for the American people."
Only a Handful Speak
Finkel asked Stern of the California Commission on Campaign Financing if copyright laws could be used to protect a political group's identity. Stern said it was unlikely. "I don't think you could overturn an election based on a copyright violation," he said.
Conn said the council should be prepared to present specific, workable reforms next time it meets. But, noting that fewer than 10 residents addressed the council on reform Tuesday, Conn questioned whether the reform movement that gained momentum in the wake of last year's costly council election still has any momentum.
"You make structural reforms because there's a need for it," Conn said. "If last night's audience was any indication, there ain't no need."