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Santa Monica Lends Support, but No Money, to Debate Plan

September 10, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica officials have half-heartedly endorsed a proposal to hold a series of "electronic" presidential forums in their city. They signed on as co-sponsors of the meetings, which would give an audience a chance to respond electronically to a candidate's comments, but refused to provide any seed money.

Council members said the city should not risk $38,000 in public money on a program organized by a private citizen, even though the city would benefit from the national attention generated by the events. They told the promoter, Carl D. Rogers, that he should try to raise the start-up money privately.

"I think that the idea has merit," said Councilman Dennis Zane. "But I am also concerned about the money. If they can pull it together, great."

Receives Narrow Support

The proposal passed by the narrowest possible margin, 4 to 3. Mayor James P. Conn, who opposed the proposal along with council members Christine E. Reed and Herb Katz, said he feared that the city would set a bad precedent by providing a private citizen with free use of the Santa Monica Civic Center--which the city is now obligated to do under its agreement to co-host the events.

But other council members, such as David Finkel, argued that the good points outweighed the bad. "It's very easy to say 'no,' " Finkel told his colleagues. "But we cannot be hurt by this. Let's say 'yes' for once."

Rogers, who drafted a formal response in anticipation of the city rejecting the idea, said he was glad to have gotten as far as he did. He said he will immediately start contacting candidates and investigating funding sources.

"This is not exactly what I had hoped for," Rogers said. "But it is certainly better than having the proposal voted down. . . . We will have to do a little more work now. But we needed the city's sponsorship and we got it."

Rogers, a 44-year-old Vietnam veteran and political activist from Venice, proposed the political forums in July. Rogers said that the city could attract intense media attention and increase 1988 voter participation by co-sponsoring a series of forums using a new electronic device called the Quick Tally.

Instant Audience Feedback

Rogers said the Quick Tally, which fits in the palm of a person's hand, would make it possible for as many as 300 audience members to instantly respond to a candidate's comments. The responses would then be displayed on large screens in view of the everyone. The system has been tested in Alaska and Hawaii, but has never been used in a national political context.

City officials were clearly intrigued by the proposal, and the idea that the forums could be used as a way to stimulate interest in the local and national elections next year. But they also expressed doubt that Rogers could pull the events together this late in the presidential primary process.

The presidential candidates from both parties are heavily booked from now until next year's primaries. Rogers said that he would try to get each of the candidates to participate in individual forums when they come to California. The lure will be the expected media coverage.

"We intend to create the kind of event that these people will be attracted to," said Rogers, who hopes to stage the forums between November and April.

Eli F. Bleich, who owns the Quick Tally, also spoke in favor of the forums. Bleich said the city is sure to benefit from the programs. "This is an event that's good for Santa Monica," Bleich said. "It brings the city national attention. And that's the kind of publicity you can't buy."

Rogers estimated that it will cost $800,000 to $1 million to stage the forums. He will spend the next several months trying to round up corporate support. Rogers said that he is confident about the prospects for success.

In a report issued to the council, the city staff said that officials had nothing to lose by co-sponsoring the forums if Rogers raises the money for the events independently. The staff said the city should support the project "in concept."

But Reed, the most vocal opponent, said she is not so sure the candidates will want to subject themselves to such a public experiment. Reed also warned that the city could suffer public ridicule for its involvement.

"The Quick Tally system reduces the major questions that face the nation to black and white, yes and no," Reed said. "It's the kind of thing that makes for good jokes on the Johnny Carson show."

Councilman Alan Katz agreed that the candidates could be "turned off" by the system. "But it's still an intriguing idea," Katz said. "And I think that we should give them a shot at it."

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