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Santa Monica Elections Rated Too Costly, Too Exclusive

March 17, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

In a report that is highly critical of Santa Monica's political process, a nonprofit organization has charged that the city's local elections are too costly, too exclusive and too lax in areas of financial accountability.

The California Commission on Campaign Financing, which studied Santa Monica as part of a statewide report on local campaign spending, said the problems are largely caused by the city's rival political factions, the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the more moderate All Santa Monica Coalition.

The commission accused the two groups of stockpiling funds, discouraging outside competition and focusing on rent control to the exclusion of all other issues. The group also charged that the city's "toothless" campaign finance law allows the slates to indiscriminately transfer funds among candidates.

Robert M. Stern, the commission's co-director, said neither group is accountable for its spending practices under the current law. "We don't have the (contribution) literature, so we can't come out and say that they actually went over the limits," Stern said. "But we are saying it's a possibility."

The commission found that Santa Monica campaign expenditures have jumped 1,300% in 11 years, with the average candidate spending nearly $60,000, or $4 per vote, in 1986. The contribution limit of $1,491 per contributor is by far the highest of any city or county in the state, the commission added.

Enforcement Called Nonexistent

The city is supposed to keep strict tabs on how much money each candidate has raised and spent. But the commission found that enforcement of the law is essentially nonexistent since the city clerk's office receives but does not review the financial documents. The group also discovered that the city's law provides no serious penalties for campaign finance violations.

Councilwoman Christine E. Reed, a member of the coalition, admitted that transfers of funds among candidates occur. But Reed said that the practice is much more common among members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.

Reed said her opponents have stymied reform efforts. "They can't stand the idea of giving up their abuses to get at our abuses," she said. "On the other hand, I'm not willing to give up my abuses if their abuses continue."

Councilman Dennis Zane, a longtime leader of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, denied that serious abuses have occurred. He said the tenant faction has less need to transfer funds since most of its money comes from small donations that are evenly divided among the candidates. Zane also said the commission should have done a better job in its report of distinguishing between the two political factions.

Councilman David Finkel, another member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, said he favors some reforms, such as limits on spending, but defended the practice of transferring funds. Finkel said the renter faction depends on the system because most of its contributions come in small increments.

"I see it as a contest of the big guys versus the little guys," Finkel said. "We have to have maximum flexibility with the way we use our funds."

The two factions depend on different sources for contributions. The tightly knit Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights receives a large chunk of its money from Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and his political organization although the group also has an aggressive door-to-door collection system.

Traditional Funding Sources

The more loosely based All Santa Monica Coalition is more dependent on traditional funding sources such as real estate brokers, landlords and businessmen.

But money was not the commission's sole concern. The group also found that a unique political environment exists in Santa Monica in which intensely competitive slates substitute for political parties, local concerns are sometimes pushed aside in favor of foreign policy debates, celebrities often assist in fund raising and a near obsession with rent control tends to supersede all other issues.

Stern said the two political factions, which came into existence during the rent control battles of the past 10 years, have radically altered the nature of Santa Monica politics. He credits the two groups for the quality of their representation but said they have created a "closed" political system that makes it virtually impossible for a candidate to attain a council seat without their backing.

He said the commission also found that the slates have done little or nothing to encourage minority participation, noting that only one minority candidate, tenant activist Julie Lopez Dad in 1986, has been supported by either slate.

And the commission found that, in the heat of battle, both factions have engaged in political dirty tricks.

"The slates have devoted considerable effort to campaigns that confuse and blur the distinctions between the candidate blocs," the report said. "These practices hit a new low in the 1986 campaign, one that rivaled many of the ugliest big city elections.

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