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'Big Money' Dominates Ballot Measure Campaigns

March 25, 1993|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the furious fight over oil drilling in Pacific Palisades to the battle over card clubs in West Hollywood, big-money interests dominate local ballot measure campaigns to an extraordinary degree.

That conclusion emerges from a newly released two-year study of contributions and spending on Los Angeles-area ballot measures conducted by the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a private group dedicated to reforming the political process.

The study found that contributors of $100,000 or more provided 80% of all money given in local ballot measure campaigns in the Los Angeles area between 1983 and 1991.

Business was the largest source of those campaign dollars, giving 77% of the money raised. Officeholders donated 14% and individuals 8%.

Nowhere was that more true than in the titanic 1988 struggle over Occidental Petroleum's plan to drill for oil across Pacific Coast Highway from Will Rogers State Beach.

Robert Stern, co-director of the commission, said the $11.5-million battle at the ballot box between the oil company and drilling opponents was "the single most expensive local ballot measure campaign in the history of California."

Occidental Petroleum gave almost $8 million, or 99% of the money spent on a citywide campaign to block an initiative placed on the ballot by anti-drilling forces and to pass a rival measure that would have allowed the drilling to proceed.

Despite the huge outlay, the company lost on both fronts. The anti-drilling measure won narrow approval, and Occidental Petroleum's alternative was resoundingly defeated. But Occidental's campaign spending won it the distinction of having made the fourth-largest contribution to any local or statewide initiative campaign in the state's history, the commission said.

Of the $3.3 million spent by anti-drilling forces, the largest contributions came from state Controller Gray Davis, whose campaign committee provided $900,000; Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who donated $820,000; Hollywood investor A. Jerrold Perenchio, who gave $225,000, and Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, who contributed $194,300.

Not far from the focal point of oil drilling fight, another costly ballot fight was waged in 1990 over plans to build a luxury hotel on a state beach in Santa Monica.

Restaurateur Michael McCarty, the would-be developer, contributed $574,000 in an ill-fated effort to save the hotel project. Developer Maguire Thomas Partners weighed in with a $126,500 donation against another measure, approved by the voters to restrict hotel development along the city's beachfront.

Environmentalists, neighborhood residents and members of the private Sand and Sea Club, which occupied the site where McCarty's hotel would have been built, financed the successful campaign against the project.

"Santa Monica's ballot initiative patterns of $100,000-plus contributions, high spending per vote and one-sided spending closely parallel--and in some cases far outpace--those of multimillion-dollar statewide initiatives," Commission Co-Chair Frank Wheat said.

Backers of a 1990 initiative to authorize a card club in West Hollywood won the distinction of spending almost $294,000, or $108 per vote, only to lose. It was the second-highest amount per vote of local ballot campaigns studied.

Based on their findings, the commission, composed of business, labor and community leaders, called for a series of political reforms, including tougher disclosure requirements in advertising and slate cards so voters know who is backing expensive ballot campaigns.

The commission also said initiative petitions should carry the names of the two largest donors at the top of each page while signatures are being gathered.

Stern said cities should provide as much information as possible in their ballot pamphlets. He praised Santa Monica for presenting voters with pro and con arguments and information on financial backers in an easy-to-read format.

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