The Santa Monica city manager's office has been using public resources and a city-paid lobbyist to assist Councilwoman Judy Abdo in her campaign to win an appointed seat on the California Coastal Commission, one of the most powerful bodies in the state and a potential steppingstone to higher office.
The behind-the-scenes, month long effort on Abdo's behalf has been waged without the knowledge of most of the members of the beach community's City Council, including the mayor and mayor pro tem. They are not happy about it.
"I think it is extremely inappropriate to use taxpayers' resources for this kind of thing," said Mayor Pro Tem Asha Greenberg. "What it does is further one person's political career."
A spokeswoman for Common Cause, the government watchdog group, said such lobbying amounts to a misuse of taxpayers' money because it exceeds the city employees' official duties.
"It's not what we would agree with or find ethical," said Elizabeth Lambe, local government affairs director of Common Cause.
City Manager John Jalili justified the effort by saying Santa Monica benefits from having an elected official on the commission. He said all cities assist elected officials in gaining appointments to regional and state boards, and added that minimal staff effort was expended on Abdo's behalf.
However, documents obtained by The Times indicate that city officials' assistance for Abdo has been considerable. The city managers of two other communities with council members competing for the Coastal Commission said they have not mounted similar efforts; had they done so, they said, they would have needed council approval.
"We do not operate that way," said Paul Bussey, the city manager of Rancho Palos Verdes, where Mayor Pro Tem Marilyn Lyon is seeking the Coastal Commission seat.
Documents show that three Santa Monica city staff members, including the city manager, have taken a hands-on role by sending out letters on city stationery seeking support for Abdo's Coastal Commission candidacy.
The documents include several handwritten notes to staff members from Abdo. In one, she directs a senior staff member to contact Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg to rally support for her campaign. In another, she tells Jalili and his senior staff member to send out letters seeking endorsements from officials in other cities.
The city manager's office also enlisted Santa Monica's lobbyist in Sacramento, Josh Shaw, to work his contacts. Jalili personally sought support from other Westside city managers and sent them a letter that includes pro-Abdo "talking points."
Abdo denied any impropriety. "Staff is there to do correspondence that all council members have," she said. "That is what their job is."
Abdo is seeking a two-year term on the 12-member commission, a slot earmarked for an elected official from Los Angeles or Orange counties. The seat has been vacant since Feb. 1, after the retirement of Linda Moulton-Patterson, a former Huntington Beach City Council member.
State Sen. President Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) will make the appointment after a public hearing held by the Senate Rules Committee. Lockyer's press secretary, Karin Caves, said Abdo is one of eight elected officials from the two counties who have expressed interest in serving on the panel, which regulates the use of coastal lands.
Abdo and Agoura Hills Councilwoman Fran Pavley were nominated Feb. 14 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky recommended the nominations at the request of the mayors of the two cities.
A coastal commissioner is paid up to $500 a month, as well as travel expenses to meetings held throughout the state. More important to a politician, however, is the exposure to political players.
None of Abdo's critics allege that her actions are illegal. State law prohibits elected officials from using taxpayer-funded city employees in campaigns for elected office, but such help is not prohibited in bids for appointed posts.
Present and former members of the Santa Monica City Council are criticizing Abdo and Jalili for failing to inform the council of the city staff's efforts on Abdo's behalf.
"Why the secrecy?" asked former Santa Monica Councilman Herb Katz. "Why not upfront, with council approval?"
Abdo said the Brown Act, which requires elected officials to conduct city business in public, prohibited her from informally telling council members of her candidacy. Asked why she had not put the issue on the council agenda, she said she had not thought to do so.
"If some feelings got hurt, I'm sorry," Abdo said.
Former City Councilman Kelly Olsen said the council should have decided whom the city would back. "If it's deemed to be in the public interest to have Abdo, who deemed it that? City staff? Is that their role?" he asked.
Mayor Paul Rosenstein and Councilman Ken Genser were also critical.
"This is the way Judy does things," Rosenstein said.
In at least three other communities where council members are seeking the Coastal Commission seat, city managers say they have played no role in the campaigns.
In Monrovia, home of Coastal Commission candidate--and City Council member--Lara Blakely, city staff does not lobby for political appointments, said City Manager Rod Gould. The city's mayor, Bob Bartlett, has on his own won seats on key boards, including the Southern California Assn. of Governments, Gould said.
If the appointment of Blakely would help Monrovia, he said, it "would be up to her to bring it up to the City Council. There won't be one penny spent unless the council says so."