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Santa Monica Council Acts to End Squabbles Over Travel, Staff, Seating


The Santa Monica City Council attempted to cut down friction among its members Tuesday by regulating travel expenses, controlling the use of city staff and rearranging the council's dais seating and voting order.

The new, more detailed rules were requested by the council after several public and private controversies on the three issues.

Last year, former Councilman Antonio Vazquez allegedly overspent his annual $4,693 travel budget by more than $1,700, getting the extra money from other council members' travel budgets without the knowledge of the full council.

Council members are allocated money each year to attend conferences and meetings. Regulations already outline what is considered necessary travel and which expenses can be reimbursed.

The new rules prohibit spending city funds for family members' or companions' travel expenses, and outline how newly elected council members who are sworn in in mid-year can tap into the travel money left by outgoing council members.

The decision to limit staff assistance to council members came up after the council discovered that Councilwoman Judy Abdo had been using public resources to wage an aggressive campaign for a seat on the California Coastal Commission.

When the campaign was uncovered in February, most of Abdo's council colleagues criticized her for using City Hall staff and not formally notifying them of her campaign.

Under the new rules, city staff can help council members with routine clerical work or information gathering, but council members may not order staff to do private work. City Manager John Jalili will handle all staff work assignments when directed by a majority of the council.

The debate over the seating arrangements prompted weeks of sniping between some council members when council members Ruth Ebner and Robert Holbrook switched seats.

Traditionally, the mayor has sat at the point of the V-shaped dais and the council members in alphabetical order on either side of him, although there was no written policy.

On Tuesday, Mayor Paul Rosenstein declined to say why some council members opposed the Ebner-Holbrook switch, noting only that a few council members thought it was "not appropriate." The political factions and personality conflicts on the council triggered the infighting over the switch, council members said privately.

After a long debate, the council voted to draw lots every year to determine the seating arrangements. It also determined that the voting order should follow the seating arrangements. Since voting first is considered least desirable, the council decided to reverse the voting order for each vote.

Council members pulled numbers out of a paper cup late Tuesday night and will be sitting in their new positions next week.

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