Pro-Business Pressure Claimed : Charging Politics, 2 Quit Santa Monica Arts Panel

Times Staff Writer

Two original members of the Santa Monica Arts Commission have turned in bitter letters of resignation, charging that the commission's integrity and independence have been compromised by political pressures.

Bruria Finkel and Max Benavidez quit the board during this week's meeting. Both accused the city of trying to coerce Arts Commission members into making decisions that would please the business community.

The resignations came after Finkel lost her bid to head the commission. Finkel claimed that she was defeated as a result of being unfairly characterized as anti-business. She charged that City Councilmen James Conn and William Jennings, the former and present council liaisons to the commission, lobbied for a pro-business candidate.

Finkel called the councilmen's act "brazen, unconscionable and immoral" and criticized Jennings in particular for "imploring the commission to elect a person who could work within the business community." Benavidez agreed that both had tried to influence the selection of the commission's new chairman. With regard to Jennings, Benavidez said his actions "amounted to a virtual declaration that the commissions should become a vassal of the business community."

Walked out of Meeting

Lindsay Shields, a candidate widely considered more acceptable to businessmen, won the commission leadership by a 5-4 vote. After the election, Finkel and Benavidez walked out of the meeting.

Contacted about the incident Wednesday, Conn and Jennings defended their role in the election. Conn, known as a strong Arts Commission supporter in the past, said he spoke to several commission members to inform them that there was a strong push under way for a pro-business chairman.

"The idea was to give them more information than they were working on," Conn said. "I didn't say that I think you should vote for this person. . . . I think it's sad that two people who have given so much to the commission felt they had to resign. But the commission itself is bigger than any one person."

Jennings said he pushed for a pro-business leader because businessmen had become hostile to the commission. Maintaining that the commission needs business' financial support, Jennings said he saw it as his responsibility to "rehabilitate and resurrect the commission" by finding a satisfactory leader.

Jennings Defends Role

"I urged them to vote for someone who the business community had confidence in," Jennings said. "I don't see anything wrong with lobbying people, provided you don't try to intimidate them. . . . I never intended for anyone to be pressured and I'm sure that Conn did not pressure anyone."

Jennings called the resignations a "childish" response. He also dismissed the argument that the commission should be independent from the council.

"This is a commission of the council," Jennings said. "They don't have their own money. They don't have their own staff. They're not independent of us. They're a creation of us and they're there to assist us."

The Arts Commission, created in 1982, receives about $125,000 a year from the city. Outgoing Chairman Paul Leaf said the council has mandated that the commission find matching funds but has not been satisfied with the commission's effort.

'Not Notably Successful'

"We have not been notably successful to date," Leaf said. "My comment to Jennings was that I didn't believe the chairman should be a fund-raiser. One of the people on the commission was supposed to be a liaison to the business community. I think that's what our (fund-raising) foundation was created for."

Leaf called the departure of Finkel and Benavidez a big loss. Finkel, a sculptor and wife of Rent Control Board Commissioner David Finkel, was credited with bringing "energy and imagination" to the commission. She led the drive to create a Natural Elements Sculpture Park in Santa Monica and has been considered a leader in the city's art community. Benavidez, a writing teacher at California State University, Northridge, and a published poet, was the commission's representative to the Third Street Mall and its only Latino member.

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