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Measure Puts $500 Limit on Donations

Times Staff Writer

The amount of money a person may contribute to a Santa Monica candidate--currently the highest of any city in the state--will be reduced if voters approve a newly proposed ballot initiative this fall.

The measure, filed late last week with the city clerk’s office, would slash the maximum allowable individual contribution to $500 per candidate, down 66% from the current $1,491.

Sponsors of the measure said it would encourage participation by citizens and small contributors in city elections and discourage undue influence of special interests.

Slates Still Allowed

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Critics charged that the proposed initiative does little to reform the electoral process in Santa Monica, does not reduce overall spending and, in fact, institutionalizes some of the perceived abuses.

The measure was written by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, a liberal faction and one of the city’s dominant political forces for nine years.

The proposal would guarantee that candidates be allowed to continue to form slates, the sometimes-controversial way elections are usually run in Santa Monica. It bars any limitation on the amount of money that can be collected by the slates, or committees that are formed to support candidates. There would be no limit on how long those committees can exist nor to what extent a committee can pool resources for candidates.

“This measure will dramatically cut the influence of special interests in our elections, and will give the average Santa Monica voter more of an equal footing in the electoral process,” Ken Genser, co-chairman of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, said in a press release.

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“Working people and tenants who want to participate in the political process may have only $20 to give to the candidate of their choice, while developers and landlords have no difficulty at all coming up with $1,491. . . .”

Sponsors of the initiative say they plan to circulate petitions as soon as the city attorney’s office completes an analysis of the measure. According to the city clerk’s office, 5,400 signatures are required to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Preserving Status Quo

Critics of the measure said it presents the face of reform while preserving the way election campaigns are currently run in Santa Monica.

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“Without expenditure limits, these are cosmetic changes to Santa Monica law,” said Robert Stern, co-director of the nonprofit California Commission on Campaign Financing, which recently issued a report critical of the city’s political process. “Contribution limits by themselves are not very effective in limiting spending.”

The commission’s 39-page report, released in March, was especially critical of the way the city’s two rival political factions--Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights and the now-defunct All Santa Monica Coalition--have conducted their campaigns, running as slates that, according to the commission, discourage outside competition.

Money received by each faction is pooled and distributed among candidates, the report charged, undermining any form of financial accountability.

Spending Has Skyrocketed

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And the result, the commission found, is that spending by candidates has skyrocketed 1,300% between 1975 and 1986.

City Councilwoman Christine Reed, a former member of the All Santa Monica Coalition, attacked the proposed initiative as “a real step backwards.”

“It validates and institutionalizes the system of machine politics that has developed in this city,” Reed charged. The proposed measure gives “a license for people to create slush funds carried over from campaign to campaign. . . .

“They are writing into the charter the current morass that exists, validating the bad practices and not getting at any of the real reform that is necessary.”

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Reed said the proposed initiative came in response to campaign-spending reform measures she put before the council earlier this year. Her measures would have set up a committee for each candidate and barred transfer of funds among candidates’ committees.

Proposals Shelved

Reed said she shelved her proposals when it became evident that she could not get enough votes to pass them. The seven-member council is evenly divided between the two factions, with one independent member.

Dennis Zane, a member of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights who is running for reelection to the council, defended the participation of slates in the city’s elections.

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“The evolution of slates is basically a grass-roots community response to . . . people who have lots of money from big contributors,” Zane, a co-author of the proposed initiative, said.

“It is not surprising (that) people who rely on large contributions and don’t need slates, object to slates. Slates mean that ordinary folks have a shot at winning against the big folks.”

Zane said limiting campaign contributions would insulate the development review process that the City Council oversees from the influence of developers’ big campaign contributions. He said some local residents have expressed concern that some council members have been unduly influenced by developers’ contributions and have allowed approval of excessively large development projects.

Close the Loopholes

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In a related move, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights also filed papers for another initiative that would close what is said are loopholes in the city’s tough rent control law.

The measure would require that rent control be applied to previously exempt two- and three-unit buildings in which the owner is also a tenant.

The measure would also make it more difficult for landlords to carry out some evictions. Currently, a landlord can evict a tenant so the landlord’s relatives, including in-laws, can move in. The new measure would allow such an eviction only when it is the landlord’s dependent spouse, dependent children, dependent parent or dependent grandparents who would move in.

Reed criticized the initiative, saying it “breaks the faith” made when rent control was voted into law in 1979 and owners of the smaller two- and three-unit buildings were assured that their property would be exempt. The small-property owners are not landlords “out to make megabucks” but mom-and-pop owners who deserve special consideration, she said.

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