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ELECTIONS MUNICIPAL COURT : Rent Control Is Now an Issue Even in What Is Usually a Low-Key Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Santa Monica politics, there’s no escaping rent control. It has emerged as a central issue even in next week’s contest for Municipal Court judge, usually the most low-key of all elections.

The winner will be expected to decide landlord-tenant disputes that may appear before the court, and all four candidates in the June 5 primary say they would be objective in such matters. But the outcome of the race to succeed retiring Judge Joseph P. Chandler may be determined by the candidates’ association with various factions of the rent control debate.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the tenants group whose candidates control both the City Council and the city Rent Control Board, has endorsed City Councilman David B. Finkel, a labor attorney, for judge.

Action, a local landlords group, has not formally endorsed West Los Angeles Court Commissioner Norman Perry Tarle, but many members of the group are supporting him.

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Another candidate, Sonya Bekoff Molho, is a tenants’ attorney who co-founded the Tenants Organizing Project, a legal aid program for tenants, under the aegis of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

The fourth candidate, Santa Monica Community College Board Trustee James M. Bambrick, a civil litigator, says he has no connection with either the landlords’ or the tenants’ group, which may also be an advantage.

All four candidates have been rated “well qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

Though the office is a nonpartisan one, the June 5 election is still considered a primary, because unless one of the four candidates wins a majority of the votes, there will be a runoff in November between the two top vote-getters.

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None of the candidates have attacked each other publicly or in their literature. In separate interviews, they were reluctant to say anything, negative or positive, about their opponents.

But all the candidates acknowledged that, regardless of whether it is appropriate or relevant, rent control may decide the outcome.

All four candidates say that while walking precincts they have been asked their opinions on rent control and other city issues that have nothing to do with the judiciary or are inappropriate to discuss because the matter may appear before them in court.

But it is unclear which side, if any, of the rent control debate will provide the advantage. Both sides are in the midst of proposing changes to the law that would allow rents to increase. Landlords are promoting a ballot initiative that would allow rents to increase to market levels on voluntary vacancies. Some tenant advocates are advocating a ballot initiative that would allow rents to increase to specific higher levels upon voluntary vacancies, but would not allow the full decontrol of vacated units that landlords say is needed.

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Tenants make up 80% of the city’s population and generally control local elections. But because landlords have taken more than 1,000 rental units off the housing market in the last four years under provisions of the state Ellis Act, there is a growing belief that tenants are starting to fear the loss of their apartments and may be ready to shift their allegiance. The 1986 Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants and go out of business.

Some observers suggest that residents may be growing weary of the rent control battle and are ready to support someone who is not associated with either side.

But Bambrick, the nonaligned candidate, is not so sure.

“When you walk both sides of the street, you’re likely to get hit by a bus,” he said.

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A Municipal Court judge, who serves a six-year term at an annual salary of $86,157, deals with civil matters involving less than $25,000, and misdemeanor criminal matters with maximum penalties of a year or less in jail. Most criminal matters deal with traffic, landlord-tenant disputes or misdemeanor drunk driving. Municipal judges also preside at Small Claims Court.

Following are brief backgrounds on each of the candidates, in the same order as on the ballot:

* James M. Bambrick, 50, has lived in Santa Monica since the age of 2 and graduated from St. Monica’s High School. He is married and the father of four children ages 14 to 24.

He is endorsed by Chandler, 73, who is giving up his seat on the bench after 20 years, as well as several other judges, including Beverly Hills Municipal Court Judge Judith O. Stein. He also has the endorsements of Los Angeles County Supervisors Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich, state Sen. Robert G. Beverly (R-Manhattan Beach), Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) and U.S. Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), among others.

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Bambrick is in his third term as a trustee of Santa Monica City College. He served as a member of the Board of Education of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District from 1979 to 1983.

He is managing partner of the firm Richardson & Bambrick and says he has tried more than 50 civil jury trials.

* David B. Finkel, 58, has lived in Santa Monica since 1963. He is married and is the father of four children ages 24 to 32.

Finkel is considered the front-runner in the race by the other candidates because of his high name recognition as a city councilman. Finkel says that has also worked to his disadvantage, because voters often want to discuss city issues when he is precinct-walking rather than his qualifications for judge.

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He is endorsed by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Santa Monica Mayor Dennis Zane, Santa Monica City Atty. Robert Myers, the Santa Monica Democratic Club and several former and current members of the city Rent Control Board, among others.

Finkel was appointed to the rent control board in 1981, and elected to a full four-year term in 1983. In 1986, he was elected to the City Council, and serves as mayor pro tem.

He has been an attorney for 30 years, mostly as a labor and civil litigator in private practice. He is the only one of the four candidates to have his ballot statement printed in Spanish as well as English.

* Sonya Bekoff Molho, 43, has lived in Mar Vista, next to Santa Monica, with her husband since 1972.

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Molho, who is endorsed by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and rent board members Susan Packer Davis and Wayne Bauer, makes a point in her campaign that she would be the first woman judge on the Santa Monica Municipal Court. She said a woman judge would help ensure fairness of penalties in abuse, child support and custody cases.

Molho, a tenant defense attorney for 12 years, says she has tried more than 500 cases and is best-known for her victory last year in Minelian vs. Manzella. The case established the right of tenants to withhold rent to recover previous overcharges.

* Norman Perry Tarle, 39, has lived in Santa Monica since 1974. He is married and has three children ages 4 to 13.

He is endorsed by Santa Monica City Councilman Herb Katz, U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman and 54 Superior and Municipal Court judges and commissioners.

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Tarle, a past president of the Bay Cities Jewish Community Center, was appointed a court commissioner in West Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1985, a job that entails duties similar to those of a Municipal Court judge. He was a Los Angeles deputy city attorney from 1979 to 1985.


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