Worried that contributions to local candidates where the donors’ affiliation to a particular special interest group is not readily identified can affect political races, a concerned group of residents is working with a nonprofit organization on a strategy to bring to the public’s attention the need for increased disclosure.
Common Cause, a self-described nonpartisan advocacy group, is assisting a group of Santa Monica residents who want to make it easier for the electorate to find out who may be behind certain donations to local elected officials.
“The names (on a candidate’s or officeholder’s campaign filing) don’t always reflect who might be behind the donation,” noted Jeanne Dodson, a 24-year Santa Monica resident who is involved with the citizens initiative called the Transparency Project.
A large part of the motivation to initiate the project stems from last November’s municipal elections in Santa Monica. An organization called Santa Monicans for Quality Government came under fire from public interest organizations during the Nov. 2 election for a slate mailer that featured City Councilwomen Pam O’Connor and Gleam Davis and Councilmen Robert Holbrook and Terry O’Day.
These officeholders accepted campaign contributions from Santa Monicans for Quality Government, which had ties to a developer with a controversial project before the council.
The Bergamot Transit Project, a nearly one million-square foot mixed-use development, is being proposed by the Hines Group, a Texas-based developer.
The Transparency Project detailed its concerns about certain campaign contributions in a letter to the council when Hines requested approval of a development agreement in March.
“The community’s trust was seriously shaken during the last election when mailers arrived that were described as ‘deceptive’ by the Police and Firefighters’ Associations, the Santa Monica Democratic Club, and the Community for Excellent Public Schools,” the letter states. “As an independent expenditure, Hines 26th St. and its attorneys contributed $17,500 to those mailers on behalf of two City Council candidates, per its campaign disclosure documents.”
Dodson said while she and the citizens group are not implying that acceptance of these donations constitute a quid pro quo, she believes that the public has the right to know who is behind the contributions.
“However you cut it, it has the appearance of a conflict of interest to take money from an entity (that has business before the city) that (the council is voting on),” Dodson asserted.
Tensions came to the surface at the March 22 council meeting when city officials were considering the Hines development deal. Anjuli Kronheim, Common Cause’s Los Angeles organizer, told the audience that Holbrook has accepted over $13,000 in campaign contributions from Hines and others affiliated with the development group. Holbrook appeared to take umbrage at the insinuation that he might be compromised for a $13,000 donation.
“You think $13,725 would influence me?” the councilman asked Kronheim, who responded that she did.
“My character would not allow that,” Holbrook retorted, adding that he had more money than that in his checking account.
Kronheim said she was not surprised that Holbrook took issue with her mentioning his campaign donation at the meeting.
“I think it’s always problematic for (elected officials) when members of the public bring to light donations that might influence an officeholder’s decision,” she told The Argonaut. “It’s not about how much money is involved; it’s about the public knowing in an easier way where campaign contributions are coming from.”
O’Connor also addressed the matter after Kronheim and Holbrook’s exchange, with a hint of irritability in her voice.
“Special interest groups abound in this city,” said the councilwoman, who has been accused of favoring developers. “I’m frankly getting a little tired of this misrepresentation of who is being influenced.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was not supported by Santa Monicans for Quality Government in last November’s election and said he does not accept contributions from developers, is pleased that the Transparency Project is drawing attention to campaign contributions in Santa Monica.
He mentioned how the Citizens United Decision, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, invalidated the long held prohibition on the amount of money that a union or corporation could spend in a political campaign and has ushered in a new era of undisclosed money that flooded the election cycle last year.
“We are seeing corporate money dominate democracy at the national level, a trend exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court decision,” McKeown said. “Even at the level of local government in Santa Monica, elections have been influenced by corporate and special interest donations hidden behind glossy mailers deceptively designed to look as if they come from respected localorganizations.”
In its letter to the council, the Transparency Project noted that there are municipalities that have ethics commissions that monitor campaign donations.
“Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have an Ethics Commission. In Santa Monica, we have neither the minimal requirement to disclose, nor any type of ethics group,” the letter states. “The result is large aggregate contributions that seem to have a direct relationship to large developments in the city, with no disclosure and no transparency, since the contribution records are buried in filings that require painstaking work to compile.”
Los Angeles Ethics Commissioner Marlene Canter thinks that Santa Monica would benefit from establishing an ethics commission.
“I would also encourage them to consider an ordinance that would address campaign finance laws,” said Canter, a former Los Angeles Unified School District board member who represented Westchester, Venice and Mar Vista.
O’Connor pointed out that developers are not the only groups that can seek to manipulate an election. “Slow-growth groups can also influence lawmakers,” she said at the March 22 meeting. “But it’s always spun that it is always the developer.
“If you don’t do what (some slow-growth advocates) say, they threaten you,” the councilwoman continued. “They attack you in campaigns.”
On Jan.11, McKeown introduced a motion directing the city’s staff to explore a set of policies that would require disclosure by members of the council whose campaign contributors come before the City Council requesting development agreements, zoning variances, contracts, franchises, or other special benefits.
The motion failed 4-2, with only McKeown and Councilman Bobby Shriver voting in favor.
“Since the election, I’ve heard concerns from a number of community organizations about the growing role of non-resident contributions in our local elections, sometimes deliberately ‘hidden’ through one-time organizations,” McKeown said before the January vote. “The main concern seems to be the voters’ inability to track those donations in a way that connects them to decisions, primarily land-use decisions, made bythe City Council.”
Kronheim said advising the pubic about campaign contributions is not necessarily about making an officeholder recuse, or not vote on, agenda items where they may have accepted money during a campaign. “It’s about how to better enlighten members of the public on who’s receiving campaign contributions,” she explained.
Canter agrees with McKeown that the Citizens United case has had an impact on elections at all levels, and an ethics commission or ordinance identifying all contributors would be in everyone’s best interest, she said.
“These kinds of ordinances are protections for everyone, but especially for the public,” the commissioner said.
The council voted to deny Hines the development agreement at the March meeting.
Mayor Richard Bloom also accepted donations from Hines. Shriver and McKeown did not.
Members of the Transparency Project say they will continue to press the council for complete disclosure on who is contributing to their campaigns.
“Our group will continue to inform the public and the press about donations which could influence council votes on development issues,” they pledged in a statement.