The Santa Monica City Council voted Nov. 8 to increase the amount that a contributor can give to political campaigns despite calls from the public to maintain the current limit.

A staff report recommended that the council bump the limit to $400 from $250, which has been in place since 1992.

The vote was 6-1, with Councilman Kevin McKeown as the lone dissenting vote.

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis proposed a compromise amount of $325 during the council discussion over the $400 limit, which drew a variety of responses from members of the city’s governing body.

Councilman Robert Holbrook, who has been the target of a group of election reform-minded residents for his acceptance of developer contributions, said it was difficult to run a political campaign in the seaside city.

“It’s a very tough road to hoe,” Holbrook said regarding campaigning in Santa Monica. “You have to go out and raise money and I hate doing it.

“It’s hard to do unless you’re connected to one of the political parties or (organized) groups.”

Councilman Bobby Shriver said raising the amount of a donation was not necessarily tantamount to an increase because the purchasing power of $400 was not what it was in 1992.

“It’s just really not correct as a financial matter to say that we’re raising the limit. It’s just a number,” Shriver told the audience. “The actual value has declined and that was the thinking behind the motion.”

Several residents opposed having the limit raised, citing concerns about outside organizations benefiting from an increase in the amount of contributions.

Research conducted by the Santa Monica Transparency project, a group of residents that has been monitoring campaign donations and seeking more disclosure from candidates for public office, found that in the most recent election, 256 individual donors from Santa Monica gave money to officeholders and contenders while 804 contributors were from outside the city limits.

Holbrook noted that candidates frequently receive donations from friends and family who reside outside the city where those seeking office live.

McKeown countered that many of the outside donors are groups that have business before the council and also have corporate and developer interests.

Resident Mary Marlow reminded the council before the vote about a 2008 report that stated that the current financial limit should remain intact.

“I’d really like to see you take a look at disclosure and the election enforcement process,” she suggested.

Assisting residents in finding out who has contributed to a candidate or an elected official campaign has been a hot-button topic in Santa Monica in recent years. During the 2010 municipal election, an organization called Santa Monicans for Quality Government donated money to Davis, Holbrook, Councilman Terry O’Day and Councilwoman Pam O’Connor.

Santa Monicans for Quality Government, unbeknownst to the majority of the electorate, was affiliated with the Hines Group, a Texas-based development company that is seeking to build the Bergamot Transit Project, a nearly one million-square foot mixed-use development near Stewart Park.

McKeown pointed out that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights and the Santa Monica Democratic Club sent letters to the council urging them not to increase the campaign limit. But he focused mainly on the residents who addressed the council that night and on prior evenings regarding financial disclosure and limits on contributions.

“This is troubling to many people in the community and I think that is why so many of them have come and spoken to us,” he said.

The councilman blasted the United States Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, a landmark ruling that allowed corporations, union and other donors to raise unlimited amounts of money and donate them to political campaigns. Unlike with unions, corporate donors are not required to disclose who is contributing to a particular campaign or raising the funds.

“Citizens United has unleashed a flood of corporate money not only into our nation politics, but in our state and local politics,” McKeown asserted. “It’s important to understand why so much of the public came to us with their concerns.”

Anjuli Kronheim, the Los Angeles organizer for Common Cause, a nonprofit lobbying and advocacy organization, agrees with McKeown regarding the influx of money into local elections.

“It’s very alarming. But it seems to be the norm now in city council races,” said Kronheim, whose organization is assisting The Transparency Project.

Representatives from the boards of the Mid-City Neighbors and Sunset Park associations told the council that their boards also opposed raising the contribution limit.

McKeown has been the most tenacious among council members on campaign disclosure. At the Jan. 11 council meeting, he asked his colleagues to consider a policy that will make public any campaign contributions by anyone who wishes to build in the city.

The motion failed by a 4-2 vote.

McKeown also mentioned that Mayor Richard Bloom, who is running for the newly created 50th Assembly District seat, has received a large amount of money from developers for his campaign.

Kronheim called the $325 amount instead of the requested $400 a “mini-victory,” but she does not think that it will help Santa Monica residents who are seeking election campaign reform.

Shriver wanted the audience to know why he voted for upping the limit to $325.

“I’m voting (to increase the contribution limit) so that new candidates will be able to compete with out of town money and corporations,” Shriver explained, reasoning that contenders will be able to ask for larger contributions in the new policy.

Shriver also thinks that while the Transparency Project’s research on outside contributions is laudable, he feels there is another aspect that should be examined.

“How many of the 804 (outside donors) are the candidates’ family or friends?” he asked. “That’s the place where real transparency can occur.”

The council also voted to pass an ordinance that will require candidates for office to collect 200 signatures in order to qualify for the ballot or 100 signatures plus a filing fee.

Jerry Rubin, a longtime local social activist who ran for City Council in 2010, said he agreed with a candidate filing fee.

“I think that it’s not unfair to pay for some of the election costs,” said Rubin, who added that he would not rule out another campaign.

The fee will be determined later by City Hall officials and submitted to the council for its approval.

City election officials estimate that Santa Monica spends approximately $14,000 in complimentary candidate support each election season.

O’Connor, who has come under fire from residents for her acceptance of donations from developers, did not attend the meeting.

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