The Santa Monica City Council rejected the idea of directing staff to gather information on a “fair fight fund,” which could potentially protect candidates who are the victims of negative attack campaigns in elections in the city.

Councilman Kevin McKeown made a motion at the council meeting Tuesday, October 23rd, to direct staff to begin an investigation of a fair fight fund and to establish some workable definition of an “attack campaign,” determine a dollar limit beyond which such attacks begin to “distort global democracy,” and figure out a way to protect attacked candidates with the fair fight funds.

The motion failed, as Councilman Ken Genser was the only other councilmember to support it.

McKeown made the motion to explore the fair fight fund because, after “listening to a number of community groups, community members, interested parties — eliminating the negativity is where I heard all their interests intersect. It was the one thing that everyone agreed on as being one part of the problem.

“Over the last few cycles, more and more outside money has come into the race and more and more has been spent on negative campaigning instead of positive campaigning,” McKeown added.

He was the target of over $400,000 worth of negative campaign ads last year and still came out the top vote-getter in the 2006 election.

“I really think that these kind of attack politics disempower residents,” McKeown said. “It’s the outside money that has really begun to disturb democracy here.”

Since 2002, independent expenditure committees have reportedly increased their spending on local elections by about 800 percent.

Although McKeown was the target of a smear campaign last year, he says that’s not the reason to look into fair fight funds.

“The reason to do this is to have a sustainable political future for grassroots organizing and politics in Santa Monica so this community has some control over its own future,” he says. “And there’s nothing I think more important to a community than being in control of its future and who represents it.”

But Councilmembers Bobby Shriver and Pam O’Connor and Mayor Richard Bloom were not convinced.

“I don’t understand how we can ask our staff to effectively investigate something that we really haven’t given much definition to,” Bloom said, referring to the fair fight funds. “I really think that if we’re going to move forward on this issue, I need to see something that’s better defined.”

Bloom also had questions.

“How can you defend yourself with public money against an attack campaign when it happens a week before the election?” he asked. “How do we actually proceed on this? What kind of resources would it take? Are we going to use a committee? Where are they going to meet? Who’s going to review those decisions?”

Bloom agreed that an “extraordinary amount of money” has been spent over the past few years that has been intended to sway elections, but he pointed out that “it seems to have failed completely in that role.”

Bloom also said that a lot of that money was spent not on negative campaigning but rather on things with “a bit of a negative tinge to it.”

O’Connor said she thought the smear campaign last year against McKeown was “ineffective.”

O’Connor, too, was the victim of a negative attack campaign and pointed out that she was still reelected with a small campaign — herself, family members and a few volunteers.

“I think the voters spoke,” she said. “The negative campaigning is not going to be effective in Santa Monica.”

Shriver agreed.

“I think the attacks on Kevin clearly backfired,” he said. “He became the number one vote-getter. I’m not sure how you go from Kevin’s experience to ‘we have a serious problem.’ It [negative campaigning] hasn’t worked in Santa Monica. People, I think, most of the time, do see through the [negative campaign] ads. People are really pretty smart. They’re certainly smart and engaged in Santa Monica.”

In June, the City Council directed staff to provide more information on public financing of electoral campaigns and funding sources.

The city clerk’s office has been studying the issue for about a year now and presented several public financing options at the council meeting. None included the fair fight fund.

And although the council rejected exploring the idea of a fair fight fund, it directed city staff to return with a report on issues related to enforcement of existing campaign finance laws, clarification of any identified ambiguities, and possible legislation to address contributions in general and regulate expenditures of independent expenditure committees.