Records show Pam O’Connor took campaign contributions from developers after voting to approve their projects, and Councilman Bob Holbrook may have done the same
By Gary Walker
A group of Santa Monica activists has accused Mayor Pam O’Connor of violating a city ethics law by accepting dozens of campaign contributions from developers whose projects she voted to approve as a member of the city council.
A complaint filed against O’Connor with the city on Oct. 8 by the Santa Monica Transparency Group alleges 24 violations of the Santa Monica Taxpayer Protection Amendment, a campaign reform ballot measure approved by city voters in 2000 that is now part of the city charter.
Also known as the Oaks Initiative, the law prohibits public officials from accepting campaign cash or other benefits from companies and people to whom they have awarded public contracts or land use approvals valued at more than $25,000 through their votes.
In order to enforce the law, a Santa Monica resident must file a complaint in civil court. Court-determined violations are punishable by fines of up to five times the value of the contribution, but the city charter also states that “any knowing and willful violation … constitutes a criminal misdemeanor offense” that if “egregious or repeated” could result in disqualification from local public office.
According to city records, O’Connor — who is currently seeking reelection and had previously fought to overturn the Oaks Initiative — voted in June 2013 to approve construction of condos at 1320 2nd St. that involved FRC Realty and Century West Partners, then accepted $325 campaign contributions (the legal limit) from four FRC Realty executives in July 2013 and from three Century West executives this year.
In September 2007, O’Connor voted to approve a remodel of Santa Monica Place by the Macerich Real Estate Co. before receiving $250 in campaign cash (then the legal limit) from each of at least four Macerich executives in October 2010.
She also voted to approve development of the Hines Lantana Media Campus in September 2004, then in March 2008 accepted campaign contributions of $250 each from Hines real estate firm President Jeff Hines and CEO James Buie, plus as many as six additional company officials and two people who appear to be spouses of company officials.
O’Connor said she may have made a few mistakes, but characterized the Santa Monica Transparency Group’s allegations as an overblown political stunt. She was quick to point out that members of the group are also aligned with the slow-growth Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, perhaps her harshest political critics.
“This is part of an ongoing attack on me by these two groups. I have a balanced approach to development, and I’m not going to be coerced by the no-growth people who think that all developers are inherently evil,” O’Connor said.
“It’s possible that over a 10-year period there were $4,000 worth of mistakes, which is $400 a year, and that’s not a systemic problem,” O’Connor continued. “I have not had a full-time treasurer, and I have to rely on the advice of the city clerk to tell us which contributions we can accept.”
A review of city records by The Argonaut determined that City Councilman Bob Holbrook, who also opposed the Oaks Initiative but is not seeking reelection this year, made some of the same votes as O’Connor and received similar campaign contributions.
Holbrook voted for the Hines Lantana Media Campus and later received as many as nine campaign contributions from Hines executives. He also backed the Santa Monica Place remodel and later received campaign contributions from four Macerich officials.
Holbrook could not be reached for comment this week.
Santa Monica Transparency Group chairperson Mary Marlow said members of the organization began to examine O’Connor’s campaign finance history in January as the council was slated to vote on Hines’ controversial 765,000-square-foot mixed use development proposal for Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street.
O’Connor voted to approve the project despite activist calls for her to recuse herself, but the council later rescinded its approval to avoid facing a voter referendum to overturn the decision.
“After that meeting we decided to take a look at who had given her campaign contributions. What’s amazing is that she took money from three of the biggest developers in Santa Monica,” Marlow said.
“No one seems to be paying attention to this law that’s been on the books since 2000,” Marlow continued.
O’Connor said her campaign plans to return three contributions that may have been prohibited under the city’s Taxpayer Protection Amendment and will examine others.
“But the Oaks Initiative does not bar all employees of a company from contributing to your campaign. That’s what [the transparency group] is alleging and that’s not what the Oaks Initiative says,” O’Connor said.
According to language in the city charter, the Taxpayer Protection Amendment defines those who may be ineligible to make political contributions after a favorable vote as including “the individual, corporation, firm, partnership, association, or other person or entity so benefiting, and any individual or person who, during a period where such benefit is received or accrues, (1) has more than 10% equity, participation or revenue interest in that entity, or (2) who is a trustee, director, partner, or officer of that entity.”
Following voter approval of the Oaks Initiative in Santa Monica (on the 2000 ballot as Proposition LL) and a nearly identical law in Pasadena, officials from both cities sued to challenge the constitutionality of Oaks Initiative restrictions on political contributions.
O’Connor said she still believes the law “makes it harder for people to run for office. You have to be independently wealthy if you don’t take contributions,” she said.
A 2005 appellate court decision allowed the law to stand, and the California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.
The Pasadena City Council convened a Good Government Task Force led by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp to send voters a streamlined version of the initiative that was supported by its initial backers and succeeded at the polls.
The Santa Monica City Council voted 4-1 to send voters a measure that would have undone many Oaks Initiative provisions — O’Connor, Holbrook, Herb Katz and Richard Bloom (now a state assemblyman) in favor; Councilman Kevin McKeown the lone vote against — but it tanked at the polls.
“They basically trashed Proposition LL and showed really utter disdain for campaign finance reform,” Van de Kamp told Los Angeles CityBeat at the time.
Robert Stern, who formerly headed the now-defunct Center for Governmental Studies and was retained as a consultant to the Pasadena task force, cautioned this week against jumping to conclusions.
“I can’t believe that anyone in Santa Monica would deliberately violate the Oaks Initiative. I think [a potential violation] would be much more negligent than deliberate,” Stern said. “The real question is whether one solicited the contribution after [dispensing] the public benefit.”
Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this report.