Addressing a lingering complaint among Santa Monica voters regarding the right to know who is contributing to the campaign of an officeholder or a candidate for office, the Santa Monica City Council has voted unanimously to support legislation by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).
Assembly Bill 1648 would require all political advertisements to identify their top three funders of $10,000 or more and to provide a website where voters can get more information about the top 10 financial backers of the ads.
In Santa Monica, neighborhood groups have been pressuring the council to make campaign disclosures more transparent. One resident group called the Transparency Project has been at the forefront of confronting certain council members about campaign contributions and demanding more transparency around political donations.
Resident Valerie Griffin urged the council to pass the resolution.
“One of the most important responsibilities that we have as citizens is to cast informed votes,” Griffin told the council. “We do not and cannot know the bias of an organization known only as ‘Citizens for Everything Wonderful.’
“While (AB 1648) cannot fix everything wrong with our current campaign laws, it can give us a little sunshine,” Griffin added.
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who has been the lone voice on the council to express dissatisfaction with the lack of disclosure among many campaign donors, brought the motion to the council.
“The Brownley bill was partly in response to misleading mailers here in Santa Monica, and those council members who participated in and benefited from the mailers had already indicated some discomfort with how an independent campaign chose to support them,” he explained.
“If this bill passes in Sacramento, Santa Monica voters and all Californians will at least be able to see, before election day, who is trying to solicit their vote, and we all know the best way to figure out what’s really happening in elections is to follow the money.”
McKeown was referring to campaign mailers in the 2010 municipal election from an organization called Santa Monicans for Quality Government, which 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 the political group, which had ties to the Hines Corp., a developer that has a mixed-use project, the controversial Bergamot Village Transit development, that it will be bringing again before the council this year.
Brownley, who is termed out of the Assembly and is seeking a congressional seat, said openness of the identity of campaign contributors is a topic that cuts across party lines among the public.
“People really want to be informed before they vote,” the assemblywoman told The Argonaut.
Organizations that have been assisting the Transparency Project back Brownley’s legislation.
“We’re definitely in support of the bill,” said Anjuli Kronheim, the Los Angeles organizer of Common Cause. “This is a growing problem at all levels of government.”
Torie Osborn, who is campaigning against Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey) for the newly created 50th District Assembly seat, said she “wholeheartedly” supports AB 1648.
“I’m about fairness; I’m about transparency and I’m about reform,” said Osborn.
A week before the vote, McKeown said supporting the Brownley bill could go a long way in assuaging the doubts that some Santa Monica voters have about the influence that contributors may have on elected officials.
“Many elected officials claim developer donations don’t affect their discretion or their votes, which may well be true,” the councilman told The Argonaut. “I think what the public wants, though, is to be able to judge the influence of corporate largesse for themselves by knowing, when projects come forward, whetherthe applicant made campaign donations, and to whom.
“We would go a longway toward nurturing public trust if we just made it our standard policy to disclose political donations when major decisions are on the table.”
Osborn echoed McKeown and Brownley on the growing phenomenon of more expensive campaigns for city council.
“(Campaign disclosure) is clearly one of the most important parts of politics and it extends to every level,” she said. “In Santa Monica, there has long been a struggle between developers who want to take advantage of our coastal area and various citizen concerns.”
Brownley said if her bill passes, it will not only affect statewide races but municipal campaigns and ballot initiatives, which she said can sometimes be framed in a deceptive manner, as well.
“I feel optimistic that we can move this bill forward,” she said.
Kronheim said candidates for public office as well as proponents and opponents of ballot measures might think more carefully about whom they accept donations from if Brownely’s bill is eventually signed into law, and she quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“Sunlight is always the best disinfectant,” she said.
AB 1648 is currently in the Assembly’s appropriations committee, where it is waiting to be heard.