An initiative that would allow Santa Monica City Council members to take campaign contributions from companies doing business with the city will be on the ballot in the election Tuesday, November 7th.
Santa Monica City Council sent The Good Government Act of 2006 to the ballot at its meeting Tuesday, August 8th.
If approved by voters, this initiative would replace the Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000 — also known as the Oaks Initiative, Proposition LL or Article XXII of the City Charter.
The Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000, which is current law, bars politicians from taking campaign contributions, gifts over $50 or a job from any company to which they award a city contract, special tax break or other public benefit, said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
However, the new measure — the Good Government Act of 2006 — exempts campaign contributions, which it notes “are subject to separate laws and regulations.” This would allow councilmembers to take campaign contributions from companies that do business with the city, something which, under the current law, they are unable to do.
According to the staff report prepared by Santa Monica city attorney Marsha Moutrie, in particular, the proposed Good Government Act would:
n extend the prohibitions and restrictions to appointed officials, including the city manager, city attorney and city clerk;
n incorporate state standards for determining “materiality” unless the City Council, by ordinance, adopts local standards;
n clarify that the restrictions on gifts from parties doing business with the city applies only to current or ongoing business (after which the general limit would apply); and
n provide for automatic adjustments in the monetary limits established by the measure which would reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) but be rounded to the nearest $5.
“We agree with the concept [of the Taxpayer Protection Amendment],” said City Councilman Herb Katz. “What we are doing is modifying it. It’s become an impossibility. It discourages anyone from not only running for office, but also going on boards and commissions. There’s a point of carrying anything too far.”
Balber pointed out that 59 percent of voters — the majority — supported the Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000. The public didn’t want to see councilmembers receiving rewards from businesses that were awarded contracts with the city, Balber said.
“In all my years, I’ve never seen any corruption in Santa Monica,” Katz said. “I just haven’t. There’s got to be honesty, there cannot be corruption, but there has to be practicality.”
Currently, the Taxpayer Protection Amendment bans the receipt of any personal reward — in the form of a campaign contribution, gift or employment — by a public official from someone who has been awarded a public benefit.
It’s one of the strongest anti-conflict-of-interest protections in the country, Balber said.
If passed, the new Good Government of 2006 Act would “make kickbacks legal in Santa Monica,” Balber asserted. “Their initiative gives the thumbs up to campaign contributions from any company that does business with the city, lets any politician go to work for a developer the day after approving its new high-rise project and okays accepting a gift from a company the day after its multi-million-dollar contract is complete.”
Balber and others believe the proposed initiative does “little more than reiterate current state law.”
However, Moutrie said the new provisions would “effectuate the ‘clean government’ goals of the Oaks Initiative, while protecting individual rights and opportunities.”
One of the reasons city staff didn’t include limits on campaign contributions in the Good Government Act of 2006 is because they believe these restrictions “impact an individual’s ability to participate in the political process and First Amendment rights,” Moutrie said.
Some City Council members believe the Good Government Act of 2006 will be “more practical and usable,” Katz said.
Members of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, like Balber, say City Council should have considered another alternative — a number of amendments to the 2000 law like those proposed in Pasadena by a nine-member task force chaired by former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp.
In fact, the City of Pasadena just approved placing a measure on the ballot that would expand the city’s anti-corruption law.
“Santa Monica prides themselves on being forward-thinking and it’s ironic that Pasadena, that doesn’t necessarily have that reputation, is going forward with strong reform, while Santa Monica is trying to throw it overboard,” Balber said.
Pasadena’s measure included an “expansion of the initiative’s ban on kickbacks from public beneficiaries to create a blackout period for campaign contributions during the application process for city contracts, the placement of public benefit disclosures online and restricting the law’s application to elections and actions within the city,” Balber said.
Balber said that, if the Good Government Act of 2006 — a name she believes is deceptive — is passed, then “Santa Monica is rolling back reform. It’s going back in time. That’s really the tragedy that shows how outrageous this move is.”
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles and a campaign reform law specialist, spoke at the meeting in opposition to the new measure and said that he would be happy to help “improve the law.”
Susanne Griffin, a Santa Monica attorney who gathered signatures to get Proposition LL (the Taxpayer Protection Amendment of 2000) passed, also spoke in opposition to the new initiative.
“I must say I’m very disappointed,” Griffin said. “It [the Good Government Act] does nothing more than what is already state law.”