By Olin Ericksen
March 13 -- With local election spending rising
dramatically since 2002, a divided City Council Tuesday night
will debate the cost of carving out large chunks of public
funding for candidates who want it.
Anyone vying for a seat on the City Council could qualify
for $100,000 or more in City seed and matching grant money
under the staff-drafted plan -- provided they can privately
raise at least $3,000 and then only use public funds.
Meant to level the political playing field, the plan could
cost the City as much as $1.8 million each election year,
perhaps more, according to staff estimates.
Although the voters may ultimately weigh in at the polls,
the council is scheduled to decide whether to move forward
with the hotly debated issue just months after one of the
hardest-hitting and most expensive elections in the city's
"Our concern has to be political sustainability,"
said Council member Kevin McKeown, who helped launch the initiative
after a tough re-election bid last fall.
"I want to help create a system where it's easier for
voters to ‘follow the money’ from special interests,
and where a more level playing field discourages massive outside
spending on deceptive attacks," he said.
The staff proposal would likely diversify the field of candidates
and give those running for office more time to talk to voters
about issues, since they wouldn’t need to focus on building
campaign war chests, proponents said.
Tuesday’s vote will not likely be unanimous, with some
council members questioning the cost of the proposed plan
and the effectiveness of public campaign financing currently
used in only two other cities.
"I'm going to have to be convinced on this," said
Council member Bob Holbrook, who, like McKeown, was reelected
to another four-year term in November. "I'm very concerned
about the cost. It could be in the hundreds of thousands of
Proponents hope the reform will stem the increasing use of
independent expenditures by non-profit groups and individuals
not affiliated with a campaign, who avoid the $250 cap on
individual contributions to candidates under local election
McKeown was the target of negative cable television ads bankrolled
with independent expenditures by Santa Monicans for Sensible
Priorities, as well as a letter to voters from the head of
the Edward Thomas Company, which runs two luxury beachfront
The independent expenditures helped boost the amount of money
spent by groups not affiliated with a campaign from an average
of $16,167 in 2002 to nearly $136, 424 last November, according
to an analysis by City staff.
Such spending is on the rise in California and the nation,
according to campaign finance expert Steven Levin, political
reform project director for the Center for Governmental studies.
"It's a good starting point," Levin said of the
staff proposal he plans to push for Tuesday night.
While proponents said public financing could discourage groups
that use independent expenditures to outspend their opponents,
there is no guarantee in politics, Levin and others agreed.
"There is a lot of talk in Santa Monica about independent
expenditure being a big problem, and the clean money reforms
are one of the ways to make change, but it’s not a silver
bullet," Levin said.
In fact, some, including Holbrook, believe the public financing
model may only boost the amount of money spent on elections
in Santa Monica to record levels.
"I don't think the financing is a disincentive at all,"
Not only does Holbrook worry the measure would drain City
funds and possibly impact City programs, he is concerned candidates
could work the system.
"I talked to one guy who said he would use the money
to throw a political party for himself," Holbrook said.
Although audits would be performed to make sure the money
is used legally, at least one reported case of abuse has already
occurred in Portland, according to Levin.
Former Mayor Michael Feinstein -- who has run as both an
independent candidate and on the slate of Santa Monicans for
Renters' Rights (SMRR) -- backs the proposal.
"Right now, the only people who can run viable City
Council campaigns -- other than the independently wealthy
-- are those who can win the blessings of local key political
players who, behind the scenes, direct the influential independent
expenditure committees in this city," he said. (see
"Elections are not only about which candidates win and
lose -- they are also about the entire community discussing
its direction," said Feinstein who lost reelection in
"I don't see this as a gift of public funds for candidates,”
he said. “Rather, I see this it as a public investment
for the community."