|Santa Monica Lookout|
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Powerful Santa Monica Group Skirts Transparency through Legal Status
By Jason Islas
August 1, 2012 -- -- With five of the seven sitting City Council members and a council majority since 1988, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) is easily the most powerful political force in the seaside city.
But for a group that prides itself on championing political transparency in local government, SMRR -- born out of the renters’ rights movement in Santa Monica in 1978 -- is unusually tight-lipped about the inner workings of the organization.
SMRR's steering committee meets in private at an undisclosed location, and the identities of its members are not publicly available. The group's bylaws are virtually impossible to obtain, and its leadership is reluctant to discuss how decisions made behind closed doors are reached.
For instance, group leaders have declined to make public the vote count for last weekend's steering committee decision to add former Council member Tony Vazquez and incumbent Terry O'Day to the November 6 council slate.
"It is allegedly the little guy's organization, the most egalitarian group, and they are run like a secret society," said Kip Dellinger, a SMRR opponent who has written extensively about campaign finance.
As a General Purpose Recipient Committee, the group is allowed to run its organization as it sees fit and is not required to make its bylaws public, said Dellinger, a Santa Monica native who won the 2011 California Society of CPAs award for distinguished service in tax practice.
Still, the secrecy undermines the group's commitment to transparency as a grassroots organization, he added.
An example of SMRR's unwillingness to make its inner workings known can be glimpsed from the media's efforts to obtain the group's bylaws.
When The Lookout asked a member for the document, he jokingly responded, "They're in a vault in Moscow."
Some would say they might as well be.
Santa Monica Daily Press Columnist Bill Bauer said he tried for months to get copies of SMRR's bylaws last year.
“Sonya Sultan, SMRR's PR person at the time ‘didn't have a copy of them’ and (Co-Chair Patricia) Hoffman couldn't find her copy," Bauer wrote in a July 20 email to The Lookout.
Steering Committee member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, "after being pushed hard, promised us a copy or he would ‘step down’ as chair at the time," Bauer wrote. "He never did and never did."
Steering Committee member Catherine Eldridge "said she wasn't authorized to give up her copy and said the bylaws weren't available to the public in so many words,” Bauer wrote.
Efforts by The Lookout to obtain the bylaws met with equal resistance.
SMRR Council member Kevin McKeown, who is married to steering committee member Genise Schnitman, said that not even he had a copy of the group’s bylaws. Neither did SMRR Co-chair Hoffman
When asked for a copy of the document Hoffman said she would bring up the question with the steering committee. The Lookout is still waiting for its copy.
Former Mayor Dennis Zane, one of SMRR's founders, says the group's reluctance to share information stems from the early rent wars that gripped the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“In the early days, it was risky for members to be publicly associated with SMRR,” Zane said. “We were up against very robust, well-funded opposition.
“There’s a legacy of the days when renters felt at risk,” he said.
When asked if that sense of risk was a reason the group sometimes remains tightlipped, Zane responded, “That may be a fair observation.”
Zane -- who said accusations that the group was secretive were “nonsense” -- added that the bylaws "should be freely available to all members.”
Although SMRR’s steering committee is elected at open meetings on years when there are no public office elections, obtaining a list of the powerful committee's 13 members can be frustrating.
There is no list of steering committee members on SMRR’s website. And, there is no list publicly available.
The Lookout reached out to several steering committee members before one was willing to produce a current list.
Zane said that this was likely because the issue simply had never come up before.
Among other responsibilities, presumably enumerated in the group’s bylaws, the steering committee has the power to endorse candidates if the group’s members do not back a full slate.
After the group's membership voted to endorse only two council candidates -- Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer and incumbent Gleanm Davis -- at SMRR's July 22 endorsement convention, the discretion to endorse candidates for the other two seats fell to the steering committee.
The group met last Saturday morning at an undisclosed location in a meeting that was neither open to SMRR members nor to the press.
Hoffman, who called the press immediately after the July 29 meeting to announce the endorsements of Vazquez and O'Day, said that members of the committee had asked that she not reveal the vote count.
Even the legal status of the group has been difficult to obtain.
When asked about SMRR’s legal designation as an organization by The Lookout, several of the group's leaders said they did not know.
One steering committee member said the information was available on the group's web site.
An email to the group's Secretary, Roger Thornton, finally elicited a response: SMRR is a "general purpose recipient committee."
State law defines such an organization as "an individual or group that receives contributions totaling $1,000 or more during a calendar year for the purpose of supporting or opposing one or more state or local candidates or ballot measures.”
SMRR critics like Bauer have theories about why the group keeps its cards close to the chest.
“The steering committee doesn't want outsiders to use them to make a run on the SMRR board… and take it over,” Bauer said.
Jorge Casuso contributed to this report
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