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Santa Monica City Council Talks Election Finance Changes  

By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

November 14, 2011 -- Some Santa Monica candidates could see their private coffers swell, while others could see their public funding dwindle after the Santa Monica City Council tackled election finance Tuesday.

The council voted to raise the limit on contributions to council members' election campaigns and directed staff to draw up an ordinance that would require more commitment from potential candidates before they qualified for publicly funded campaign assistance.

Despite public testimony opposing the measure, the Council voted 5 to 1 to change the maximum donation amount from $250, set in 1992, to $325.

“It is not correct as a financial matter to say that we're raising the limit,” said Council member Bobby Shriver, noting that the increase to $400 proposed by staff would have as much or less purchasing power as $250 had in 1992.

But Council member Kevin McKeown, who cast the lone dissenting vote, argued that raising the limit would result in “increasing corporate influence” on Santa Monica elections.

McKeown, who has long been the target of developers, said that “$250 for a city this size is not low.”

He worried that changing the amount would favor wealthier contributors from outside Santa Monica, citing a comment made by former Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad that outsiders donate the maximum amount at a rate “over four times more than Santa Monica residents.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis and Council member Terry O'Day agreed that the contribution limit should be raised, but that $400 was too high.

“I view increasing the donation limit as a way to reach out to the public more,” Davis said, referring to the campaign outreach the extra money can buy.

O'Day said that raising the limit might have the unintended consequence of favoring wealthier neighborhoods.

Davis amended the staff recommendation from $400 to $325, saying that the amount was halfway between $250 and $400.

The Council also voted to direct staff to craft an ordinance that would require potential candidates to either collect the signatures of 200 registered voters – an increase of 100 over the number currently required – or pay an in-lieu fee.

This model is based on Berkeley's system, which requires a flat $150 filing fee and 20 signatures for all candidates, but provides the option of collecting 150 extra signatures instead of paying the fee, according to the staff report.

“To me this is a solution in search of a problem,” said Mayor Richard Bloom. He noted that although Santa Monica elections often draw many candidates, “That's the nature of democracy.”

Davis agreed that the law shouldn't be so complicated that it deters people from running.

The multiple-donation process proposed by staff requires candidates to gather $5 donations from 40 different registered voters in order to participate.

Davis also rejected a proposal that would require candidates who don't collect enough signatures to pay for their own time on City TV, a cost of about $14,000.

Council member Bob Holbrook voted against the proposed changes.

Council member Pam O'Connor was absent.


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