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Opponents Question Tactics in College Bond Campaign

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

September 23 -- Opponents of a $135 million Santa Monica College bond on the November ballot are questioning advertising and fundraising tactics used by proponents of the measure, who deny they have done anything improper.

Opponents of the bond -- which would provide funds to buy land for playing fields and renovate college facilities -- charge the pro-bond campaign with using "confusing" advertising that could cause voters to erroneously associate the measure with funding for the School District.

At issue are banners hung on at least one elementary school fence that read "Thank you for making this school year possible by passing Measure S." Measure S is both the name of both the college bond and a School District parcel tax measure approved by voters last year.

Though opponents Mathew Millen and Don Gray acknowledge that the banners likely refer to the parcel tax, they contend that the ad is deliberately confusing and note that the college specifically requested to use the letter S for this year's measure.

"Don't you think that's confusing?” said Millen, an opponent of both measures. “The college is saying 'Pass Measure S,' and the school district is saying (thank you for) Measure S. I think they did it for purposes of obfuscating, of confusing things."

Opponents point to an August 6 letter from the college's legal counsel to the Los Angeles County Clerk stating that the college "would like to express their preference for the ballot measure letter. The district would like 'Proposition S' for their bond measure."

The letter written by SMC Bond Counsel Lisalee Anne Wells goes on to say that if S were unavailable, the college's next choices would be P and then C.

The terms "measure" and "proposition" are interchangeable, representatives of the County Clerk's office said, but the current measure's official title is Measure S, exactly the same as the name of the school district's 2003 measure.

Don Girard, who is Director of Marketing at SMC and also part of the independent resident committee campaigning for the bond, said the college's request of the same measure letter the school district had used was "certainly unintentional."

Girard said Wells "operates under the direction of the college," so someone at the college would have instructed her to write the letter requesting the measure's name, but he said he did not recall who it was. The decision was "very, very last minute," he said.

Millen noted that the campaign in favor of the current Measure S is being run by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights Co-Chair Dennis Zane, also ran the campaign for the school district measure.

Zane said he was unaware the college had requested the same ballot designation for the bond.

“They concoct the bizarrest theories,” Zane said. “I was not involved with or was aware of any request, and I did not know the college had made this request.”

Millen and Gray wrote a letter to the school district asking that the banners be removed.

The letter cites a section of the California State Education Code that states, "no school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, including, but not limited to, any candidate for election to the governing board of the district."

They have not yet received a response, Millen said.

Opponents of the bond measure also are questioning how advertising for a 2002 college bond was financed. Earlier this month, an attorney representing Millen sent a letter to College President Dr. Piedad F. Robertson stating that the college's 2002 bond measure was improperly financed with funds that were supposed to be reserved for students.

Attorney Rosario Perry states in his letter that approximately $115,000 of Associated Student Body funds were improperly used to advertise Measure U in 2002. Perry cited a 1976 court ruling that government funds, such as community college funds, cannot be used for partisan political campaigns.

Girard said it was true that ASB funds were used, but added their use was legal because the ASB is an independent organization whose funds are not under college control and are therefore not affected by the ruling concerning government funds.

Students can choose whether to join the group when they enroll at the college, Girard said, and the ASB has its own board that makes decisions independent of college officials about how to use the fees it collects from its voluntary members.

"They're an independent group and they get to spend their dollars how they choose," Girard said.

Though the ASB did hear presentations from both the college and the pro-Measure U campaign, he said, "They made their own determination and were not influenced by the college."

The ASB has decided to give money this year to promote Measure S, Girard said, though he was unsure of the exact amount.

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