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Santa Monica City Council Cans Effort Toward More Disclosure  

By Gene Williams
Lookout Staff

January 14, 2011-- By a 4-to-2 vote Tuesday night, the Santa Monica City Council shot down an attempt to add another level of public disclosure about who gives them money.

The proposal -- brought forward by Councilmember Kevin McKeown and supported by more than a half dozen local and neighborhood organizations -- would have been a first step toward developing rules requiring councilmembers to identify themselves when their decision could potentially benefit a campaign contributor.

Specifically, McKeown’s proposal singled out campaign contributors such as builders and real estate companies seeking “development agreements, zoning variances, contracts, franchises, or other special benefits”

“This is not a finger pointing exercise, it’s a transparency move,” McKeown told the council. “And this is pretty timely because, as the community knows and is concerned about, we have multiplicity of major development agreements coming up before us in the near future.”

But most council members said there were already enough safeguards in place and the proposal would create more problems than it would solve.

For example, the proposal would seem to cover campaign donors who could benefit from a council Yes vote on their project, but not campaign donors who would benefit by a No vote on a competitor's project, Council member Pam O’Connor argued.

Also, council members critical of the proposal argued, it is not always easy to remember who contributed to a campaign or whether or not a particular piece of business could affect one of them.

In addition, the critics argued, the information council members would be required to disclose is already part of the public record, and local and state laws, including Santa Monica’s Oaks Initiative, already provide enough protection from corruption and conflicts of interest.

Council member Terry O’Day summed up the general mood of the proceedings. “Each time I come to this question, I leave with more questions than when I started,” O’Day said.

“What we have here is really a ‘feel good’ measure that would create more misconceptions and distractions from the real substantive issues we’re voting on,” O’Day said.

McKeown tried to assure his colleagues that staff could get the kinks worked out. But his assurance did little to assuage critics, including Mayor Richard Bloom.

“Staff will not be able to grapple with the multiplicity of issues any more easily than we can at the dais,” Bloom said.

“We will have a report that will come back that will answer some questions, but it will generate far more, and this debate will continue and go on ad infinitum,” Bloom said.

The failed proposal came in the wake of last November’s council election in which developers accounted for a major share of campaign money and sparked controversy by bankrolling a new organization –Santa Monicans for Quality Government – which skirted local disclosure laws and sent out what many said were misleading mailings.

Major development agreements set to come before council in the months ahead include the Bergamot Transit Village – a proposal for nearly one-million-square feet of new building in the old industrial section of town. The project’s developer, Hines, is one of the many development-related companies which contributed to last years’ council candidates’ coffers.

During Tuesday’s debate, Councilmember Pam O’Connor -- who has been a frequent target of criticism for accepting developer money -- said, “This [proposal] comes out of a political campaign where there has been demonizing and connecting the dots and ….characterization as nefarious actions that are part of the public record.”

If the proposal were implemented, O’Connor added, “somebody is going to use it….to politicize the land use issue that is before us and take us away from the real issues tied to it.”

Councilmember Bobby Shriver voted with McKeown for the failed proposal. Councilmember Bob Holbrook was absent from Tuesday’s proceedings.

 

“This is not a finger pointing exercise, it’s a transparency move.” Kevin McKeown

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