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Neighborhood Groups Push Back on 'Gag Order'

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By Jorge Casuso

November 14, 2022 -- Neighborhood groups are pushing back against a proposal by Councilmember Gleam Davis asking them to "refrain" from taking positions in local races.

Failure to do so -- or to run a disclaimer on partisan campaign materials -- would result in the group's removal from the City's website, according to the Councilmember item on Tuesday's agenda.

The disclaimer would state that the Neighborhood Organization or Business Improvement District used no public funds for campaign purposes and that the political views do not "necessarily reflect" those of the City or any of its officials.

"The proposal is anti-democratic and antagonistic," the Board of the North of Montana Association (NOMA) wrote in a letter to the Council. "It amounts to a gag order on the free speech of Neighborhood Associations."

"Threatening to take away Neighborhood Associations' modest City funding and recognition, even if groups are in compliance with current non-profit organization regulations, would unnecessarily stifle public discourse," the NOMA Board wrote.

At least four of Santa Monica's seven neighborhood groups -- including NOMA -- are organized as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations under the U.S. federal income tax code.

Unlike 501(c)(3) organizations they can participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates and measures.

According to the IRS, "a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity."

Political activities of a 501(c)(4) "are outside of the City governance since those are funded by membership contributions NOT City funding," said Trica Crane, a leader of Northeast Neighbors, which also falls under the IRS category.

The Board of Friends of Sunset Park, a 501(c)(4), also voted to oppose Davis' measure. In a letter to the City Council, the group's board wondered if there isn't a double standard for Councilmembers, who receive a salary, benefits and a budgeted car allowance from the City.

"Would Council member Davis' 16-D proposal also require City Council members to refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates or ballot measures, since they also receive city funding?"

Mid City Neighbors, another 501(c)4 neighborhood group, noted that it typically doesn't weigh in on elections but offered a sample letter members could email to the Council opposing Davis' proposal.

"While the city can place restrictions on how the city grants are spent, it cannot restrict how membership dues are spent," the sample letter concluded.

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