Kevin McKeown’s proposal, brought forth on behalf of several community groups, to have his fellow Santa Monica City Council members consider imposing another layer of financial disclosures, particularly when it comes to matters of business in front of the seven-member board, was voted down on Jan. 11 in a contentious vote at the panel’s first meeting of 2011 at City Hall. In a 4-to-2 vote, the council maintained the status quo by deciding against McKeown’s proposal to develop a new financial disclosure requirement.
McKeown and the neighborhood groups proposed City staff look into the feasibility of implementing a practice of having council members verbally divulge receipt of campaign contributions from persons or groups who appear before the council for business directly influencing the donor. Of key concern is when various developers or businesses formally approach council for business within Santa Monica, asking for favorable land use or zoning decisions based upon contributions made to council members’ campaigns.
For McKeown, the issue was simple: his proposal was about public trust in its elected officials.
“There is something we (the council) can do, which is, simply, to let people know what the role of money was as a decision comes to us,” McKeown said prior to council debate. “What voters seem to be feeling is, sure, all the information is out there. It can be looked up on some place on the World Wide Web, but the average voter isn’t going to do that. We can do it for them by making a statement … as to what our relationship with the applicant is.”
In making a statement about relationships between council members and donors who appear before the board in significant matters, McKeown argued the public will be better informed about the City Council’s dealings and decision-making.
“Our goal here should be to maintain maximum transparency. This is not a finger-pointing exercise,” McKeown stated. “It’s just a matter of taking documents that are already out there in the financial disclosure universe and voluntarily connecting them. It’s a way to help our residents, our community understand how local government works.”
Several community-based organizations and concerned citizens in attendance at the council meeting expressed their support of McKeown’s proposal for campaign contribution disclosure, including the Ocean Park Association, Friends of Sunset Park, Pico Neighborhood Association, Santa Monica Democratic Club, and Wilshire/Montana Neighborhood Coalition, among others.
“In the interest of and for transparency, we believe all city council members are required to announce how funds are received … before voting on matters of which those who have donated are involved,” Catherine Eldridge, a board member of the Pico Neighborhood Association, told the council during public comment. “We do not believe this to be a radical proposal or an infringement on the right to free speech. The public deserves to know.”
One citizen not entirely supportive of the prospect of council members having to disclose campaign contributors whenever a major issue comes before the board was former Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein. While he noted transparency is a noble principle, Feinstein opined McKeown’s proposal would be difficult to execute.
“Good idea … it just doesn’t work in practice,” Feinstein candidly said, adding donors may be able to get around campaign contribution reporting requirements, therefore making it difficult for council members to make fully accurate disclosures. “I think this is going to give the wrong impression to people we’re actually reporting when there are so many loopholes.”
Meanwhile, several council members expressed reservations in moving forward with McKeown’s proposal to have a staff report created on the ideal method for disclosing campaign contributions. While the four council members who voted against McKeown’s proposal stated they were all in favor of transparency, each of them expressed concerns about whether the suggested approach in its current form would achieve its intended purpose.
“I am concerned about how this would really operate and what it would look like. I understand the information is all available publicly. It’s not as if [public information about donor contributions] is so dense that it cannot be called out,” Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis stated. “The issue … is not [about] direct contributions. I think there’s been a lot of concern about people who gave money to independent expenditure campaigns. That becomes even more complex because candidates do not control independent expenditure campaigns.”
Council member Pam O’Connor expressed concern about the public record not revealing when donors, especially those in neighboring communities outside of Santa Monica, make contributions to candidate campaigns in opposition of a given project.
Meanwhile, Council member Terry O’Day and Mayor Richard Bloom did not believe a staff report would completely answer all the questions raised by McKeown’s proposal. Instead, both O’Day and Bloom believed more debate would ensue before any substantive progress was made regarding transparency.
In addition to McKeown, Council member Bobby Shriver voted in favor of the inquisitive proposal.
“It’s just a staff direction. Staff may come back and say it’s too cumbersome or some other cities have done it in a different way, they may come up with a clever way to do it,” Shriver said. “We’re not really adopting any rules now, we’re just asking for a menu of options.”
Council member Bob Holbrook was not in attendance at the Jan. 11 city council meeting.