A Santa Monica-based group of anti-airport activists have been left to personally foot the legal bill of failed lawsuits against the filers of Measure D on the November 2014 election ballot and the City of Santa Monica.
Measure D was filed on March 27, 2014 as “an initiative measure amending the City charter to require voter approval in order to close all or part of the Santa Monica airport, change use of the airport land, or impose new restrictions on fuel sales or use of aviation facilities,” according to smvote.org.
A small group of anti-airport activists, known as the Santa Monica Eleven accused Measure D filers of “massive cheating” on an ensuing signature collection drive, “in clear violation of several Election Code provisions,” according to activist and attorney Jonathan Stein.
“So we filed a lawsuit, figuring we would have a fair shot at keeping this bad faith measure off the November 2014 ballot,” Stein said. “We did not anticipate that the City Attorney would side 100 percent with the Measure D proponents instead of investigating them.”
The Eleven believed that the Court would take action against what they felt were illegal practices by the signature gatherers and the unclear wording in Measure D, Santa Monica Eleven member Alan Levenson explained.
“We felt Measure D was a tricky sleight of hand sponsored by out of town money and interests claiming to be a bunch of honest Santa Monicans,” Levenson said.
The plaintiffs in the case sought to block Measure D from being placed on the November ballot after it lawfully qualified, replied attorney David Shaby II.
“That in effect is a restriction on our basic freedom of speech, expression and the electorate process and is referred to as a SLAPP, Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, suit,” he explained.
The law states that if a SLAPP lawsuit is brought, the defendant can require the plaintiff to prove up his case in a motion to dismiss, which is known as an Anti-SLAPP motion or suit, Shaby added.
The initial lawsuit was filed the Santa Monica Eleven on May 9, 2014, against Santa Monica’s City Clerk, City Attorney, City Council, and three individual proponents of a the charter amendment, according to legal website lawzilla.com.
“Santa Monica City used four lawyers with over 80 years of public law experience to sink our little boat,” Stein said.
“I was working for free. If you were there for oral argument, as many of the Santa Monica Eleven were, you would have seen that 80 percent of the written motion papers, and 80 percent of the oral arguments, came from the City Attorney, not the proponents of Measure D,” he added.
Consisting of largely middle class homeowners and long-time renters, of limited financial means, the Santa Monica Eleven “bravely stood up to defend their neighborhood and the actions of an unanimous City Council,” Stein explained.
Failing to prove their case, the Eleven are now faced with paying the defendants’ attorneys’ fees against them.
“The City Attorney led the briefing and the oral argument on two anti-SLAPP motions and they were granted by the Court,” according to Stein. “The motion entitled the proponents’ private law firm to collect its fees, which were stated at over $74,000. I filed two motions and responses that were granted by the Court, which cut the fee bill to $31,000.”
Acting in a personal capacity, Mayor Kevin McKeown also petitioned the court in a letter dated January 23, 2015.
“If the court could find a way in which justice could be served without imposition of exceptionally punitive fees on these civic-minded citizens, your mercy would be greatly appreciated,” McKeown wrote.
Santa Monica City waived their right to collect fees from the plaintiffs.
“The taxpayers of Santa Monica should be outraged,” Shaby said. “The Santa Monica City Attorney and the City Clerk were sued by the plaintiffs in this case. Why should the hard earned tax dollars, which went to pay for Santa Monica’s defense be waived? The tax payers should be reimbursed.”
Just because people may not like what a ballot provision stands for, they should not dictate whether it should be put to the people or not, Shaby said.
“To award the plaintiffs by not collecting the attorney’s fees would just motivate them to attempt to trample on the rights of others in the future,” he added.
In a letter that he prepared to be read in front of the judge in court, Levenson said that most of the Eleven had never heard of a SLAPP suit or an Anti-SLAPP Motion.
“We believed the scales of justice would weigh in our favor. We believed we were acting as responsible adults whose efforts would have a positive effect on our families, our neighbors, and ourselves,” he said.
As of today, the Santa Monica Eleven have elected to pay the $31,525 and to bring the matter to a close.
A fundraising effort has been set up to help defray the legal costs, with the balance being footed by the plaintiffs themselves. To donate go to: http://bit.ly/11-SM-Residents
“Unfortunately, things do not always turn out as planned,” Levenson concluded.