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Opinion: SM.a.r.t. When It Rains It Pours (Money) Part 2:

Last week we asked whether land-use measures attract especially large contributions. In each of the cases mentioned above, the connection to land uses is immediate and direct. One measure proposes to issue bonds for Santa Monica College; to pay for new facilities, and repair and modernize existing ones, among other things. The other promises to apply half the money raised to maintain and improve affordable housing, which may include new construction as well as purchase of older buildings. In both cases, the moneys raised are in support of legislation that, directly or indirectly, will affect the way land and certain projects in the city are used and built.

However, the amounts given to support such measures pale in comparison with contributions to proposals that affect development in general. This has been the case for many years. For example, in 2008, opponents of Proposition T mounted a controversial million-dollar campaign to help defeat the measure. Prop T, introduced by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, intended to limit commercial construction in Santa Monica to 75,000 square feet a year for 15 years. Larger projects would have been submitted to voters for their approval. Schools, hospitals, religious buildings and various community-serving projects would have been exempt.

Opponents of this 2008 measure immediately swung into action. They included hotel owners, the Chamber of Commerce, unions representing firefighters, teachers, police and municipal employees, the Community for Excellence in Public Schools (CEPS), and five members of City Council. The biggest contributors were large property owners and development firms, a group that included the Village Trailer Park, Hines and Belle-Vue Plaza (owner of the site for the future Frank Gehry hotel.) By October, 2008, this group had streamed nearly a million dollars into the fight, overwhelming the modest funds of the measure’s sponsors. Santa Monica City councilmember Pam O’Connor said the proposition “is opposed by the broadest coalition in our city’s history…”

The funds helped pay for a flood of mailers and postcards, warning about Proposition T “cutting millions from classrooms,” “devastating our schools,” and “jeopardizing our children’s future.” The measure was defeated, 55.7 percent to 44.43 percent.

It is not surprising that land-use legislation in a place with Santa Monica’s beaches, climate and population can attract large sums in favor or opposition. Everyone understands the stakes. The question is whether this level of financial influence in elections helps or hinders our local democratic process, and the way the community decides on the city’s character. Many people have asked for a way to even the playing field, and try to offset the influence of money on local elections.

Two years earlier, the 2006 elections were the setting for an unprecedented effort to unseat a member of City Council. A hotel owner spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat City Councilmember Kevin McKeown in his reelection campaign. The unsuccessful 2006 effort to defeat McKeown and support Terry O’Day included television advertisements (including an ominous-sounding voiceover that said “Santa Monica cannot afford four more years of Councilman Kevin McKeown”), and mailers and advertisements by the hundreds. After the election was over, Councilmember McKeown pressed for campaign finance reform, and City Council conducted a number of workshops to explore public financing of elections for candidate races. The city’s staff prepared five different options. A community group, VOTE4SM, developed a proposal of its own in which qualified City Council candidates would receive public funds for their campaigns if they agreed to campaign spending limits, among other requirements.

In October 2007, City Council, led by then-Mayor Richard Bloom, rejected the proposals and refused to direct staff to review changes in the election law. With that, the entire local effort to help support political campaigns with public funds came to an end.

Perhaps now is the time to revive that effort, with some changes to help local initiative measures, if they qualify. The injection of gigantic sums of money into local campaigns has discouraged grass-root challenges and candidates who may speak for real concerns of residents, but are unable to raise enough funds to counter, effectively, the enormous warchests of their super-funded opponents. This is particularly true with independent candidates, and with land-use measures, where the financial stakes are so high that they attract immense contributions.

Vast infusions of money help lock out challengers and grassroots efforts, and the impact extends well beyond the election cycle. Nobody in city government, and certainly not in City Council, will ever forget a cool million-dollar moneybag dropped into the mix. It is difficult to see how this helps make for a better process.

The famed philosopher Marshall McLuhan, in his bestselling book “Understanding Media,” coined the expression “the medium is the message.” In Santa Monica elections, the medium is cash, and the message is clear to all who care to look.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect for SMa.r.t.

SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow). Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.

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