CITY HALL — Campaign season officially kicked off this week in Santa Monica as those interested in running for public office are now allowed to start asking registered voters for the 100 signatures needed to qualify for November’s ballot.

The fall election is expected to draw considerable interest given that five of the seven City Council seats are in play, a school board member will not seek re-election and three incumbents on the Rent Control Board will either be termed out, are stepping down or are running for City Council. Incumbents have traditionally been hard to defeat in local elections.

There will also most likely be a measure on the ballot calling for an increase in the city’s sales tax to help shore up City Hall’s coffers and pay for public education. (The City Council was expected to place the sales tax measure on the November ballot on Tuesday night, but the decision was not made before presstime.)

City Clerk Maria Stewart held two information sessions Monday for prospective candidates, giving the hopefuls a chance to ask questions about filing deadlines, fundraising and establishing campaign committees, as well as pick up the all-important nomination papers. Around 20 people attended the sessions, Stewart said, and there were some very familiar faces, along with those contemplating their first run.

One of those new to the process is Patrick Cady, a fixture at Santa Monica High School who retired in 2008 but still coaches track and field. Cady, 63, is a Malibu resident and a former teacher of 38 years, both of which could give him an edge in the school board race, which features four seats in play. The school board currently does not have a member from Malibu, nor any teachers.

“I just think we can do a better job of supporting students and teachers,” Cady said. “I think we can do a better job of creating an equitable distribution of funds to educate our kids.”

Cady said he wants to bridge the divide that some parents in Malibu feel exists between them and the district, which is headquartered in Santa Monica.

Prospective candidates have until Aug. 6 to submit their nomination papers, while incumbents running for re-election are eligible for an extension of the deadline to Aug. 11, Stewart said.

Last Saturday also marked an important deadline in the election cycle. Those interested in seeking the endorsement of the powerful political machine Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights had to notify the organization’s leadership. With strict campaign contributions limits in Santa Monica, candidates have a better chance of winning when they are supported by independent groups like SMRR, which can collect more cash for mailers and advertising as well as mobilize volunteers to make cold calls and knock on doors.

Those seeking SMRR City Council endorsements are: incumbents Pam O’Connor, Kevin McKeown, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, along with challenger Ted Winterer, a planning commissioner and former council candidate who nearly won in 2008.

McKeown and O’Connor have been endorsed by SMRR in the past. Davis was a former co-chair of the organization. O’Day is a member of SMRR but has not run for the council with the group’s backing.

For the school board, incumbents Ralph Mechur, Barry Snell and Oscar de la Torre are seeking a SMRR endorsement along with challengers Laurie Lieberman, a former rent control attorney, and certified public accountant Nimish Patel, a member of the district’s Financial Oversight Committee.

Missing from that group is school board member Kelly Pye, who was elected in 2006. Pye told the Daily Press Monday that she will not run for re-election, choosing to spend more time with her two children, who attend Santa Monica High School.

“Time is so precious,” Pye said. “I hate to leave the work. I care deeply about [the school district] and this has been a difficult decision for me, but I know it’s the right one for my family.”

There was some speculation that de la Torre, a graduate of Samohi who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center, was going to run for City Council, but he issued a statement Tuesday saying he could not leave the school board at a time when the district is facing severe budget cuts.

“I could not in good conscious abandon the school district during the largest fiscal crisis we have suffered in recent memory,” de la Torre said. “I look forward to strengthening our partnership between school and city leaders for the benefit of the youth and families we serve.”

For the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, where there are four seats in play, incumbents Nancy Greenstein, Andrew Walzer, David Finkel and Louise Jaffe are seeking the SMRR endorsement.

Producer and former journalist Jake Wachtel is leaning toward the school board but has expressed interest in serving as an SMC trustee. Wachtel said he will bring his “international understanding of education” to the table in hopes of preventing teacher layoffs.

When it comes to the Rent Control Board, incumbents Marilyn Korade-Wilson and Chris Braun are seeking the SMRR endorsement. Both were supported by SMRR in past elections. Commissioner Robert Kronovet is running for a council seat, but if he fails he will still have two years remaining on the board.

Rent Control Commissioner Zelia Mollica has decided not to seek the SMRR endorsement and will not run for re-election, according to several sources. Mollica did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Patricia Hoffman, co-chair of SMRR, said the executive committee will be conducting interviews with the candidates who requested them in the coming weeks and will send each one a questionnaire that they must complete.

SMRR members will vote for the candidates they want to endorse at a convention at John Adams Middle School on Aug. 1, Hoffman said.

There is some concern about the lack of candidates for Rent Control Board who are seeking the SMRR endorsement, Hoffman said. There are some prospective candidates that the steering committee may consider before the convention.

“We realized we needed additional candidates and all of a sudden a bunch of people came forward,” Hoffman said. “We have to see if they are ready for prime time.”

One of those will most likely be Todd Flora, an active member of SMRR who is in charge of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs at IBM. Flora attended the city clerk’s information session where he told the Daily Press that rent control is “one of the most important things that we need to really manage in this city.”

There were 57,455 registered voters in November, 2006 and a 60 percent turnout.

A candidate for office must be a U.S. citizen and 18 years old on or before election day, and be a registered voter in living in Santa Monica at the time nomination papers are issued. A candidate may not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, according to the City Clerk’s Office.

If candidates plan to raise or spend $1,000 or more during a campaign, they must establish a candidate committee.

There is no fee to file.

The election is scheduled for Nov. 2.

Rebecca Kheel contributed to this report.

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