CITY HALL — The City Council earlier this week backed plans to tighten local campaign finance disclosure laws, a step prompted by the election season activities of the group Santa Monicans for Quality Government (SMQG), which used money from developers to create mailers some called “deceptive” and failed to file financial records with the City Clerk’s Office.

At the request of Councilmember Kevin McKeown, the council, with a 6-0 vote, directed staff to explore local legislation requiring political expenditures meant to affect Santa Monica elections be reported to the City Clerk at the same time they are reported to the state.

The intent is to create a more transparent political process, particularly when outside groups are attempting to influence local elections through the use of political action committees.

“I am focused not on the content, nor on the expenditure of money by people because those are both protected by court decisions,” McKeown said. “ I just want us to focus on the prompt transparent disclosure of who makes the expenditures so that the voters we represent can make fully informed decisions, including knowing who paid for the messages.”

SMQG, which received $41,000 in donations from developers Hines, Village Trailer Park, NMS Properties and a handful of other firms involved in the real estate business, sent out a series of “slate mailers” backing City Council candidates but argued it wasn’t required to reveal its contributors to City Hall.

The identities of SMQG’s donors were revealed the day before the election only after a complaint was lodged with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission and City Clerk Maria Stewart actively solicited the group’s disclosure documents. The group, which is registered with the California Secretary of State’s Office, maintained it was not required to file statements with City Hall. It could have more donors who have not yet been disclosed.

The man behind Santa Monicans for Quality Government, political consultant Fred Huebscher, said it was difficult to comment on the council’s decision because no details of a potential law are known.

But he did say requiring all groups that pay for political materials that included Santa Monica candidates to file disclosure documents locally could be problematic.

“How are they going to define a city?” Huebscher said. “Let’s say the Sierra Club puts out a mailer here endorsing Santa Monica candidates as well as those in other areas, could that be considered? It’s pretty broad because I could argue that most anything could have an effect in Santa Monica.”

Mayor Bobby Shriver said Santa Monica was not immune to deceptive mailers. He said it happened across the state and called for a “significant” investigation.

Representatives from neighborhood groups in Santa Monica said they supported stricter filing rules.

“We feel our votes were taken away from us, taken away by developers,” said resident Gregg Heacock.

Councilman Bob Holbrook did not vote on the issue because he said the election season is still not over. He is in a close race with Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer for a seat on the council, with just 43 votes separating the two as of Friday evening.

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