CITY HALL — There will be no new requirement for members of the City Council to verbally disclose whether a developer has contributed to their campaign before participating in a major decision that affects the developer, the council decided on Tuesday.
The decision came with a 4-2 vote rejecting a proposal for a new financial disclosure rule that Councilman Kevin McKeown had asked his colleagues to consider.
In one sense, the move was highly predictable: As an outspoken critic of most large development projects, McKeown routinely votes in the minority on land use issues.
Also, his proposal was seen by many as an attack on those with friendlier views toward large-scale projects who regularly receive donations from business interests and happen to make up the council majority. (McKeown prides himself on refusing to take contributions from developers.)
Unsurprisingly, the four members of the council who voted against the proposal, Pam O’Connor, Richard Bloom, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, each would have had to disclose gifts from developers during meetings this year under McKeown’s proposal.
Councilman Bobby Shriver joined McKeown in support of the verbal disclosure proposal. Councilman Bob Holbrook did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
The majority’s rejection of the idea without allowing it to receive attention from City Hall staff, though, was in another sense startling.
It came despite letters of support for McKeown’s proposal from every neighborhood group in the city, the Santa Monica Democratic Club and the co-chair of the political party Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.
Moreover, allowing the proposal to receive staff attention would have been only a preliminary step and would not have guaranteed passage of a final ordinance, so rejecting it on Tuesday showed a particular determination by the majority to see the measure fail.
While McKeown denied there was a political dimension to his proposal, the majority on the council didn’t appear to be buying it.
Councilwoman Pam O’Connor was the most outspoken on the topic.
“Let’s just be frank and honest … there is a political motivation behind this,” she said during the meeting. “It’s coming out of a political campaign where there’s been demonizing,” she said, in an apparent reference to negative election season ads against her sponsored by the low-growth group the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City.
McKeown, for his part, tried to characterize the proposal as a common sense way to give members of the public information they could use to better assess the performance of their elected representatives.
“This is not a finger pointing exercise, it’s a transparency move,” he told his colleagues.
He pointed out the proposal wouldn’t require members to disclose anything that isn’t already public information; it would simply require them to disclose the information when it was most timely, he said.
“This is a matter of taking dots that are already out there in the financial disclosure universe and voluntarily connecting them as a way to help our residents, our community, understand how local government works,” he said.
He argued the new requirement was particularly needed in light of “an unprecedented multiplicity of development agreements coming up in the near future.”
Development agreements typically grant builders exceptions to zoning restrictions in exchange for “public benefits” like affordable housing, parks or financial contributions to city porgrams.
In remarks before the vote, council members opposed to the idea threw out a long list of criticisms.
O’Connor said the measure was flawed because donors who don’t have business before the council but who would nevertheless benefit from council decisions wouldn’t be identified under the rule.
Davis said she worried the measure would make it so difficult to fundraise that only independently wealthy individuals would seek office in Santa Monica. She also argued it would be difficult to tell whether a donation from an individual who works for a company with business before he council would fall under the proposed rule.
“I’m concerned about how this would really operate and what it would look like,” she said.
O’Day said he believed the proposal, if adopted, would harm the council’s deliberative process.
“I’m a deep believer in transparency and accountability in government, but I think what we have here is really more of a feel good measure that would create more misconceptions and distractions from the real substance of the issues that we’re covering on the dais,” he said.