CITY HALL — The landscape of political campaigns in Santa Monica changed slightly Tuesday night when City Council members voted to raise the limit on campaign contributions and consider charging a fee for candidates running for public office.

Courts have invalidated campaign contribution restrictions placed on candidates by cities when the amount of money is too low to let the candidate build a big enough war chest to “communicate her or his views,” according to a city staff report.

Campaign costs in Santa Monica are too high to continue with the strict $250 campaign contribution limit, and leaving the restriction in place opens City Hall up for a lawsuit, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.

“Our issue is with what the court decisions say,” she said. “They look to how much elections cost in a place.”

The proposed solution was to raise the campaign contribution limit to $400 from the $250 limit previously in place.

That limit was set in 1991.

The proposal drew ire from community members, who felt that raising the limit would increase the power of business interests while decreasing the influence of the average citizen.

“I’m against raising the campaign limit because I think more people are apt to give the limit if it’s $250 rather than $400,” said Julie Lopez Dad, a ranking member of the Santa Monica Democratic Club. “We have a lot of people of modest means, and people do like to give to multiple candidates.”

Councilmember Kevin McKeown was also against raising the limit outright, instead proposing to leave it at $250 and allowing it to creep up with cost of living increases. That motion failed for lack of a second.

“We don’t have a lawsuit right now, so let’s not solve a problem before it happens,” McKeown said.

Other council members opined that increasing the limit might encourage larger donors to give directly to council members, who can control their own expenditures, rather than to independent expenditure committees, which can accept unlimited funds and are beholden to no candidate.

“Expenses go up and up and up,” said Councilmember Bob Holbrook, continuing to say that candidates and the political process lose out when engaged citizens couldn’t give enough money for candidates to run a viable campaign.

“I don’t find there’s a big sigh of relief going up,” said Councilmember Bobby Shriver. “It helps local donation because the big money goes to the [independent expenditures]. You could argue it helps raise money for individuals.”

Independent expenditure committees gained infamy in the recent election when misleading mailers were sent out, which allegedly mischaracterized the endorsements of local political groups.

Later on in the evening, members of a new political group called The Santa Monica Transparency Project brought some of those independent expenditures to the front, pointing out contributions made by the Hines 26th Street IEC to various councilmembers. Hines 26th Street is affiliated with the Hines development firm, which was vying for a development agreement for the former Papermate site on a later item on the Tuesday night agenda.

According to Jeanne Dodson, chairperson of the Neighborhood Council and member of the SM Transparency Project, the group began work informally in November of 2010 to comb through campaign disclosure statements to find Hines contributions to council members.

Dodson and Anjuli Kronheim of Common Cause read a statement by the new group, calling out the $46,373 donated to the campaigns of Councilmembers Terry O’Day, Holbrook, Gleam Davis, Pam O’Connor and Mayor Richard Bloom.

“The Hines project focused us,” Dodson said. “It’s the first big project since the LUCE passed.”

A 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, invalidated all attempts to regulate contributions to independent expenditure groups, so the council was not required to vote on the issue.

When it came time to vote on the issue, only McKeown voted against the increase.

Also discussed was a fee of $200 on people that want to run for City Council.

Twenty-five dollars would go to paying the state filing fee, and the additional $175 would go toward the cost of printing the candidate statement.

Should a person not raise the 100 signatures required to get on the ballot, the $175 will be refunded.

The reasoning, according to a staff report, is the sheer cost placed on City Hall when large numbers of individuals decide to run for public office.

Since 1974, City Hall has paid for all printing, translating, handling and mailing of candidate statements. That totaled $924 per candidate just for printing the pamphlets and translating them into Spanish during the last election cycle.

McKeown, against staff recommendation, motioned to not implement the change, and instead have staff study efficacy of candidates collecting small donations to a certain threshold. Holbrook also requested studying the alternative of simply collecting more signatures.

The motion passed five to one, with O’Connor against.

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