Those who have participated in the political process in Santa Monica know that residents in the city by the sea exercise their right to vote and are civically engaged, more so than those living in other areas in the region when comparing voter turnout rates. Santa Monica has a history of encouraging residents to participate in local government, and because of this City Hall provides benefits to candidates not enjoyed in other cities, and that includes not charging those contemplating a run for public office a fee for filing with the City Clerk’s Office.

In a report to the City Council on Tuesday, City Clerk Maria Stewart laid out the costs City Hall incurs during election season. She said that in 2010, the cost of printing candidate statements in both English and Spanish was $924 per candidate vying for a seat on the council dais — and there were 11 people running. That’s $10,164, and we’re not even talking about staff time to process campaign filings, verify signatures from registered voters and post contribution reports online for the press and other interested parties to peruse. Stewart said her staff spends a “significant” amount of time on election activities and that takes away from other duties.

And there’s City TV time. Councilman Kevin McKeown said anywhere between $12,000 and $17,000 in staff time and production costs is spent during campaign season as City TV gives candidates the opportunity to talk with viewers directly using taped statements broadcast regularly during the campaign. That’s a tremendous value provided free of charge.

The state elections code allows for municipalities to charge an initial candidate filing fee not to exceed $25 and require candidates to reimburse the cost of printing and mailing their respective candidate statements. Santa Monica has paid for all candidate statements since at least 1974 and doesn’t charge a filing fee. This needs to change.

The council on Tuesday night failed to approve a $200 fee for filing, choosing instead to have staff study other scenarios, some of which weren’t all that bad, including doing away with a filing fee for those who can either show a financial hardship or who can gather more than the 100 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

Even Berkeley charges a fee — $150.

When there are threats of stripping away funds that pay for public services and when residents and businesses are being asked to pay more in the form of higher taxes and fees to use swimming pools or after-school programs and cover other expenses, there needs to be a filing fee in place to recoup some costs ($200 doesn’t even come close). We’re not talking about a prohibitive amount that would scare away serious candidates. This fee is minimal.

Not only would the fee help pay for a small fraction of the costs, but it could also help weed out those candidates who are not serious contenders and who continually waste resources, and negatively impact political debates hosted by various community groups and the media. There’s only so much political discourse people can stomach at one time and when there are 11 candidates featured in a debate, it drags the discussion down, offers less substance and doesn’t give the community a chance to hear more from those candidates who actually have support and the financial means to run competitive campaigns.

We say raise the filing fee to $300 and require candidates to gather at least 300 signatures in order to receive City TV time. This would demonstrate a sincere interest in running for public office, and if the council ever does place on the ballot a measure for public financing of campaigns, something which has been discussed in earnest, this would be one way of protecting taxpayer money from being wasted by those looking to pump up their own egos.

The council needs to act on this and impose a fee. Promoting democracy is something this community does, but at some point you have to realize that democracy doesn’t come cheap.

On a side note, the Santa Monica Daily Press is supportive of the council’s move to raise the strict campaign contribution limit in Santa Monica from $250 to $400. The limit has not been raised in over 15 years and the change reflects the ever increasing costs of running a successful campaign and could help candidates counter the influence held by independent expenditure committees, which are not required to abide by the limit. Four hundred dollars is still low enough to make sure no one person has more power over a candidate than another, but a large enough increase to help candidates be more competitive.

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