CITY HALL — Elected officials today are expected to consider raising financial contribution limits for City Council campaigns, a move which local activists believe will disenfranchise Santa Monicans in favor of wealthy, outside interests.

City staff is recommending the City Council raise the campaign contribution limit from a flat maximum of $250 to $400. The $400 limit would be revisited every five years to keep up with inflation, according to a city staff report.

The current limit has been in place since 1992, and includes no adjustment for inflation. If it did, the $250 limit would have naturally increased to approximately $388 on its own, essentially what staff recommend as the new amount.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie suggested the increase at the council’s March 22 meeting, pointing at a recent court decision in San Diego which struck down an attempt to cap contributions by independent expenditure committees, which are not directly controlled by a specific candidate.

Courts have also declared some campaign contribution limits so low that they effectively hamper free speech because candidates couldn’t raise enough money to run a competitive campaign.

A relatively new group called the Santa Monica Transparency Project opposes the change, calling the campaign contribution limit changes “a solution in search of a problem.”

Members of the Transparency Project combed through campaign contribution records for the past two general elections, in 2008 and 2010 respectively, and came to the conclusion that most of the people or businesses who gave the maximum $250 contribution hail from outside Santa Monica’s borders.

According to those figures, 64 percent of donations made to all seven council members over the last two elections came from people, organizations or corporations from outside of the city.

Members of the project didn’t know what they would find when they finally sat down and looked at the contributions, but the numbers weren’t much of a surprise, said Julie Dad, member of the Santa Monica Transparency Project.

“It does create a gap between people who live in Santa Monica who rightfully believe council members are acting on their behalf and people who don’t, who have deeper pockets and might even be corporations,” Dad said.

Raising the campaign contribution limit from $250 to $400 would only exacerbate the problem, she said.

As it stands, relatively few Santa Monica donors give the full $250. According to the Transparency Project’s numbers, the average donation to council members from Santa Monica individuals was $197, while the average donation to council members from individuals or organizations from outside of Santa Monica was $222.

Only 256 Santa Monica donors gave the full amount, compared to 804 outside donors, according to the project.

If Santa Monicans already aren’t giving the maximum, it seems unlikely that many would jump at the chance to throw another $150 onto the pile, particularly with many families and individuals still hurting from the economic freefall seen in 2008, Dad said.

Santa Monica taxpayers as a whole already contribute approximately $14,000 to each campaign through the provision of free benefits from City Hall, including television time and campaign commercial production, according to the city staff report.

Recompense for that work is also on the council’s agenda for Tuesday, in the form of a potential $200 filing fee, which would be waived if candidates collected a sufficient number of verifiable signatures from registered voters.

Opposition to the increase will find it hard to defend maintaining a campaign finance limit now almost two decades old, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School.

“The cost of everything has gone up. I think it’s a fair and reasonable case that the cost of running for office has, too,” Levinson said. “This is not an instance of trying to go from $250 to $2,250.”

Furthermore, if outside interests want to get involved in local campaigns in a big way, they can do so using independent expenditure committees, Levinson said.

That’s nothing new. A number of independent expenditure committees are already involved in Santa Monica politics, including ones for education interests, police and fire and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, arguably the city’s most powerful.

Some, notably City Councilmember Bobby Shriver, have argued that increasing limits is the only way to give regular voters the ability to counter those independent expenditure committees.

Instead of trying to increase contribution limits, the City Council and staff should be using the opportunity to put in place real enforcement measures to make sure candidates are playing by the rules during the race, said Mary Marlow, who also works with the Transparency Project.

The previous election was plagued by inaccuracies on forms, or missing information, she said.

“There’s no teeth to that, no penalty if you don’t,” Marlow said. “That’s crazy.”

Given the entrance of powerful, monied interests in local races, additional protections should be built in to ensure transparency, like a requirement to file forms electronically and hefty penalties for inaccurate or misleading paperwork, Marlow said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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