CITY HALL — In a nod to public opinion, Santa Monica City Council members voted Tuesday to raise the limit on campaign contributions, but by half of what was originally recommended by staff.
If confirmed by a second reading later this month, the maximum contribution any individual or business can make to a City Council candidate will be $325.
The staff proposal suggested increasing the campaign contribution limit to $400 from the limit of $250 set in 1992. Such an adjustment would align the contribution limit with inflation, according to the staff report.
That argument held no water with community members who came to the City Council meeting to speak against the increase, saying that it would only further disenfranchise voters in a time when the average individual’s pocketbook is slimmer, but many outside interests are still capable of giving the maximum.
An analysis of the previous two elections by a group of residents called the Santa Monica Transparency Project showed that donors from outside Santa Monica that gave the $250 maximum outnumbered high rollers in Santa Monica 3-1.
If the limit was raised, the group argued, even fewer Santa Monica residents would be capable of giving the maximum, whereas outsiders may not be similarly restricted.
“All this has to do with is where the influence is coming from,” said Julie Dad, a member of the Transparency Project.
Raising the limit also suggested that City Council candidates need more money to run successful elections, despite some $14,000 in municipal support given to candidates in the form of television production, airtime and candidate statements.
If candidates had access to more money, said Gregg Heacock, president of neighborhood group Mid City Neighbors, it might equate to increased mailers, which caused controversy in the 2010 election and several residents decried as contrary to Santa Monica’s eco-friendly image.
“Stuffing mailboxes is the new version of stuffing ballot boxes,” Heacock said.
For all its hefty influence, Santa Monica is still a small city, and candidates, particularly incumbents, are known quantities to the voters.
“Santa Monicans don’t need more competition as donors, and candidates don’t need more money to become known to us,” said resident Catherine Eldridge.
Council members debated the issue, noting that the cost of running elections had risen along with inflation, in large part because of the postal system.
Those unpopular mailers, which cost between $12,000 and $13,000 a pop, are the only way to get to most voters who do not attend debates or watch the commercials on CityTV, said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis.
“I only got out three pieces of mail, and it was hard to raise that money,” Davis said.
While council candidates struggle to raise money to fund their campaigns, money flows freely from independent expenditure committees, groups not specifically connected to any council member that can spend unlimited amounts of money for or against any candidate.
Raising the limit would be the only way for Santa Monicans to compete with either outside money or independent expenditures, said Councilmember Bobby Shriver.
Additionally, it was less of a raise and more of a settling up, he said.
“We would go back to what the limit was. It really is true, $250 in 1992 is not $250 today,” he said.
Despite those objections, council members were willing to meet residents’ requests halfway, conceding that although additional contributions would make campaigns easier, the system “wasn’t broken.”
“Campaigns already seem to get the message out,” said Councilmember Terry O’Day. “I don’t feel a strong need to change it.”
The decision to meet the public halfway was a welcome compromise, Dad said.
“Overall, I’m pleased that the council found a way,” she said. “They listened, and took into consideration what the public said. I’m very happy about that.”
Councilman Kevin McKeown voted against raising the limit, saying an increase was not needed.
The council did see fit to raise the amount candidates need to pay to enter the race.
In an effort to cover a portion of that $14,000 in services, council members considered a $200 filing fee on top of the normal 100 signatures needed to qualify.
Candidates would have the option to waive the extra fee if they can rally another 100 voter signatures.
The two changes will be confirmed after a second reading scheduled for Nov. 22.