BERGAMOT STATION — One candidate who promised not to accept money from developers says he will return two campaign contributions he accepted from developers.
In July, Recreation and Parks Chair Phil Brock, alongside numerous other City Council candidates, hoisted a large yellow “No” sign in the air.
The event was a Residocracy candidates’ forum and the question was: “Are you, or do you plan to accept campaign contributions from developers or their associates?”
Brock was one of the first to raise his paddle. Almost everyone said, “No.” Nick Boles and Frank Gruber declined to answer.
Only Mayor Pam O’Connor raised a definitive “Yes” paddle. The crowd jeered and laughed.
Less than two weeks later, according to campaign disclosure statements, Brock’s campaign accepted a $325 contribution from Jim Jacobsen, an executive member of the 26Street TOD development team, which, at the time, was trying to win council’s support to add, among other things, a hotel and office space to the Bergamot Station Art Center.
A month after that, in September, Brock, who’d been initially critical of the project, wrote to members of council: “In discussing the potential for land use and in keeping with the now established use of Bergamot as an art, museum and theatre venue I believe that 26Street/TOD Partners is the best developer to enhance the site.”
Brock went on to express caveats: A hotel should be limited to three stories, he said in the letter. Creative office space should be limited or removed from the agreement, he said. Parking, he said, was a major issue.
Two days later, council ignored recommendations from city staff, the Arts Commission, and Brock, selecting, instead, Jeff Worthe Real Estate Group for potential development of the site.
Less than a week after that, Scott Ginsburg, another executive partner on the 26Street TOD team, made a $325 contribution to Brock’s campaign. This contribution was also accepted, according to campaign disclosure statements filed with City Hall.
Earlier this week at Squirm Night, the Daily Press’ candidates’ forum, we asked Brock about the contributions.
He said that he’d gotten 177 individual donations, a majority from Santa Monica residents. He claimed that he didn’t know that Jacobsen had donated.
“When do you draw the line?” Brock said. “I think that you draw the line when you start getting multiple donations from a company to approve their project.”
He referred to contributions, accepted by O’Connor, from employees of the developer Hines.
“At that point, then it obviously smells wrong and is wrong,” he said.
It is only a violation of the Municipal Code if cash is accepted by an elected official after he or she has conferred a benefit to the contributor.
There is nothing illegal about Brock’s acceptance of campaign contributions from developers but he has been vocal throughout his campaign about his distaste for large developments and what he perceives as a lack of transparency at City Hall. Residocracy, a group that purports to be taking the money out of politics, endorsed Brock. He got 67.5 percent of their membership vote — their top vote-getter.
Armen Melkonians, the founder of Residocracy, said that he first learned of the contributions at Squirm Night.
“I had a brief conversation with him afterwards and I recognized that it’s not a corporate type donation being flooded but I still think that probably the best thing to do would be to give it back,” he said. “I think it’s such a small number and I think that the best thing to do is to give it back. I don’t think it would influence him in any way but I think it’s the proper thing to do.”
The Daily Press called Brock for clarification on his stance. He sent an e-mailed response, noting that he would return the contributions but defending the acceptance of them. Then he sent another e-mail requesting a redaction of the first e-mail.
“The answer is simple,” he said in the second e-mail. “My treasurer is returning the donations.”