Board of Education candidates gathered for the Daily Press' Squirm Night forum. (Photo by Brandon Wise)

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. February 09, 2015

It costs a lot to win a City Council seat in Santa Monica. One citywide direct mail piece costs close to $20,000, and direct mail is necessary to win, because it’s the only way to reach most residents.

Between what candidates raise themselves and the value of independent expenditure campaigns on their behalf, a winning campaign can easily cost $200,000 to $300,000, and several have cost far more.

One antidote is supposed to be the many candidate forums that community and civic organizations sponsor. But despite best efforts and intentions, it’s generally the same small number of people who attend, most of whom already know and support some of the candidates.

Other than election programming by CityTV, none of the other forums are televised either. Those that are video recorded, often only slowly make their way onto YouTube, after momentum is lost.

Not only does the high cost of elections favor certain candidates and interests. But since so much money comes from independent expenditure campaigns, winning an election largely revolves around getting those endorsements. That means small numbers of people who make those endorsements control large amounts of political spending that decide our public officials.

To decrease the relative role of money in local elections and promote a more informed electorate, I successfully promoted a substantial increase in CityTV coverage of ballot-qualified candidates (while on the Council in the mid-to-late 1990s), valued today at approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per candidate. Candidate statements, interviews and forums are broadcast on CityTV for up to a month before the election, as well as posted on YouTube, providing a floor of information to every voter about every candidate – meaning this is a voters’ rights issue at its core.

Can we expand this approach of utilizing our public infrastructure to better inform residents? Can we make it easier for people to attend candidate forums — and make the forums themselves more informative?

One way is to hold a series of Meet & Greet/Candidate Forums at easily accessible neighborhood schools, parks, libraries and other venues, and food from local eateries.

More people would attend because they will be able to easily walk, bike, or bus/drive a short distance within their neighborhood. Having good food will also make it easier to come from work, rather than going home for dinner. Everyone likes a free meal, and breaking bread during election season is good community building.

To get into more depth on the issues, and to give voters a clearer sense of the candidates, we also need to coordinate topics among these forums. Right now we suffer from too many similar questions at multiple forums, with answers limited to 30 to 60 seconds. That’s all the further we get on many issues, with rarely a follow up.

The forum formats should include both candidate panel/q&a/moderated discussion, and unstructured social time with candidates mixing freely with residents, and probably run three hours to embody it all. That personal time is something we especially want to encourage, where voters can meet the people who would represent them.

Those who’ve campaigned door-to-door know it’s a spiritual experience talking to residents at their homes. But not everyone has the freedom to spend hours walking precincts. Even for those of us who do, there are many more voters we don’t reach. Neighborhood Meet & Greet/Candidate Forums would put many more residents and candidates together in the same room, without requiring big money. Word of mouth would spread organically afterwards.

Of course, not everyone can or wants to come in person. That means live-casting on the web, because people are most likely to watch something live. For the forums not televised by CityTV, there are free tools like Ustream  — which was used to effectively livecast the General Assemblies of Occupy LA (mic check!).

Promotion of the forums should include an aggressive email, social media and door hanger ‘push’ strategy – publicizing ‘where and when’, and online video links. By combining emails from the registered voter list, supplemented by commercial services, it would be easy to create a list of over 20,000 Santa Monica residents (with an ‘opt out’ option for those who decline further notice.)

The next task is to establish/identify a coordinating entity to bring together the numerous groups and organizations that already host candidate forums, to mix and match them into this new format – and to ensure a geographical distribution of venues. This coordinating entity could also facilitate the video taping/live-streaming, and produce an election calendar (including when the questionnaires are scheduled) something else that could benefit from coordination (that’s another column.)

Given the wide variation among community organizations, including the press, coordinating issues/topics would be challenging. Some organizations make endorsements, and there are different concepts of what is a level playing field.

The City can’t do it — it has nonpartisan standards that limit which events it can be involved with. Concurrently, not every group would want to be so constrained. The League of Women Voters of Santa Monica Education Fund and City TV of Santa Monica already produce CityTV broadcasts according to those standards.

What the City could also do is explore more aggressive email outreach to these 20,000+ residents, to promote CityTV events and coverage, and the smvote.org page — an ‘Electronic Seascape’ of sorts for the election season. The City and the League could also co-sponsor one of the neighborhood-based forums.

Discussions should begin among those traditionally involved in non-partisan election education like the League of Women Voters, along with groups that have done candidate forums, past candidates and others – with the goal to develop a concept, framework and budget before candidates start declaring next year.

Elections are a chance to know ourselves every two years. Let me know your ideas on improving elections in Santa Monica, especially what would lead you to attend (or watch) candidate forums, if you don’t already.


Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

 

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