By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. October 27, 2015

The public’s right to know is something we take very seriously in Santa Monica.

That’s why in July 2001, the City Council approved an ordinance to require financial disclosure for all local referenda campaigns during the actual signature gathering period, rather than waiting for the quarterly reporting deadlines provided in the state elections code.

The problem the Council sought to solve, is that because a referendum signature-gathering period lasts only 30 days, the period could come and go before any quarterly campaign filings need be made. Thus, while the signature-gathering is actually happening, and people are making up their minds whether to sign, the public might have no idea who is financing referenda signature gathering efforts, nor who is being paid to conduct them.

The Council thought this was information that residents should have, so it established Santa Monica Municipal Code section 11.04.165: “to ensure that any person interested in the finances of any committee that is raising or spending funds to support or oppose an initiative, recall or referendum, such committees shall file their financial disclosure documents on dates that are within the time period in which signatures are gathered.”

For referenda, the Municipal Code 11.04.165(c) establishes “a thirty-day signature gathering period, campaign disclosure statements shall be filed on the tenth day of the period covering days one through five, on the twenty-fifth day of the period covering days six through twenty, and by the sixtieth day after the end of the period covering days twenty-one through thirty.”

The ordinance was passed in time to apply to that year’s referendum campaign against the City’s 2001 Living Wage Ordinance. There have been no referenda since, until the successful February/March 2014 referendum signature campaign conducted against the Bergamot Transit Village/Hines project at 26th/Olympic.

A review of 2014 filings by the Hines referendum committee “Save our Town/Residocracy” suggest that the deadlines in 11.04.165 do not sufficiently ensure the public’s right to know. In 2001, the Council made a good faith effort to pick reporting deadlines that would give the public the most information, for the most time during the signature-gathering period. With experience we find there are gaps. On January 7, I submitted a #12 item Written Communication to the City Council with recommendations to address the gaps. These recommendations have been embraced by City Staff and are included in an ordinance before the Council on Tuesday. Here is the rationale and backstory:

(1) Amend 11.04.165(c) so that the “twenty-fifth day of the period covering days six through twenty” is changed to the twenty-fourth day.

When the Council established the 25th day reporting deadline in 11.04.16(c), it didn’t realize at the time that because ordinances are adopted on Tuesdays, the 25th day will always be a Saturday. This legally de facto extends the deadline to Mondays, which is the 27th day, the day upon which Save our Town/Residocracy made this report in 2014. By changing the deadline one day earlier to the 24th, this amendment effectively gives the public information three days earlier.

(2) Amend 11.04.165(c) so that “sixtieth day” in the “sixtieth day after the end of the period covering days twenty-one through thirty” is changed to “seventh day”

Under this current timing, significant campaign donations and expenditures can go unreported during the entire signature drive, as well as most or all of the subsequent community discussion, including any potential Council decision about rescission of its earlier approval, or placing it on the ballot.

This amendment would require that reportable campaign activity between days twenty-one through thirty would be reported much earlier than currently required. This would ensure that the public receives this information (a) while the submission of signatures is recent, newsworthy and has the community’s attention; and (b) before City Council certifies the number of valid petition signatures (which is required at the next regular meeting of the Council, after the city clerk and the county determine the sufficiency or insufficiency of the petition, for which they have up to thirty days per CA Elections Code 9114.)

In 2014 under this current timing, the Save our Town/Residocracy committee filing for March 4-12 was supposed to be filed no later than May 12, twenty days after the signatures were certified as valid, and only one day before the May 13 City Council hearing on rescission of its earlier Hines approval. This unnecessarily kept the public uninformed, while important community discussions about rescission vs. placing the project on the ballot occurred.

Then there is the need for enforcement, when even these deadlines are not met. The Save our Town/Residocracy committee report for days twenty-one through thirty was filed a week late on 5/19, entirely after the Council made its decision whether to rescind or place the project on the ballot. This meant the public was not informed of a $16,007.85 payment contained in that late report to a signature-gathering company, made during the last ten days of the signature-gathering period, until 69 days after the end of the signature gathering period, and six days after the Council made its decision on rescission!

(3) Amend 11.04.165(c) so that additional reporting is required for the 14 days after the end of the signature-gathering period, to be reported no later than one week before the date of the public hearing at which the City Council decides whether to place the ordinance on the ballot, or rescind its approval.

It is not uncommon for there to be additional fundraising after the end of a signature gathering drive. Often money is spent during a campaign, in anticipation/hope of additional donations coming in afterwards. Or, donations are simply timed late to delay their public disclosure.

This amendment would expand the public’s right to know by ensuring that financial reporting for contributions and expenditures after the end of the signature gathering period is placed in the public record before the Council takes up the question of rescission or placing its prior approval on the ballot.

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.