Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

City Hall is moving forward with a ballot measure to amend the city’s anti-corruption laws.

City Council gave direction to staff at its June 14 meeting to pursue a set of substantive revisions to the rules, known as the Oaks Initiative, that will require voter approval. While precise language for a ballot measure is still in the works, direction included clarifying the definition of public official, exempting uncompensated volunteers at nonprofit organizations, clarifying the jurisdiction of the rules, specify potential repercussions for violations, specify prosecution systems and establish the rules cover both the public officials and the individuals receiving public benefits.

A ballot measure will follow administrative changes to the rules made last month. Both sets of revisions were prompted by an analysis provided by attorney John C. Hueston in April of this year.

Hueston was hired to examine two related topics, conduct of city employees during the hiring and firing of Elizabeth Riel and enforcement of the City’s ethics laws.

Hueston said actions during the Riel case could constitute a breach of the City charter and council adopted his recommendations to improve their internal process.

In regards to the Oaks rules, Hueston recommended several changes. Last month Council approved clarifications and guidelines that deal with the law as it was passed including clarifying definitions of public officials, clarifying the method of determining a public benefit, narrowing definitions of campaign advantages and creating a more readable, easily understood document.

Voters will have to approve the more significant changes and council’s discussion last week will form the basis for the upcoming ballot measure.

Oaks prevents officials from taking campaign contributions, employment or other items of value from someone who has received a benefit from the city. Those benefits include items like a city contract or approval for a construction project. As adopted, the rules only apply when an official votes makes a positive decision that confers a benefit but there was discussion of trying to apply the rules when a vote against a proposal created a benefit. Several councilmembers said applying the rules to “no” votes would create unnecessary complexity for what would be at best preservation of the status quo.

Staff said the council also considered but did not universally support extending the rules timeline to cover accepting donations before a benefit was awarded.

In that case, public officials would have to refrain from accepting something like a campaign contribution from the time at which someone applies for a potential contract or approval.

Staff said determining exactly when that prohibition should start could be legally difficult, as could determining the value of the project or contract prior to its final authorization.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich advocated for the formation of a public database that would start the Oaks prohibition at the time any official paperwork was filed with the city. She acknowledged informal discussions would happen before an application was filed but said setting a standard would at least provide a clear rule for everyone involved.

“As I said to the City Attorney yesterday, I’m guessing that there are people who are  voting on things later who know about it long before it’s in writing, right? So that the issue is not really whether or not it’s in writing, but I would like that clear delineation,” she said.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said the 2016 updates should focus on the clear, easy and necessary revisions. He said it is always possible to expand and revise the rules in the future but the first priority should be to make the provisions work as they were always intended to.

“If we this year, on this ballot, were just to come up with an effective enforceable Oaks Initiative that covers the conflicts of interest or potential appearance of conflicts of interest that Oaks was originally meant to cover, I think we’d be doing a great night’s work,” he said.

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...