Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

City Council approved several reforms to the anti-corruption laws at its June 28 meeting with the intent to seek voter approval in November.

The precise language will return to council one more time but as currently proposed, the package of reforms presented to voters will include expanding the definition of “public official,” specifying the rules that apply outside the city’s borders, explicitly stating one or more civil penalties can apply to violations, outlining the enforcement obligations of the City Attorney’s office, applying the rule to some individuals who make political donations as well as those who receive them, exempting some volunteers who work for nonprofit organizations and preventing donations from individuals or companies from the time a formal application is filed to do business with the city.

The Oaks Initiative was always intended to prohibit elected or appointed officials from accepting campaign contributions, gifts or job offers from individuals or companies that have received a “public benefit” from the city. Benefits can include but are not limited to a purchase from the city, a contract with the city (including land sales, leases or development agreements) or a favorable ruling on a zoning question.

Officials have said the revisions will make the rules easier to enforce and provide greater clarity to everyone involved.

Council debate last week focused on the so called “look-back” provision that applies the rules from the time an application is filed with the city as opposed to starting after an application has been approved. Critics of the idea said it would be too complicated to enforce and was too harsh in its punishments for minor infractions. Supporters said the rules are relatively easy to follow in practice and that the city can provide all the necessary education and information.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich has been a consistent supporter of a look-back provision and said City Hall can furnish a list of individuals and companies that are covered by Oaks prohibitions tied to the formal filing of applications with a city department.

“We need a finite beginning and a finite end to who is seeking to do business with us, in terms of bidding, which is why when we talked about creating this list we talked about a formal proposal … ” she said.

Himmelrich said the list wouldn’t be perfect but it would provide a starting point.

“I’m not expecting that we can capture every single iteration of people knowing that someone is going to be making a bid or seeking a benefit and preventing those contributions,” she said. “But all we can do is the most definite thing we can. Call it provable or concrete or something that is verifiable and the mere knowledge is never verifiable, that’s too abstract, but what we need is the formal submission and the award and that is the beginning and the end of the process.”

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said the current procedures within City Hall wouldn’t provide some individuals, such as Planning Commissioners running for City Council, with information in time to avoid breaking the law.

“The concern I have is that, yes, the criminal misdemeanor offense requires that it be a knowing and willful violation but the civil action provision doesn’t,” she said. “So that’s my concern. Someone could be sued for inadvertently taking a campaign contribution that should have been returned or never taken in the first place.”

Council came to consensus on a compromise position.

Oaks will continue to apply to a broad swath of activity but the look-back provision will only cover individuals and companies bidding on City work or entering into a contract with the city including land sales, leases and development agreements. In addition, language will be added to the Civil Penalties section that limits it to “knowing and willful” violations.

Purchasing power

Council revised rules related to awarding bids and government purchases. In response to a concern that the city has received too many single source bids, staff pitched several ideas to increase the potential bidder pool including increasing the use of online materials for bidders, broadening the potential bidder pool, reauthorizing business with the State of Arizona and Arizona based companies, expanding local partnerships, streamlining the purchasing system and increasing outreach to vendors.

The city had barred business with Arizona to protest anti-immigration rules but staff said the prohibition limited the number of potential bidders for city work. Council said vendor outreach programs should account for minority owned businesses that might be qualified for the work but unaware of how to apply.

Supporting SMC

Council voted to support a new Santa Monica College bond. SMC will place a $345 million classroom repair, career training, and higher education access measure on the November ballot. The money will pay for upgrades, repairs and rehabilitation of facilities drawn from SMC’s 2010 Master Plan.

The action by the council has no legislative weight and in voicing support councilmembers acknowledged opposition to the measure from some community members.

“While I can certainly understand that not everyone maybe in love with the college, I am just so proud to have it,” said Councilwoman Gleam Davis. “The accomplishments of the students there have been overwhelming.”

Mayor Tony Vazquez said he graduated from SMC and said the bond is needed to fix buildings that were in use when he was a student 40 years ago.

“At the end of the day, it’s the voters that will make the ultimate decision on this,” he said.

New taxes

Council directed staff to prepare a half cent transaction use tax ballot measure for November. The tax increase would be accompanied by an advisory measure asking voters if they would support half of the revenues supporting affordable housing and the other half supporting the local school district.

According to city staff, a transaction and use tax functions like a sales tax and the ballot measure would increase the total levy to 10 percent, the maximum allowed under state law. If the county were to also pass an additional half cent sales tax measure, they would do so under special state rules that allow counties to raise the total levy limit.

The advisory measure would not be legally binding but would express the will of voters regarding the tax increase.