City Council Meeting:  June 19, 2007

Agenda Item: 8-E

 

To:                   Mayor and City Council 

From:              Maria M. Stewart, City Clerk

Subject:          Report on Community Meeting Held:  Improving the Electoral Process

 

Recommended Action

Staff recommends that Council review the information contained in this report and provide direction to staff.

 

Executive Summary

At the March 13, 2007, City Council meeting, the City Council directed the City Attorney to return with advice on how the intent of the existing campaign contribution laws can be better implemented and enforced and directed the City Clerk to hold a community workshop to receive public comment on means to improve the electoral process.  This report complies with Council's direction as to the results of the community workshop.   The City Attorney will respond to the direction related to improved implementation of the intent of the existing campaign contribution laws in a separate report.

 

Discussion

During the March 13th meeting, the City Council discussed the idea of implementing a Public Financing of Elections program in the City.  There were approximately 34 members of the public who commented generally in favor of public financing of elections.  Issues raised by members of the public and by Councilmembers during discussion included but were not limited to:  negative, false, or misleading campaign literature during the election season; lack of women and minority candidates; need to maintain voter-owned elections; the possibility of adjusting the local $250 contribution limit; political sustainability; ranked voting and instant runoff voting; public financing of electoral campaigns; the effect of unlimited independent expenditures on elections; sources of the bulk of contributions to candidates; and also the question as to whether elections are working well in Santa Monica.

 

After considerable discussion, Council opted to direct staff to hold a community meeting and receive feedback on how residents felt the electoral process is working in the City and on ways to improve the process.

 

Background

Staff scheduled the meeting for Monday, May 14, 2007, from 7:00 p.m., to 9:00 p.m.  The event was held at the Ken Edwards Community Center.  In addition to scheduling the event, staff also created a survey for residents who might not be able to attend the meeting but who might be interested in opining on the subject.  Hard copies of the survey were distributed to a large distribution list and were also placed on the City's website to be completed online.

 

The May 14th meeting was attended by 70 residents.  In order to establish a base for the meeting, staff distributed a fact sheet that included information on the City demographics, voter turnout in Santa Monica and other cities, existing local campaign reforms, regulations for City office candidates, and on campaign regulations including contribution and expenditure limits.  A copy of the fact sheet is attached as Exhibit A.

 

Staff secured the assistance of a facilitator for the meeting from the firm Moore, Iacofano & Goltsman.  Although no funds were approved for expenditures related to this meeting, staff felt it was important to have an experienced facilitator to make the most of the event, and to maintain the impartiality and neutrality of the subject matter.   Also, the cost was minimal.  Attached as Exhibit A-1 is a chart created at the meeting.

The meeting began with the City Clerk reviewing the information in the fact sheet as a basis for the discussion.  The facilitator then opened the discussion by asking the attendees what they felt was currently working well in the electoral process.  After some discussion and feedback on the question of what is working well, the discussion moved on to what could be improved.  Below is a summary of the discussion. 

 

What is working well in Santa Monica's electoral process?

The attendees felt that the City was providing helpful and timely information to new potential candidates and that the information assisted individuals in their decision to run for office.  The timeliness and depth of election information on the City's website was also noted, including the quick availability of campaign statements, candidate information, and election process information.  Residents indicated their support for the existing $250 contribution limit, although there were comments made for both increasing and decreasing the limit.  The term "transparency" of existing information was repeatedly used in a positive manner.  The debates and public forums held throughout the election season were also discussed favorably.   In a show of hands, the majority of attendees indicated that the process was working relatively well in the City.

 

What can be improved in the electoral process?

The remainder of the time scheduled for the event was spent on discussing the question of how to improve the electoral process.  The majority of residents participated with thoughtful comments, opinions, ideas and suggestions.  Generally, the issues raised by participants at the community meeting mirrored the issues raised during public comment and discussed by the City Council at the March 13th meeting. 

 

Election Campaigns

As related to election campaigns, attendees discussed the following: accountability and civic responsibility regarding the use of contributions by candidates; the need for fact-checking and monitoring of campaign literature and the need for the ability to censure or expose candidates and committees that send out misleading literature; the need for

more substantive debates; more free media containing election information such as a hard copy "city newspaper" sent out to residents on a regular basis (for those that do not have access to the newspapers or have computers at home).

 

Reference was made to the possibility of creating an independent entity with a charge similar to the existing "Campaign Watch Commission" created by the League of Women voters of Los Angeles.  The Commission, made up of 9 members, was created in 1999 to encourage a positive and productive electoral process.  According to the information on the League's website, its charge is to review complaints submitted by candidates who think their opponent has "breached the standards of campaign ethics set forth in the Commission's Mission Statement."  It further reads:  "The opponent is provided an opportunity to rebut the complaint, after which the Commission weighs the submitted evidence and issues a response.  The response is provided to both the complainant and the opponent, and to the media."  The City of Malibu has established a similar commission. 

 

Staff contacted both the L.A. League of Women Voters Commission and the Malibu Commission for a review of the effectiveness of the programs.  Representatives from both entities reported that initially their respective commissions received complaints regularly and the members met to discharge their duties.  However, Malibu reported that during the 2006 election the Commission did not receive any complaints because candidates were not willing to participate for various reasons.  The League of Women Voters reported that in March 2006 only one complaint was received and it was received too late for the Commission to properly act upon it. 

 

Attached as Exhibit B is a copy of the mission statement and the webpage for the City of Los Angeles Campaign Watch Commission created by the League of Women Voters.  Attached as Exhibit C is a description of Malibu's similar commission. 

 

 


Limits on Contributions

Residents spoke in favor of public financing of elections in order to provide a level playing field, but some also spoke in opposition noting that public financing of elections would not affect or curtail independent expenditures.  Other issues discussed on this subject were the need for more transparency from contributors and PACS; public funding to allow for rebuttals; clarification of policy for independent expenditure committees; immediate reporting of expenditures when incurred; enforcement of viola-tions of existing laws and regulations and notification to the public of same; and enforcement of the Oaks Initiative.

 

After the community meeting staff received additional feedback on the subject of public financing of elections in the form of a written proposal submitted by VOTE4SM, which is described in the proposal as "a Santa Monica citizen electoral reform coalition."   A copy of the proposal is attached as Exhibit D.  Exhibit D-1 consists of four related newspaper articles submitted by Vote4SM with the proposal.

 

Election Process

Attendees spoke both in favor and in opposition of term limits, an elected mayor, and ranked voting.   Comments were made in favor of a "full-time" Council, more youth participation, mentoring of new candidates by incumbents, more minority and women candidates, and support staff for individual Councilmembers or appointment of a City ombudsman.  There were also comments made regarding the need for more accessible polling sites for the disabled and issues with voting machine accuracy.

 

Messaging and Communications

Although initially the majority of attendees rated City information and transparency high, comments were made in favor of more information and disclosure, and more debates and public forums.  Seascape was noted as an important source of information that should be used to disseminate election information during the election season. 

 

There was a perception with members of the public of a lack of enforcement by the City of election law violations.  Staff would like to clarify that during every election season the City Clerk and the City Attorney receive complaints of possible violations of election law from candidates, committees, and members of the public.  The complaints are promptly reviewed and investigated by the City.  When appropriate, the alleged violator(s) is notified in writing of the exact nature of the violation and is requested to correct the same.  When deemed necessary, the complaint is referred to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) or to the District Attorney's Office (DAO) with a request for enforcement of the alleged violation.  The investigation processes of the FPPC and of the DAO are lengthy and it may be weeks or months before the City is notified of any resolution of a complaint, and it is likely that such a resolution will come about long after the election is over.  In order to address the public's perception of lack of enforcement of election law violations, Council may wish to consider directing staff to implement a policy of noticing the receipt of complaints and of their respective resolutions to the public.

 

Residents also indicated interest in seeing some kind of tracking of the voting records of candidates once they have been elected, so as to monitor the candidate's commitment to his/her campaign promises.  Free wireless service citywide and extended public library hours for access to computers were also favored. 

 

Survey Results

A total of 113 surveys were received through June 11, 2007.  Of these, 109 indicated they were city residents.  Again, the majority of comments mirrored issues raised at the City Council meeting on March 13th, and issues raised at the community meeting.  Other issues raised through the surveys were as follows:

 


Campaigns

-           get rid of slates

-           campaign contributions favor PAC's/slates rather than individual voices

-           need electronic filing of campaign statements

-           limit the length of time for active campaigning

-           either enforce violations of illegal signs, or exempt regulation during election

            (have incumbents lead by example)

-           tax incentives for business to support individuals

 

Public Financing

-           city contributions to candidates' campaigns

-           limit public campaign money to non-incumbents only

-           create a tax to pay for public financing

-           no taxpayer funding of elections

-           no public financing, it won't stop special interests' political advertising

 

Electoral Process

-           encourage young people to be poll workers

-           parking at polling sites difficult

-           voting by mail

-           Saturday or Sunday elections

-           elect council by districts

-           Council, but at least Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem, should have field reps

-           have no special elections

-           pay Councilmembers more

-           works great, don't fix something that isn't broken

-           less corruption in Santa Monica than other municipalities

-           need Charter Study Committee

-           voters should be able to vote for or against Council's choice for City Manager and

            City Attorney

-           average middle class voter gets lost in extremes between renters and higher

            income voters

-           require ID for voting

-           voting on-line

-           there is fair, efficient and prompt handling and distribution of election materials.

 

Messaging and Communication

-           simplify voting documents, November 2006 ballot too complicated

-           turnout too low, improve voter outreach

-           stop last minute electioneering (ads/mailers)

-           have neighborhood candidate forums

-           excellent public participation and awareness, politically engaged residents, high

            voter turnout

-           allow (provide for) "opting out" of receiving campaign mail

-           encourage use of neighborhood web portal for debate between residents

-           city-sponsored publicity regarding false facts

-           create legal block to misleading literature

-           prohibit mailers; everything to be posted on-line (paperless)

-           less election-related phone calls

-           restore Public Electronic Network for discussion of issues on-line between

            residents

-           create virtual town hall on City's website

-           closed captioning of candidate debates and interviews.

-           candidate debates should be on the internet.

-           more advertising to inform public of candidate debates

 

A sample of the survey is attached as Exhibit E.

 


Alternatives

Overall, the issues discussed at the March 13th Council meeting, at the community meeting, and the remarks received via surveys share some common threads including negative and/or misleading campaign literature, independent expenditures, spending limits, public financing of elections and a different voting process such as ranked or IRV voting.  Also, some residents appear to be in favor of certain ideas that other residents oppose such as having an elected mayor and establishing terms limits.  Given the scope of the information received so far, Council may want to consider directing staff to conduct a phone survey.  A random phone survey will collect data from a broader sample of the population and may provide different views than those received from the group of residents that attended the Council meeting or the group that took the time to complete the survey and/or attend the community meeting.   The cost of a 10-minute survey that would sample 300 voters city-wide and ask 10 election process related questions will cost approximately $13,000.

 

Public Outreach

Invitations and notices of the community meeting were delivered, mailed via U.S. mail, and/or e-mailed to the following:  Chamber of Commerce, major City businesses, neighborhood groups, non-profits, local religious organizations, existing campaign committees, Senior Center mailing lists, the media, attendees and groups represented at the March 13th meeting, all City board and commission members, Rent Control Board, and College and School District administration and elected officials.  Notices were posted in all parks, Senior Centers, public libraries, public counters in City offices, and in Big Blue Buses.  The meeting was advertised on CityTV, the Daily Press, surfsantamonica, Seascape and the City's website.  In addition, the surveys were distributed and made available to residents at the Board & Commission dinner, Farmers' Markets, Senior Center, and at the Santa Monica Festival.

 


Electronic Filing of Campaign Statements

At the May 22, 2007 budget session Council directed staff to look into the possibility of implementing an electronic campaign filing system.  Staff has researched this possibility and provides the following information.

 

The Secretary of State's Office (SOS) has a list of authorized vendors who may provide programs and technical services for electronic filing of campaign statements, and includes a program designed and developed by the City of Los Angeles.

 

The City of Los Angeles Information Services staff designed and developed an electronic filing program for their own use in 2000, and have been using it since.  The features of the software include the ability to data-enter (upload) statements, ability to search across filings, election totals pages, committee tracking and tools for identifying instances of potential contribution aggregation.  The City has sold this program to the City of Long Beach and to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

 

The City of Los Angeles is willing and able to sell its program to other entities for approximately $40,000, including installation, and has sold the program to the City of Long Beach and to Los Angeles County Clerk's Office.  Once installed the purchaser would have to maintain, update, upgrade, and modify the system as needed.  At the writing of this report staff does not have enough information to determine the on-going cost of maintaining such a program.

 

Staff contacted Long Beach and the County Clerk's office for a reference on the use of the program.  City of Long Beach staff advised that overall, the system is good and  allows faster public access of campaign statements, but that the program required substantial adjustments and tweaking to tailor it to the City's  needs and on-going maintenance.  The County Clerk's Office is still conducting some final adjustments and expects to have the program ready for use by July 2007 for the top eight County offices including the Board of Supervisors, Assessor, District Attorney and Sheriff.

A company named NetFile is being used by the cities of Santa Clara, San Jose, San Diego, Anaheim, and recently by San Francisco, as well as by the counties of Santa Clara and Alameda.  NetFile hosts and maintains the program with the city linking to its account.  Preliminary research indicates a flat maintenance cost of $10,000 annually for organizations with a population of less than 100,000.  Attached as Exhibit F is introductory information regarding Netfile.  Their website is at:  http://www.netfile.com/

 

Council may wish to consider directing staff to research the cost of on-going maintenance of the program available for purchase from the City of Los Angeles and/or the cost of securing electronic filing services from a suitable provider approved by the Secretary of State.

 

Public Financing of Elections in Other Comparable Cities

Lastly, also at the March 13th Council meeting, Council directed staff to research how public financing of elections was working in comparable-sized cities.  The cities of Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco have implemented a limited form or public financing involving matching funds only.  However, they are not comparable in size to the City of Santa Monica as their populations range from 382,000 to 730,000. 

 

The City of Boulder, Colorado is the most comparable in resident and voter population, at just over 100,000 residents and 70,218 registered voters.  Boulder also has a matching funds program only; it does not have a full financing program.  Candidates who agree to participate in the program agree to contributions and expenditure limits based on a specific formula of (Inflation per-voter base) x (registered voters). 

 

 

 

 

 

 


For the November 2005 election, based on the formula, the expenditure limit was $12,610 including 50% of matching funds in the amount of $6,305 for participating candidates.  The program is funded by the General Fund.  During this election there were 10 candidates running for office.  Four candidates qualified for matching funds, and two of those four candidates were elected.  An incumbent who was re-elected did not participate in the program. 

 

Budget/Financial Impact

This report has no financial impact.  The cost to hire a facilitator for the community meeting, print and prepare materials, publishing and noticing, event support, and employee overtime was covered by departmental savings.  However, as noted in the staff report discussed at the March 13th meeting, there may be future financial costs incurred depending on Council's direction to staff on the topics discussed in this report.

 

Prepared by:

 

Approved:

 

Forwarded to Council:

 

 

 

 

 

Maria M. Stewart, City Clerk

(Director, Department of Records and

Election Services)

 

P. Lamont Ewell

City Manager