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LookOut News (Santa Monica, CA)
May 10, 2005

by Jorge Casuso

State Supreme Court Refuses to Take up Conflict Law

The California Supreme Court has declined to take up Santa Monica's challenge to one of the nation's strictest conflict of interest laws, likely putting an end to a four-year legal battle between the City and sponsors of the successful ballot measure.

The court's decision April 27 lets stand a State Appeals Court ruling that the City could not sue itself in an effort to strike down the law, which bars public officials from accepting campaign contributions, gifts or jobs from sources who have benefited from their votes or actions.

City officials -- who have argued that the law, known as the Oaks Initiative, is unconstitutional -- must now implement the measure approved by 60 percent of Santa Monica voters in 2000, its sponsors said.

"This is it," said Carmen Balber, consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR), which sponsored the initiative. "The City can beat this dead horse no longer. They need to bite the bullet and implement the law."

Santa Monica, which joined the City of Pasadena in its legal challenge, may yet turn to the voters to amend the controversial initiative, which was approved at the polls in four California cities, although only San Francisco implemented it.

In March, when the City Council petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case, it also directed staff to study the idea of a ballot initiative "that could achieve the goals of (the Oaks Initiative) in a transparent, enforceable, Constitutional way."

On Tuesday night, the council will take up in closed session the issue of litigation and what possible steps the City might take.

The measure's sponsors say they expect the City immediately implement the measure

"Pasadena and Santa Monica's conflict of interest laws are now the model for statewide political reform," Balber said. "City officials should now move immediately to implement the law.

"We're definitely paying attention whether politicians are living up to voter expectations," she said. "We are looking to make sure the law hasn't been violated."

Balber said a legal challenge could still arise if, for instance, a council member or a contractor challenges the law on First Amendment grounds.

"If a City contractor feels their rights are being violated by this law, they can bring a suit to challenge it," Balber said. "Instead we have an entire city where no one but the politicians are complaining."

But the council has remained steadfast in its opposition, arguing that, if implemented, the Oaks initiative would subject public officials who unknowingly violate the law to criminal and civil penalties and could unfairly disenfranchise hundreds of homeowners and small-time contractors who receive building permits and contracts from the City.

The initiative, they argued, would chill citizen participation on boards and commissions and is unnecessary because City election law already limits campaign contributions to $250 for Council races.

City officials also point out that in Santa Monica contracts -- which are a key component of the measure -- are hammered out by paid City staff.

Under the initiative, which became an amendment to the City charter, officials cannot receive gifts from public benefit recipients for two years after the expiration of their terms, two years after the official's departure from office, or six years from the date the official acted to approve the allocation, whichever comes first.

Citizens would be authorized to bring civil enforcement actions under the law. Civil remedies would include penalties, restitution to the City, injunctive relief and disqualification from future public office.

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