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Court Rebuffs Challenge to Corruption Initiative

Los Angeles Daily Journal

LOS ANGELES -- A state appellate court has handed a victory to backers of a public corruption initiative blocking public officials from receiving campaign contributions, gifts or jobs from city contractors.

The cities of Santa Monica and Pasadena challenged the initiative, called the Oaks Initiative, after voters in the two cities overwhelming passed it in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

The Oaks Initiative, which was backed by activist Harvey Rosenfield's Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, prohibits city officials from taking campaign contributions, large gifts or jobs from people who receive city contract work worth more than $25,000.

The ban takes effect when a politician assumes office, and it extends for five years after the contract or one year after the official leaves office.

The cities claimed that the measure was unconstitutional because it completely banned campaign contributions and could run afoul of the state's employment laws. The law also was passed in Claremont and San Francisco.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed and reversed in part rulings in two cases brought against Santa Monica and Pasadena. City of Santa Monica v. Stewart, 2005 DJDAR 1174 (Cal. App. 2nd Dist. Jan. 28, 2005).

Justice Paul Boland was joined in the decision by Justices Candace Cooper and Madeleine Flier.

In the Santa Monica case, the court affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Debra W. Yang's ruling that Santa Monica does not have the legal standing to challenge the constitutionally of the initiative. Yang is now the U.S. attorney for the Central District, in Los Angeles.

Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie had recommended to City Council members in May 2001 that they not implement the initiative, based on a similar initiative in San Diego that had been declared unconstitutional.

While acknowledging an important public interest in addressing whether the law is overbroad, the court said it was too early for Santa Monica to ask for court intervention.

"That is not enough," Boland wrote. "It is wholly inappropriate to resolve those abstract issues in the absence of evidence regarding the existence of an actual controversy or the ripening seeds of one.

"Courts are not free to render advisory opinions regarding controversies which the parties feel will arise, but which do not presently exist."

"The City Council decided to file the challenge," Moutrie said, "because there was the court decision holding that the measure was manifestly unconstitutional. That being the case, the council was afraid that if we implemented it, we might violate individuals' constitutional rights."

Santa Monica has not determined whether it will seek review by the state Supreme Court, Moutrie said.

In Pasadena, the court battle began when a city watchdog sued the city to implement the Oaks Initiative. The city filed a cross-complaint challenging its constitutionality.

Judge J. Michael Byrne, ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion, agreed the law was unconstitutional. The appellate court, however, reversed his ruling.

Richards, Watson & Gershon partner T. Peter Pierce referred all calls to Pasadena City Attorney Michele Beal Bagneris. Bagneris could not be reached as of press time.

Oaks Project director Carmen Balber says her group's goal is to promote the initiative in cities across California, including Los Angeles, which is embroiled in multiple corruption investigations. Critics allege city contracts routinely are doled out in exchange for campaign contributions.

The so-called "pay-to-play" scandal also has focused on a $24 million contract awarded to communications firm Fleishman-Hillard by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power.

Balber said the organization wanted to get the court challenges out of the way before they worked to extend the law's reach.

"With the current scandal in Los Angeles, it would be a reform that would restore voter's confidence," she said.