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Power of Dirty Money 

Can the L.A. City Council really get serious about campaign ethics?

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006
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THE LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL finally got serious about campaign-finance reform last week, devoting nearly an hour to a proposal for radically reworking the way candidates for Los Angeles mayor, City Council and other municipal offices raise money for their campaigns.

Well, serious isn’t exactly the right word. More like annoyed — annoyed that backers of the plan kept using the words “clean money” to describe the initiative, which would allow candidates who raise a minimal sum of money to have the rest of their campaigns funded by taxpayers. So the council, keeping an eye on the big picture, renamed the initiative “Full Public Financing” to make sure no one leaps to the absurd conclusion that the current process of campaign fund-raising is in any way unseemly.

Renaming a campaign-finance initiative is one thing. Winning passage of it is something else altogether, particularly since the proposal for public financing has enthusiastic support from only three of the council’s 15 members — Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Bill Rosendahl. Several council members are staying quiet, to avoid looking resistant to anything labeled reform. And a few, led by Councilman Herb Wesson, are opposed to asking voters for more money to pay for campaigns.

“I’m not going to vote to tax the people. We just did that,” said Wesson, referring to the council’s recent decision to double the city’s trash fees.

The concept of clean money was pioneered outside of California, in less-populated states where candidates receive public funds once they secure a specified number of tiny campaign donations. In Maine, gubernatorial candidates must raise $5 apiece from at least 2,500 voters. In Arizona, legislative candidates must collect $5 apiece from at least 200 voters. To keep the money, candidates must decline larger, private contributions.

Wesson argued that big-money contributors, chafing under the new system, will simply funnel their excess cash into independent expenditures, or I.E.s — money spent on behalf of candidates without their involvement. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa benefited from a flood of I.E.s last year, which legally circumvented the $1,000 contribution limit and came primarily from employee unions: $308,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $185,000 from United Teachers Los Angeles, nearly $110,000 from the Engineers and Architects Association, to name a few. Shrink the contributions down to $5 and the I.E.s will balloon even more, Wesson suggested.

“If you want to change [the system], the best thing to do is broaden disclosure,” he declared.

So maybe Wesson’s colleagues should take him up on his offer. Council members, especially those who are opposed to putting a public-financing plan on the March ballot, could provide voters considerably more information on the money being raised by candidates and elected officials. As Exhibit A, the council could point to a vote that occurred moments before they debated clean money.

MINUTES BEFORE THEY TOOK UP the issue of campaign finance, the council approved a controversial home-construction project in Mount Washington, a neighborhood represented by Councilman Jose Huizar. Nothing on the Ethics Commission Web site — the repository for campaign-finance data — told Huizar’s constituents that their councilman had a $500-per-ticket fund-raiser in February at the Century City law offices of Ben Reznik, the attorney representing the home developer. Nothing in the public record said the event was billed as an informal discussion of housing and development, or that a leading opponent of the project — Daniel Wright, president of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance — co-hosted his own Huizar fund-raiser weeks later.

Under the current system, candidates only give the Ethics Commission copies of campaign materials sent to more than 200 people — a rule that excludes most fund-raising invitations. The council could shrink that number to 30, 40 or 50 people, and start demanding that candidates report contributions on a weekly basis, instead of every three to six months, so that voters can look up any contribution mailed by a company appearing before the council. After all, if the system is going to be greased by enormous amounts of money, why not give the public a front-row seat at the show?

Huizar insisted that there is no connection between his recent fund-raisers and his vote on the contested 4,500-square-foot house. Still, he voiced support for increased disclosure, saying voters deserve more information on school bond measures and possibly even fund-raising invitations.

A former school-board member, Huizar unveiled his own reform package this week for the L.A. Unified School District, which would go on the November ballot and require school-board members to have the same contribution limits as their municipal counterparts. He sounded far more noncommittal, however, about bringing the concept of clean money to city elections.

“When I first got elected, I kind of generally said I would support full public financing of campaigns,” he said. “But now that I’m here, I see that it’s a lot more complicated.”

Huizar and his colleagues won’t decide on clean money until they see the next batch of reports on the proposed ballot measure from the chief legislative analyst, Gerry Miller, a policy adviser who has already done a decent job of scaring them away from full public financing. Miller told the council they will need to raise taxes to get such a program up and running and alarmed them even more with his report on the $9 million annual cost.

If the city finds itself with a greater number of competitive elections, that figure could go considerably higher, Miller warned the council last week: “I don’t think any of us can sit here today and tell you what this will cost.”

None of that troubles Greuel, who said that the same warnings about cost were posed to previous councils, who then went ahead and approved partial public financing, at a cost of $2 million annually. Greuel predicted this week that she will find the votes from council members who won’t want to deny voters a voice on reform. “It will be hard . . . for my colleagues not to allow the public to decide,” she said.

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