Big John’s Mouth

Nearly three years ago, a city ordinance was proposed that would have limited what people could say to the City Council. This bill ran into so much opposition that it withered away.

What did pass was a rule that restrained public comment to five minutes per side for a given agenda item. This theoretically means that if 40 people show up to oppose -- or promote -- something, each gets under eight seconds. In practice, four or five are delegated as spokespeople. Sometimes, this is all it takes for the issue to be fully voiced. Often, it isn‘t. And sometimes the rule is rigorously imposed, and sometimes it isn’t.

It‘s usually imposed on the wide range of opponents of the Playa Vista project. With most of whom I am in great disagreement, but that’s not the issue. More than a dozen anti-Playistas who came to testify on the issue of state housing bonds for the project a couple of months ago had about a half-minute each to say their piece.

Some of these people thereupon behaved in ways guaranteed to alienate even their supporters. But even some of their staunchest opponents wondered whether restraining their comment was fair.

When we talk Playa Vista, we talk about roughly a $6 billion project. Maybe it‘s as done a deal as I think it is, maybe not. But particularly if it is a done deal, what’s to be lost by letting some people who don‘t like it -- say half of those who showed up -- each have the two minutes everyone used to get when they spoke before the council? Even if some of their arguments are wild and meretricious? The members rarely listen anyway. It’s obvious that it can‘t do any harm, since the council’s process certainly hasn‘t speeded up since the five-minute rule was passed in 1997.

The rule itself was promoted by, and its enforcement is the personal work of, City Council President John Ferraro. Big John hasn’t been council president forever. It just seems that way. He‘s held the job since 1987, and he’s sat on the council and, previously, the police commission for almost 30 years before that. He‘s stayed out of trouble most of that time, but his yen to throttle debate might get him into some.

The most recent challenge to Ferraro’s peremptory control was from Sabrina Venskus of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust. After her team was shut out last August, she decided to file suit alleging both a Brown Act violation and a breach of the more obscure state Facility Management Act. ”The City Attorney‘s Office offered to settle and offered us a new hearing,“ she said.

Apparently, this is the usual way in which such infractions are redressed. According to Venskus, this new hearing was set for December 8, and presumably this time offers the opponents more time to speak. But as Venskus was not aware, this is also when the council is slated to review the extra-contentious matter of the Sunshine Canyon landfill extension, which alone could fill the Council Chamber with enraged citizens. So the anti-Playa forces’ viewpoint might be shut out again.

In any case, Venskus won‘t be completely satisfied even if the new hearing does come off. ”That doesn’t help the next person who has this problem,“ she said.

Meanwhile, attorney Lawrence Teeter is pursuing a lawsuit against the city‘s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), accusing the council president of similar disregard for free speech in the course of two 1996 public hearings. These were a joint council-CRA meeting on two Community Redevelopment Agency South-Central projects. The projects -- both largely commercial, one at Slauson and Western avenues, the other at Vermont and Manchester -- were intended to mitigate alleged blight. The opponents tried to say there was no blight, but were, Teeter asserts, repeatedly interrupted and cut off by Ferraro, while favorable testimony went unfettered. Teeter’s court action alleges that Ferraro even had the microphone turned off at least three times when people didn‘t promptly shut up at his command. It also alleges that the CRA failed to prove a need for the redevelopments.

The 1997 testimony rule was not yet in effect, but Teeter insists it wouldn’t have made any difference if it had been. He contends that testimony in such joint hearings involving redevelopment is protected under the state Health and Safety Code, which forbids any limit ”to all evidence and testimony for or against the plan.“ If Teeter‘s lawsuit prevails -- his case lost in Superior Court and is now before this district’s court of appeals -- the CRA must prove anew that the areas need redevelopment. (Considering its current financial straits, it‘s perhaps as likely to drop the projects.) And John Ferraro could officially be forbidden to strong-arm at least this one category of council debate.

More Kale for Candidates?

Why pay anyone to run for public office? Don’t people generally do that for free? Well, that‘s been the tradition.

The problem is that elections often favor those who can afford to spend big to promote themselves. There’s an obvious imbalance here: We like to think that, in a truly democratic system, the citizen of minor means and proven abilities ought to be able to win over the less-qualified candidate of great wealth. Sometimes this is so -- as with Al Checchi. Sometimes not, take Dick Riordan. All of which suggests there‘s public benefit in (the term is inevitable, if sorely overused) leveling the field between the rich and not-so-rich political aspirant.

Hence, we have campaign matching funds. Whereby Los Angeles City Council candidates who prove their capacity to raise $25,000 for themselves are eligible for in-kind matches from local government up to over $100,000.

The candidates are forbidden to accept more than $500 per council election or $1,000 per mayoral election from anybody. So, with matching funds, matters came to be more equal at election time. But not enough for some people.

Which brings us to the three longstanding proposals recently before the City Ethics Commission -- which among its many duties oversees campaign spending and financing -- to extend the campaign-funding laws in new directions. The first proposal was to double the matching of individual contributions. The second -- and more controversial -- was regarding how early in the election cycle the city should start matching such contributions. (Currently, the city only matches contributions in the final 12 months before the primary. But citywide candidates can solicit contributions for up to another year before that.)

And the third issue was whether to waive the contribution-limits rules -- in one or another fashion -- of lesser-funded candidates in races in which another Riordan-type millionaire might decide to run for local office. A related controversy was whether to make the changes right now, while the 2001 fund-raising cycle is in progress, or to hold off until the 2003 electoral cycle, when all participants would know the new rules in advance and there’d be time to bring them into orderly effect. I was sorry that this got to be an issue, because it tempted the panel to do the inevitable.

As it happens, we‘re facing an important mayor’s race. The 2001 election will also transform the membership of the City Council. And the city attorney and city controller, who‘ve both served since 1985, will also have to step down due to term limits. I think it’s fair to say that we won‘t see an election quite this important for some time to come. So it would be great if some or all of these proposed changes could be in effect before 2001.

But the ethics panel decided to punt the whole matter to 2003. Certainly, there were reasons to delay that didn’t involve procrastination. Councilman Mike Feuer noted that if the funding provisions applied retroactively, as they probably would, they might mean more matches for those who filed early to run. This might look like bias to those who take a dim view of the Ethics Commission.

Good point. But if the proposed reforms are valid, and no one has said they aren‘t, we’ll need them in 2001 more than we‘ll need them in an off-year poll like 2003, when only some council seats are up for grabs. The issue seemed to be well worth braving a little adverse comment for. Too bad the Ethics Commission chose not to.

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