Should We Pay People to Run for Office?

City Hall
City Hall

The cash that our city leaders take from developers is a big issue right now. Developers who need special zoning approval for their projects from the City Council have a habit of giving lots of money to key councilmembers.

That's not a huge surprise, but it's happening at a time when organizers of an initiative called Measure S want to put a two-year lid on such case-by-case development decisions. Their goal is to thwart dense, vertical development and the traffic, noise and crowding associated with it. But the drive to quash such construction is happening at a time when Los Angeles, in the midst of a housing crisis, really needs dense, vertical development.

A trio of councilmembers has responded to the campaign cash issue with a proposal to ban contributions from developers. Now Westside councilman Mike Bonin is taking the matter a step further by proposing "full public financing" for all L.A. city elections.

"I am very proud to work with grassroots leaders in the clean-money movement, like the Money Out Voters in Coalition and Free Speech for People, to move forward on an electoral reform that can lower overall campaign spending, get candidates to focus on voters instead of donors, increase voter turnout, and encourage more qualified people to run, including people of color and women," Bonin said in a statement.

His spokesman said a formal proposal would be introduced at today's City Council meeting. Bonin said this was tried before, under his predecessor, Bill Rosendahl, but that it perhaps came too early. "The proposal stalled, but with the energy that Bernie Sanders and others have ignited, the time to try again is now," Bonin stated. "Previous proposals have failed in part because of the potential budget impact — which is why I am going to propose we fund the program through developer fees or a tax on oil and fossil fuel production."

It's not exactly clear how this would work. The city today will provide up to $100,000 in matching funds for council candidates ($800,000 for mayoral hopefuls) who meet certain criteria. But those funds are often rejected as candidates instead seek higher levels of private cash. Details of Bonin's plan were expected today, but the councilman said in a phone interview that candidates could still opt for private funding. "I'm sure we couldn't prohibit self-financing," he said.

The idea is to find a revenue stream — developer fees, for example — and create such a public cash flow for would-be council members that they'd want the public money. And public money would mean they aren't beholden to any special interests.

"People are talking about the impact of money on politics," Bonin said. "We may be at that moment: It's the kind of thing that could catch fire."

Mark Ryavec, a Venice community leader who is challenging Bonin for his seat, said the councilman's move was hypocritical because Bonin has taken campaign cash from developers.

"There is a much simpler way to remove developer dollars from planning and land-use decisions in Los Angeles," Ryavec said via email. "Voters can elect those candidates who reject contributions from anyone with developments pending city approval."


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