Los Angeles City Ethics Commission leaders must have finally realized that their plan to reinvigorate publicly financed election campaigns was doomed Tuesday when the City Council tabled the discussion in favor of a troupe of belly dancers.

A half-dozen or so shimmying hoofers, some with bells at their ankles, one with a candelabrum atop her head, spun and twirled their way down the marble-columned center aisle of the historic council chamber and onto the floor at the foot of the president’s podium. There they undulated for the clearly pleased elected officials in what Councilwoman Jan Perry had promised her colleagues would be a “moment of inspiration.”

Ethics Commission executive director LeeAnn Pelham, ousted temporarily from the witness table where for four straight weeks she has tried to alternately sweet-talk and scold the council into curbing the power of special-interest campaign money, stood speechless at the side of the hall. A handful of campaign-reform advocates, some from Common Cause, some from the Green Party, shook their heads sadly from their benches. It was all too much for Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, who did not stick around for the end of either performance — the dancers’ or the council members’.

One approving council aide suggested there had been nothing like it since fictionalized Owens Valley herdsmen ran their sheep through this very hall to protest the theft of their water.

But the shepherds in the film Chinatown at least were taking part in the debate, in their own way. The dancers offered no opinions on public financing of city elections, but the council members — by suspending the discussion to call in the “appreciation of Mediterranean culture and dance” — sent the ethics panel a clear signal on what they thought about redesigning the ground rules that got each and every one of them elected to their current $139,476-a-year jobs.

In the end, after the belly dancers had filed out and Pelham returned with commission president Miriam Krinsky to the center table, the council obliterated reforms that, as a rule, would have helped challengers at the expense of incumbents.

The commission proposed three ways to allow hapless candidates abiding by spending limits to raise and spend more money to keep pace with opponents who score unlimited special-interest bonanzas. Council members killed the first, which would have allowed candidates who did not get supposedly unsolicited gifts like free billboard space to lift legal limits on spending. They also killed the second, which would have permitted supporters of candidates who did not get the outside special-interest boost to lift legal limits on contributions. They didn’t kill, but badly maimed, a proposal to increase and speed up payments of city matching funds to the other candidates.

Who did it? You can’t blame Cindy Miscikowski, who defended each of the Ethics Commission’s proposals tirelessly over the course of the month they have been in front of the full council, and for the two months when they were before the rules committee. There’s a certain irony there, since the City Attorney’s Office kept warning Miscikowski and her colleagues that if they moved forward, someone would sue and the city would lose in court. The last time the city attorney offered such a warning in an ethics package and the council went ahead anyway, someone did sue and defeat the city in court. It was lawyer-lobbyist Douglas Ring, Miscikowski’s husband.

You can’t blame Eric Garcetti, who said the real prize, one fine day, is full public financing of city elections. Garcetti (son of an Ethics Commission member, former District Attorney Gil Garcetti) knew there was no shot at such a sea change anytime soon, but he kept the pressure on.

Speaking passionately against the proposed disincentives to independent expenditures was Janice Hahn, whose brother, the mayor, reaped the benefit of $743,517 in unregulated independent spending when he ran his victorious campaign in 2001 (second only to city attorney Rocky Delgadillo). The councilwoman, who herself was helped out with $45,368 in outside money, according to Ethics Commission figures, tried to draw attention to an area over which the commission, the council and in fact everyone else has little authority.

“If we want reform,” Janice Hahn offered, “why don’t we get more people to vote in this city?”

Council President Alex Padilla (buoyed by $104,916 in independent spending) put in play an amendment that would have virtually ended voluntary spending limits by erasing practically all limits on contributions for everyone just as soon as a large outside expenditure is registered. He was able to parlay panic over that plan into consensus for the status quo as a compromise measure.

Nate Holden — apparently untouched by independent money — almost turned back the clock with a plan seeking a city charter amendment to reduce the paltry trust fund out of which matching funds
are paid.

Lost in the shuffle is the fact that the council also rejected a proposal that for a while appeared to have no opposition — shrinking the fund-raising season so candidates could finally limit the time they have to spend in windowless rooms, on the phone to potential donors, and instead spend the time meeting constituents and steeping themselves in local issues.

Time and again, council members objected to the ethics panel’s reform proposals by charging that they would hurt the small, grass-roots challenger who has little access to big-time money. But in fact, commission figures show that it is almost always the incumbents who reap the benefits of the independent expenditures and get the early jump on fund-raising.

That fact was likely foremost in the minds of the incumbent council members as they cast their votes on campaign-finance reform Tuesday, after the belly-dancing interlude. But Common Cause’s Joan Leonard refused to be discouraged.

“As we go along, we develop disciples” on the council, she said. “We’re either going to have a City Council of disciples, or one made up entirely of people elected by independent expenditures.”

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