A veto — one of Mayor James Hahn’s first public acts after taking the oath in July 2001 — echoed through City Hall this month and provided some measure of just how much clout Hahn has lost in the wake of current pay-for-play and influence-peddling probes.
Hahn astounded campaign watchers 2 1/2 years ago with the scope of his fund-raising prowess and the massive support he garnered from independent groups working to elect him mayor. Now that he was moving into his new office, many figured, Hahn must be reluctant to change the rules of a game he had mastered. On cue, the new mayor promptly vetoed a package of campaign-finance reforms that the City Ethics Commission carefully crafted over two years and then piloted through the City Council.
The mayor’s own explanation for his veto was that the reform package, while comprehensive, was not comprehensive enough. Come back later, he said, when all the parts are put together and the lessons of the last campaign are studied so that reform is not done “piecemeal.”
Most council members were taken aback, but Hahn had the political capital to command their support. They sustained his veto and struggled over another year and a half to redo the ethics package. They eventually passed most of it — piecemeal, by the way — in a watered-down version after Hahn and some council members weighed in on each segment and won key concessions.
Hahn dusted off that 2001 comprehensive-versus-piecemeal veto message this month when he belatedly jumped onto the rapidly moving bandwagon to prohibit city commissioners from raising campaign funds. The city “should take a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach,” he told the council in a February 20 letter, to banish the perception that government decisions are influenced by political contributions. His five-point plan would include a ban on lobbying by campaign consultants and a prohibition on lobbyists raising money for candidates. Hahn is not likely to see such extensive reforms any time soon — even if he really wanted them.
The vote on Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski’s motion to block city commissioners from raising campaign money has been put off to March, but the votes are virtually counted. Everyone in the council is onboard, and Hahn knows that he will be unable to sustain a veto. As for his “comprehensive approach,” council members said, Hahn would have to get in line.
“A lot of his proposals are actually under way already,” council President Alex Padilla said, noting that his Rules Committee has set a demanding agenda for its own lobbying and campaign finance reforms for the coming year. “We have a big batch of rules to consider.”
Padilla couldn’t help noting as well that Hahn’s conversion to a ban on fund-raising by city commissioners is a recent development. Ever since city Controller Laura Chick released a scathing audit of the city airport department’s contracting practices and called in state and local prosecutors and federal officials, Hahn insisted that no changes were needed in the way his appointed commissioners do their work, with the possible exception of fuller disclosure of their political activities.
But Hahn’s council backing had withered. He first tried to recapture the initiative by appointing the incorruptible Erwin Chemerinsky to head a panel to study contracting reforms at the airport, the harbor, and the Department of Water and Power. To the mayor’s credit, he realized that it would not be enough, and while offering his own proposal he finally advised the council he would be only too happy to sign Miscikowski’s fund-raising ban.
The action is aimed at killing the perception that the 300 or so unpaid city commissioners, appointed by Hahn and subject to termination at his will, dole out contracts to the very same people they call up for political donations. To get your foot in the city door, the argument goes, a contractor has to pony up to the mayor’s people. There is no more clear definition of civic corruption, and local and federal grand juries are looking into just such allegations.
In fact, only commissioners from a few city departments have any control over contracting. But they are the biggest city departments. The concern is real.
Severing the link between appointment, fund-raising and contracting is a move that staff and members of the City Ethics Commission have long sought, but some commissioners are warning that there could be unexpected consequences. That’s because Hahn, in addition to appointing the usual bevy of politicos and City Hall insiders to commission posts, has also expanded the pool of appointees to include officials from grassroots and politically progressive organizations. Leaders of big labor have often straddled both camps, and Hahn has continued a trend established by his predecessors of appointing them to serve on important commissions.
Miguel Contreras, for example, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, also serves as a member of the city Board of Airport Commissioners. The fund-raising ban would prevent him from raising money for Hahn or any other candidate, but it would also bar him from putting his name on a County Fed letter asking for money for a candidate, or supplying names of his members or anyone else to include on invitations for a fund-raising event, or putting his signature on the invitation, or allowing the County Fed office to be used to hold a campaign fund-raiser, or any one of a number of things that gives organized labor in Los Angeles a front-row seat in political decision-making.
Contreras, in effect, could be faced with having to choose between stepping down from the County Fed — an unlikely outcome — or giving up his Airport Commission seat, where he is a voice for labor in an arena in which the rights of employees and contract workers make regular headlines.
In fact, Contreras said, the ban won’t affect him, because the County Fed has mastered the art of independent expenditures, meaning he can raise enough money and deploy enough precinct walkers on his own, without coordinating with a candidate’s campaign. If he wants to support Hahn, for example, he has enough clout to do it whether Hahn wants him to or not.
But not everybody is in the same position. “I do worry about what it means to other progressive groups who don’t have the resources to do independent expenditures,” Contreras said. “We have to make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Another reform measure coming down the line soon presents even more problems for city commissioners who work with nonprofit or progressive organizations. Taking a cue from Chick, and worried about rumors that city commissioners who raise campaign funds also bypass city staff and contract directly with vendors, the council is expected to try to widen the distance between commissioners and contracting by barring commission members from sitting in on any initial discussions with potential vendors.
“I am biased to staff,” Miscikowski said, “having been a 30-year staff member myself. And I really do think civil service and staff by and large do an honest and good job of selecting contractors.”
The commissioners can enter the process, she said, in open session, after staff has done its work.
Madeleine Janis-Aparicio, who heads the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and is a member of the Community Redevelopment Agency board, said she needs to work with staff, before a final proposal comes to the board.
“Being a redevelopment commissioner is a huge amount of work,” she said. “For us to be able to do the job right, we need to be able to talk with developers.”
The role of commissioners, and the scope of their powers, is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. A key compromise in the charter reform debate of 1999 was to follow the path of empowering the mayor by allowing him to fire commissioners outright, rather than forcing him to go to the council for consent, the way he used to. This seemingly obscure charter change has allowed the perception, at least, of a mayoral directive to his commissioners to squeeze campaign money out of contractors to thrive.
“The problem with the commission system is that we really don’t know how it works,” said Raphael Sonenshein, the Cal State Fullerton political science professor who directed one of the two charter commissions.
“Charter reform didn’t systematically address the commission question,” Sonenshein said, adding that it may require another look beyond the reforms now before the council.