After spending two hours taking an on-line ethics course required of Los Angeles elected officials, city board members, and commissioners, I finished feeling triumphant but depressed.
Triumphant because I passed the three quizzes that accompanied the course and will get a certificate. If Iíd flunked, who knows? I might have been required to take Bonehead Ethics.
The three hours reinforced something I already knew. That was the depressing part. Although you can make it tougher for crooks to operate, you canít legislate ethical behavior.
The test is required by a new state law requiring local officials to take a three hour ethics course on how to behave ethically. The legislature dreamed this up so it could have a holier-than-thou attitude toward the antics of some of the locals, particularly those operating in the free-fire zone of southeastern Los Angeles County.
But consider the ethics of the legislators who made us take the course. These are the men and women who run wall-to-wall fund raisers toward the end of every session, seeking and receiving campaign contributions from lobbyists, business people, and unions who have dealings in Sacramento.
Two points struck me. The campaign finance, conflict of interest and ethics laws, especially those of the state, are more complicated than I thought. In fact, a section explaining certain aspects of the state law was so complicated that it could not be explained in the exam summary.
Why canít they make things simple?. Several years ago, the late Frank del Olmo and I were given the job of writing an ethics code for the Los Angeles Times. Our boss, Bill Thomas, told us to keep it simple, not like some of the ethics codes being promulgated at other papers. We did, although it was not as simple as the ethics lesson I give my journalism students at USC: ďDonít lie, donít steal, donít sleep with your news sources.Ē
Something else that troubles me about the ethics class is that none of these ethics reform measures seem to make much difference. In fact, one of the laws we studied in the course was first passed by the legislature in 1851. The years that followed were remarkably corrupt, a state of affairs that extended into the 20th century and even continues to this day.
Campaign contributions -- the target of some of these ethics rules -- remain the corrupting force in politics. As a newly minted ethics scholar, I know that they canít be eliminated. But their impact can be limited through public financing of political campaigns. We can examine that subject further in a graduate ethics course.
We at the ethics commission have embarked on an impossible mission. We are formally sending our proposal for full public financing of city political campaigns to the city council and I don't think it has much of a chance
In the last election, California voters strongly turned down a plan for public financing of state campaigns. Some of the most fervent Los Angeles political reformers have turned against us because we didn't give them exactly what they wanted. As for the city council, the members showed their contempt for the ethics commission when they approved their term limit extension--the infamous and victorious Proposition R on the recent ballot--without consulting the commissioners. Anyway, most of our proposals end up in the limbo of the council rules committee, consigned to a state of oblivion.
We're an orphan commission with an orphan proposal.
So why bother?
It's a good proposal, badly needed in a city where money rules in elections--money from those doing business at city hall. If a candidates raise a comparatively small amount of money, they are eligible for public funding of their campaigns. This makes it easier for people to run for office and at least sharply limits constant begging for money. Not perfect, but a good start.
Of course, it won't pass quickly. The defeat of the statewide campaign finance proposal showed that. But by sending this measure to the council, the ethics commission is beginning a needed debate. And don't forget recent history. The smart insiders said through most of the year that the public didn't care about congressional corruption. But scandal, along with the war, beat the Republicans.
Finally why I am writing this? Aren't ethics commissioners supposed to try to get along with the city council? We are. But being nice at city hall doesn't do a lot of good. City hall has a "have a nice day" culture. Everyone is nice to your face. But you'd better watch your back.
Writing about campaign finance reform brings the issue out in the open, where it is more difficult to make deals and stab backs. Unfortunately, the media does not write much about it. Reporters and editors don't care about doomed proposals. That leaves public finance and other issues to the bloggers, from inside and outside city hall.
There was much to make fun of at Hollywood's celebration of the Los Angeles Times' 125th birthday, but I'm not the man to do it.
All kinds of nasty comments came to my mind as I watched the ceremony in front of the Hollywood Roosevelt Thursday. A star on Hollywood Boulevard near the one given to the Hollywood Reporter? Wasn't the Reporter's ace gossip columnist involved in a scandal a few years ago? Why the shots of a large group of stiff looking men and women behind the dais? Pictures like that went out with the Eisenhower administration. And why did the LA Times care about a Hollywood Boulevard star? Isn't the Times too big for that--or didn't it used to be?
Then at the luncheon I was introduced to the audience by the uncrowned mayor of Hollywood, Johnny Grant, who as a master of ceremonies is famous for introducing movie has-beens as if they were still big stars. He gave me the full Johnny Grant treatment and when the luncheon was over this particular has-been went up and thanked him for being so nice to me.
Still, despite my vow to be positive, I must report the whole thing was a little strange.
First of all, who cares about a 125th birthday? One hundred is the big one and, as I recall, the paper didn't do much about it. Otis Chandler, who ran the place then, was a reserved, dignified sort--something like Helen Mirren in The Queen.
The new publisher, David Hiller, was too awed, too loving of Hollywood, too much the visitor to town trying hard to impress, a presidential candidate on an early trip to Iowa. He didn't know LA. He didn't seem to understand that while a star on Hollywood Boulevard is OK, it's not an Oscar or a place in the baseball Hall of Fame.
He's the big guy in the group of new Times guys in town and he and the others are feeling and fumbling their way around in a strange place. He talked fondly of the old Chandlers who started the paper. Obviously he had not read much about them or looked closely at the bust of General Otis, the founding father, in the lobby. Whenever I looked at the General's scowling face, I thought that I would hate to ask him for a raise. Old Chandlers or new, they all like to make money and they own a substantial chunk of the Tribune company. Hiller has to increase revenue, sell more ads and win more subscribers in cities and suburbs beyond his midwestern experience. If that doesn't work, he'll have to dump more of the talented reporters and editors who made the paper great.
I almost feel sorry for him.