The city hall maneuvering over full public financing of Los Angeles elections is entering a new and muddy phase.
Muddy to me, anyway, but what do I know? I’m just an ethics commissioner and we’re about as welcome in city hall back rooms as an advocate of democracy is in Putin’s Kremlin.
In my last post on this matter, I reported that the council’s Rules and Election Committee was about to prepare a summary of the various versions of public financing that are floating around.
The ethics commission has an entry. So does Clean Money, the organization that has led the fight for full public financing. We’re reformers. They’re reformers. We don’t agree. I tried to figure out a logical reason for our disagreement. But I can’t. So I must rely on my experience of covering reformers. Since I first met reformers, in the 60s, I’ve noticed they’re always trying to destroy each other.
The big difference between the ethics commissioners and that of Clean Money , I think, is over how much money a candidate must collect to be eligible for public funds. We proposed that council candidates be allowed to raise the money in $250 portions. Citywide candidates could raise money in $500 chunks. Clean Money, warning that our plan favors fat cats, wants the money collected in $10 portions.
The biggest issue facing all sides at city hall is financing. Should it be a tax increase or come from existing revenues? This is huge. Polls tend to show voters favor the idea of public finance. But the electorate overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure that would have increased the corporations tax to finance public financing of state elections. The measure lost in Los Angeles County 1,325,761 to 508,355.
This is a complex issue and knowing the details doesn’t tell the whole story. What’s really going on? Let’s look at the players:
The most important are the minority of city council members and staff in favor of public financing. They want to write the legislation in a way that won’t cause trouble for them and their successors down the road. Most especially, they don’t want to be nailed for some future reporting or spending violation.
The ethics commission is another player. The commission staff did most of the work in preparing the public financing proposal. But the council dislikes (that’s putting it mildly) the commission because it occasionally fines council members and their contributors for campaign law violations. They want the commission and its staff out of the picture. Instead, the council wants its legislative analyst to write the law.
The Clean Money organization is a major player. It has a cadre of grassroots supporters, lots of city hall smarts and a plan it believes is superior to anything the ethics commission can offer.
The lobbyists and their clients are also behind the scenes players. Some of them actually favor public finance. Others oppose it. But they want nothing that will lessen their influence at city hall.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a non-player at this point. But the mayor, who shares the council’s low opinion of the ethics commission, will step in eventually.
None of this means much right now. Any public finance measure would have to go before the voters. And, as the vote on the statewide measure showed, it would not have much chance of passing.
Only after a scandal will voters approve such a radical concept. That’s how the present city system of partial public financing was approved. But if history is any gauge, scandal is inevitable. When it comes, each of the players at city hall want to make sure their solution is the one that becomes law.
“The shoe is on the other foot,” City Councilman Richard Alarcon told me, a smile on his face. Yes it was. When I was a reporter, I used to toss questions at Alarcon and now he was hurling them at me.
The occasion was a hearing of the council’s Rules and Elections Committee April 11 on the City Ethics Commission’s proposal for full public funding of city elections. As vice president of the commission, I was facing the committee. Joining me were LeeAnn Pelham, the executive director, and Heather Holt, the commission’s legislative representative.
Alarcon pretty well hated our plan, particularly the portion dealing with the amount of money a candidate must collect to be eligible for public funds. You might call this earnest money, like putting up some bucks when you are buying a house or a car to show the seller you are serious.
We recommended that candidates would have to raise $25.000 to qualify for public financing of council campaigns, $75,000 for controller, $75,000 for city attorney and $150,000 for mayor. We proposed that council candidates could raise this money in $250 chunks and $500 for citywide offices.
Alarcon said these chunks were too big and would turn the process over to fat cats.. It would discriminate against working people. It was racist—not that we were racist but the proposal was institutionally racist.
I could see he loved every minute of it. At one point, he said he wanted to ask me one of those questions reporters always ask, one of those “when have you stopped beating your wife” questions. He did, several times.
The session got me thinking about the difference between being a reporter and representing the ethics commission. My friend and mentor Ed Guthman, a former ethics commissioner, had told me I would learn a lot on this part time job. He was absolutely right. I’ve learned to compromise.
Afterwards, I went up to talk to Alarcon and made arrangements to have lunch with him. We had a nice chat and I congratulated him on his election, I‘ve known Alarcon ever since he was on the staff of Mayor Tom Bradley.
If I had been a reporter, I would have been asking the questions, maybe even in a belligerent manner. Then I would have written a story, hopefully fairly but maybe Alarcon would have hated it.
At the rules committee meeting, I had to look at things in a different way. My job was to persuade the committee to send our proposal on to the neighborhood councils, where people around the city could debate it. That was the ethics commission’s goal and I didn’t want to screw things up. I didn't want the proposal killed. I had to compromise. Journalists, many of them with a self- righteous streak, think compromise is wrong. But in politics and government, compromise is the only way to accomplish anything.
Alarcon suggested that when our proposal goes to the neighborhood councils, other proposals should be included with it, especially one by the Clean Money campaign, which strongly promotes the idea of small contributions.
That was OK with us from the ethics commission. It seemed like a sensible compromise and that’s what is going to happen. We’re not going to get hung up on turf or pride of authorship. We know that it will be tough job to persuade the voters to accept full public financing . We just want the campaign to begin as soon as possible.
Observing the most important work at City Hall is so much like watching paint dry that it doesn’t bear reporting. That’s the case with the City Ethics Commission as it plods along rewriting the lobbyist regulation laws.
I don’t blame the reporters. I was one of them for a long time. Reporters and their editors live by conflict and hot personalities. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is hot and it’s hard to resist writing about him as he bounds from here to Washington and battles a jealous and attention-starved City Council.
But most of City Hall doesn’t operate in that arena, especially the ethics commission, which is responsible for writing rules regulating that most dysfunctional of relationships, money and politics. We operate in the shadows, pretty much ignored by the reporters, which is why I started writing this blog
You may recall Proposition R, the measure that extended City Council term limits and weakened—in my opinion—lobby control laws. It won by a large margin and now the ethics commission is facing the task of writing regulations that implement it.
On a recent morning, we held a public hearing as we began work, inviting the lobbyist corps to give its opinions. Only one reporter was there and I wasn’t surprised to see that it was Rick Orlov of the Daily News. Orlov understands that the dullest hearings are often the most important. He took notes and actually wrote a story.
I had gone to the meeting ready for combat and even made a nasty comment about Proposition R as the session began. That’s the reporter’s mind at work—combat and conflict.
But I soon realized I was playing the wrong game. The election was long gone and now it was time for the regulators—the ethics commission—and the regulated—the lobbyists—to work out some rules that will permit us to keep things honest and them to perform their lawful function of advocating for their clients.
The resulting discussion was major policy wonk stuff, only palatable to those few people who get excited about political reform laws. When should lobbyists file reports? Who exactly is covered? What about electronic filing? But the resulting web of laws and regulation—months away from completion—will have a major impact on how the big players influence the laws that affect everybody.
This is pretty tedious. But victory goes to those with the patience to sit through such meetings—a good lesson for an ex reporter still suffering from a journalist’s short attention span.