To some of us disillusioned alums of the weak and failing City Ethics Commission, mayoral candidate Austin Beutner is saying the right things.
In a piece in the Daily News, Beutner noted the weakness of the city’s incomprehensible ethics laws, and pointed out that any attempt to improve them must be approved by the City Council. In my five years on the commission, I watched the council, which hates the commission, kill any of our plans to strengthen the law. The council and the mayor must be pleased now that the commission barely receives any public notice.
I asked Beutner about his Daily News piece when he met with reporters after speaking to Town Hall Thursday. Would he favor going around the city council blockade?
“I would like to see the ethics commission truly empowered to put measures directly on the ballot,” he said. “Let’s take it directly to the voters.”
Since most voters, readers, viewers or Angelenos don’t care about ethics laws, I wouldn’t recommend Beutner make this a major part of his campaign. But the fact he tackled it at all is noteworthy--and indicative of serious tone he might bring to the mayoral campaign trail.
Beutner is a multi-millionaire retired investment banker who impressed former Mayor Richard Riordan and other old white guys who like to throw their weight around. They persuaded Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to put him on as a $1-a-year top deputy. Beutner supervised several departments, including the messy Department of Water and Power before leaving to seek the top job himself.
He’s the un-Villaraigosa, with a spare, matter-of-fact speaking style, showing none of the mayoral emotion that has captivated, appalled and annoyed us for so long. The somewhat slight and slender Beutner sounds like another ex Wall Streeter, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and he looks a bit like him too.
Some people say he is boring. Gene Maddaus wrote in the LA Weekly that Riordan fell asleep during Beutner’s Town Hall speech. “Hey, Beutner can have that effect on people,” Maddaus wrote.
But I stayed awake and enjoyed the way he dug into details. He was right about the miserable conditions at LAX and the MTA’s refusal to buy electric buses. In the Daily News, he wrote about the sad ethical conditions at city hall. He didn’t, however, connect ethics to the airport, although there is a connection. The food is lousy and the shops inadequate and overpriced because concessionaires—using campaign contributions and an influential gang of city hall lobbyists—call the shots with the council and mayor when it comes to the airport. Bad ethics produces bad food.
Even so I congratulate Beutner for taking on the ethics laws and the commission that administers them. When then City Controller Laura Chick, a great reformer, appointed me to the commission she told me to raise hell. I tried as but my friend Tim Rutten pointed out at the time, I was “treated like the drunken uncle at a Seder.”
Even more than anything I learned as a reporter, that experience taught me that it will take someone tough and smart to change the culture of city hall and shake up the intertwined politicians, lobbyists and campaign contributors who dominate it.