West Hollywood, which prides itself on being progressive, all-inclusive and engaged with its residents, calls itself the Creative City. When it comes to politics, it’s clearer and clearer that the city’s claim to creativity rests less on fashion and the arts than on an approach to campaign financing that makes our burg look a lot like Chicago.
An analysis by WEHOville of donations to city political campaigns in 2011 and thus far this year shows a preponderance of money coming from outside the city, and most of that from real estate interests whose goal is making a buck off the 1.9 square miles in which 35,000 of us reside. There are many ways of obviating the $500 limit on individual contributions that the City Council enacted in 2009, including establishing special committees to which donations are unlimited, “bundling” contributions through spouses and children and actually breaking the law by making donations in the names of other people, at least one instance of which WEHOville seems to have uncovered.
We’d like to believe our elected and appointed officials are oblivious to the sources and interests of their donors. But, frankly, money, in one form or another, has talked since the days when the first of our ancestors figured he could secure a warm spot in a cave by handing over an extra piece of meat to another grunting Neanderthal. When a candidate denies, as Abbe Land, John Heilman and former incumbent Lindsey Horvath did to Patch in 2011, any knowledge of how much of campaign funding comes from developers, we’re left with only two possible conclusions: They are ignorant, or they are lying. Neither is a quality we like to see in a city council member.
So what can the citizens of West Hollywood do to keep us from becoming the Chicago of Southern California? First, we need to engage one another to participate. That will accomplish far more than term limits ever will. Local residents, whose participation in city elections declined two-thirds in 2011 from the 1984 incorporation election, need to vote. And local businesses, some of whose owners don’t live in West Hollywood but who are, nonetheless, vital members of the community, need to join an organization like the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which includes many businesses from outside West Hollywood, to ensure that local and not just outside business needs and concerns are presented to City Hall.
Second, we need to change the municipal election cycle to make it coincide with national elections, thus increasing the local turnout. Parties on both sides of the campaign for council member term limits have argued against this. Councilmember John Duran recently said voters weren’t likely to make their way to the bottom of a long ballot headed by candidates for the presidency and U.S. Senate. Supporters of term limits for the council have argued that those who turn out for national elections aren’t likely to be educated about local issues. But while 18,862 West Hollywood residents voted in the 2012 election for one of the presidential candidates at the top of the ballot, 16,883 residents actually made their way to the bottom of the ballot to vote on the 19th item, a measure involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s a 174 percent increase over the turnout for the 2011 City Council campaign and about the number that turned out to support incorporation of the city in 1984. As to the argument that those voters won’t know anything about city issues, well that’s what campaigning is all about.
Third, we need to change the way campaign contribution data is gathered and maintained at City Hall. Now candidates and multiple committees file many documents over the course of a campaign, all of which are recorded and then posted as PDF files on the City of West Hollywood’s website. But that makes it impossible for citizens to really see what’s going on. WEHOville sent two campaign cycles worth of documents to a firm in India to have the data transcribed into an Excel spreadsheet so that we could do quick comparisons of candidates and donors. That, plus research that identified who the large donors identified as a “homemaker” in Palo Los Verdes and a lawyer in Manhattan Beach were really connected to, helped us figure out where the money was really coming from. The city should install a digital data entry system and require those filing donation reports to use it. Then citizens can easily download data and sort donors over multiple election cycles to determine who is supporting whom. That data entry system also should not accept entries that don’t include all the mandated information. The city also needs to improve its monitoring of the data it receives. WEHOville has raised several questions with the City Clerk’s office about matters such as reports for the 2013 campaign filed in 2009 and the absence of any evidence that Abbe Land has filed the required officeholder account. We’ve also noted obvious errors in filings, where those making them entered donations twice in a row from the same person. The City Clerk’s office has been helpful in answering our questions, but West Hollywood shouldn’t have to rely on local media to do work that the city is paid to do.
Fourth, the city should take a look at the Los Angeles City Council’s efforts to encourage contributions from entities within the city. Beginning in 2015, Los Angeles will give public matching funds to council candidates only for donations raised within the City of Los Angeles. The LA Council also voted to increase matching funds to $4, up from one, for every dollar a candidate raises.
Fifth, the West Hollywood City Council should back away from its plan, scheduled for discussion in March, to increase to nine months from the six months the time after an election in which council candidates can continue to receive donations. It’s clear from WEHOville’s analysis of campaign donations that some out-of-city interests hedge their bets, dumping money on a candidate only after he or she has won the election. In fact, the City Council should consider shrinking the donation period to one month after the polls close. That way the money candidates receive is more likely to come before the election from committed supporters than afterwards from outside interests hoping to gain influence.
Sixth, donation records should indicate the names of all donors to special committees giving to a candidate’s campaign. For example, at present, it takes some digging to find out that donors to the West LA Health Political Action Committee, which one would think supports health-related causes and which has donated $1,750 to D’Amico, Duran, Horvath, Land and Prang, is actually funded largely by out-of-town real estate interests. When a PAC or special committee gives money to a candidate, the city should require that the PAC or committee list its donors in a searchable file on the city’s website.
Seventh, council candidates should be required to post the names of their campaign managers, publicists and fundraisers on the city’s website, along with a list of the other clients of those parties. They then need to add to their campaign planks a declaration that they will abstain from voting on issues brought before the council by those campaign managers, publicists and fundraisers. Certainly a council member should vote on an issue involving a donor (after all, the hope is that we’ll all be sufficiently engaged in West Hollywood to be donors one day). But a line should be drawn between an entity paid to get a candidate elected and other clients represented by that entity.
Will these measures make West Hollywood pure as the driven snow (something that, thankfully, we don’t see here)? Certainly not. But they will help a city that takes justifiable pride in its advocacy for fairness and progressiveness stop its slow slide into the mud of special interests and behind-closed-doors favors that might one day earn it a reputation as the Chicago of Southern California.