When we talk about reforming the election process in West Hollywood, our first priority needs to be examining campaign finance reform. The cost of elections – even in a city the size of West Hollywood – has become untenable, and that has very real consequences for both candidates and voters.
As a governmental ethics and campaign finance attorney working in and around Los Angeles County, as well as a former member of the West Hollywood Campaign Finance Reform Committee, I have seen the effect that different approaches to campaign finance reform have had on elections, and I believe that there are some very specific steps that we can take to make the entire election process more transparent and accountable to voters.
1) Reconvene the Campaign Finance Reform Committee. When I originally served on the Campaign Finance Reform Committee, we were successful in reducing the campaign contribution limit from $1,000 down to $500. It is time to do that again. We can bring down the individual donation limit to $250, removing at least some of the big money from the election process.
2) Add ethics reform to Campaign Finance Reform. Without a strong reform of our governmental ethics rules – including disclosure requirements- campaign finance reform is meaningless. That is why I am proposing that the Campaign Finance Reform Committee be reconvened as the Campaign Finance and Ethics Reform Committee to ensure that any reforms that are enacted will be broad enough in their scope to create a change in the culture of our municipal government.
3) Create a Matching Fund system. By creating a matching fund system (funded via a Matching Fund Trust), the City of West Hollywood would match in-city campaign donations dollar-for-dollar. This would allow newer candidates to be more competitive with incumbents, creating a more level playing field. Candidates would need to agree on a spending cap, which could be lifted if Independent Expenditure committees (“I.E.’s”) exceed the cap. The City of Los Angeles has had great success with this type of system.
4) Require the electronic filing of campaign finance reports into a searchable database. This is just common sense. Electronic filing will allow residents to have real-time access to campaign finance statements, so that they can see where a campaign’s donations are originating.
5) Provide for comprehensive electronic disclosure of solicited charitable donations of $1,000 or more at all times. Charitable donations can have the same influential effect as campaign contributions, so their public disclosure is just as important as that of campaign donations. Again, this will provide real-time data to any resident or journalist who wants to see this information.
6) Require public, on-the-record disclosures of contributions and charitable donations received and/or solicited from applicants and their lobbyists before public hearings. Mayor John D’Amico has made this a voluntary practice, and it is time to expand this policy and make it mandatory. The public has a right to know if Council members have these sorts of relationships with individuals who have business before the Council.
7) Create a threshold for recusal for items 5 and 6 listed above. If any Council member has too many ties with a particular person or organization with business before the Council, it can create a conflict of interest or, at least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. In an effort to provide more transparency on the Council, it is important for the public to know that no Council member with a conflict will be able to vote on issues in which they have a personal stake.
8) Lobby for a change in state law to permit All Mail-In Ballot Elections in West Hollywood. This one simple step could greatly increase voter participation and reduce election costs. This idea has been used in Oregon and has helped to engage a much larger percentage of the population in the election process. Remember: when you vote, we all win.
While there are many more ways which we can reform the campaign finance and ethics rules in West Hollywood, I believe that the ideas listed above represent a concrete starting point towards making West Hollywood and our election process more transparent and accountable to the residents.
Joe Guardarrama is a governmental ethics and campaign finance attorney at Kaufman Legal Group and is currently a candidate for West Hollywood City Council. For more information on Joe Guardarrama for City Council, please visit: www.jg4weho.com