West Hollywood’s Ethics Task Force presented a range of recommendations to the City Council last night intended to address concerns about local government ethics and campaign finance.
Mayor Lindsey Horvath and Councilmember John D’Amico recommended in April that the Council form the ethics reform task force. The move was a response to complaints by residents of undue influence in city election campaigns by real estate developers and city vendors and complaints that those managing the campaigns of some Council candidates also lobbied the Council on behalf of commercial clients.
The Council decided to staff the task force with three experts on government ethics and campaign finance. Bob Stern is past president of the Center for Governmental Studies and was the first general counsel of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Stern also was co-author of the state’s Political Reform act of 1974 and helped draft the City of Los Angeles’ ethics and campaign finance laws. Elizabeth Ralston is the past president of the Los Angeles League of Women Voters and is a consultant on state and local finance for the state league. Joe Guardarrama, an unsuccessful candidate in the March City Council election, is a lawyer whose practice if focused on government ethics, campaign finance and election law.
The task force held a number of public meetings to solicit input from local residents as it considered four main subjects. They are:
1) Government ethics policies, including whether elected officials should be required to disclose contributions from people or organizations bringing business before the Council.
2) Campaign finance disclosure, including whether campaign committees should be required to file contributions electronically so that they are easily accessible by residents and how contributions from lobbyists and city contractors should be regulated.
3) Regulation of lobbyists, including whether they should be required to disclose expenditures of more than a certain amount on behalf of a particular candidate.
4) The best way to enforce city campaign finance and ethics rules.
The recommendations the task force presented to the Council are as follows:
Converting the city policy governing receipt of gifts by city employees and officials into an actual ordinance. The city currently can discipline employees who receive gifts that violate the city’s policy and removed appointed commissioners, and Council members can be censured for violating the policy. But if the policy is made an ordinance violating it would be considered a misdemeanor, and the violator could be fined. The task force also recommends applying the same restrictions on city employees and officials receiving gifts as are applied to their giving gifts.
City policy prohibits officials and employees from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the city unless the gift is edible and can be shared (e.g. candy) or can be displayed publicly in City Hall (e.g. flowers) or is turned over immediately to the city manager, who may use it as a raffle prize with the proceeds donated to charity or the city’s general fund
Requiring that council members disclose payments of more than $1,000 that they solicit from others and that are made as charitable donations or made for legislative or governmental purposes (such as funding a lobbying campaign on behalf of specific legislation).
State law already requires that such “behested” payments solicited by elected officials totaling $5,000 or more from a single source be disclosed. However an inquiry by WEHOville shows that in the past two years only former Councilmember Abbe Land has disclosed such payments, which were solicited by her on behalf of the Trevor Project, a non-profit that she runs.
However no council members have listed major donors to the West Hollywood Library. Those donors, listed on a panel at the library, include major lobbyists and law firms representing real estate developers whose only obvious connection with West Hollywood is the clients they represent before the City Council. And at least one city vendor has made contributions to a charitable organization with which a council member has ties. That vendor is Athens Services, the La Puente-based trash collector whose contract with the city was extended by the City Council for 15 years without putting it out to bid. Athens has spent more than $10,000 to sponsor a single event by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, whose board chairman is Councilmember John Duran. No behest statement has been filed in connection with that contribution.
The task force decided not to recommend that council members recuse themselves from voting on matters involving those from whom they have requested donations on behalf of others.
Convening the ethics task force after each election cycle to review the effectiveness of existing standards and determine if modifications should be recommended.
Establishing an electronic filing system that will make it easy for residents to research political campaign donations. Currently the city posts multiple reports of donations for each candidate in a city council campaign as documents that can be downloaded as PDF files but are not electronically searchable.
Requiring independent expenditure committees and ballot measure committees to disclose the top three donors of more than $1,000 on any campaign advertisement or mailing. Currently there is no requirement that donors be disclosed.
Increasing the current $500 individual limit on campaign contributions to a particular candidate every two years by a factor tied to the cost of living.
Requiring that those who make lobbying expenditures of more than $5,000 in a particular quarter of the year file quarterly reports with the city. This requirement would apply not only to those who are registered lobbyists but also to anyone else who spends more than $5,000 in a quarter to promote a particular issue.
The task force considered but did not recommend that the city ban paid campaign consultants from serving as lobbyists. In a number of past elections lobbyists such as Steve Afriat have managed the election campaigns of City Council members.
VOTER EDUCATION AND PARTICIPATION
Holding city elections on the same date as county and state elections, which typically have a much higher voter turnout among West Hollywood residents. The state legislature passed a law in September that will require cities such as West Hollywood with a low voter turnout to hold their municipal elections either on the date of the June statewide primary election or the November statewide general election. Los Angeles County, which manages the city’s elections, has asked that it be given an extension until 2022 to make that change
Providing city facilities at which three City Council candidate debates can be held.
Archiving all campaign flyers, advertisements and other promotional materials on the city’s website. This recommendation came in response to complaints about the negative content of some of the campaign materials in the March and June elections this year.
Council members seemed to accept the overall recommendations. The Council asked city staff members to put together specific proposals for implementing each of the four segments of the task force recommendations and to bring them back to the Council for debate over the next six months.
Several council members suggested minor modifications. Councilmember Lauren Meister, for example, suggested that the top five, rather than the top three, funders of a campaign mailer or ad be identified. Meister also said she wants to see the city ban campaign managers from lobbying the City Council.
Councilmember John Heilman said he was concerned that small campaigns without sufficient technical expertise might find it difficult to file campaign reports electronically.
Councilmember John D’Amico noted that even making the names of campaign donors available electronically doesn’t make it possible to identify some of them, which are listed as limited liability corporations without identifying their owners.
Mayor Lindsey Horvath and Councilmember Heilman recommended simplifying the increase in campaign donation limits by making it a flat sum every two years rather than tying it to the consume price index.
Councilmember John Duran said he is concerned that people do not realize that the bulk of campaign donations are necessary to reach voters in West Hollywood through direct mail. Duran noted that more than 80 percent of city residents live in apartment buildings and aren’t easily accessible by door-to-door campaigners.
“I understand the idea of trying to get the money out of politics but I want to focus on where they money goes. It goes to mail,” he said. “A candidate that doesn’t have the money can’t just walk door to door …. We are unique in the fact that we don’t have single family homes as our primary form of residence.”
Duran said he also is concerned about how part-time council members are expected to track and report behest payments. Task force member Stern noted that such reporting is required by state law now and that the task force is only recommending that the limit for reporting be reduced.