It’s so much easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing. The LA City Ethics Commission is a case in point. a perpetual one at that since it almost always does the wrong thing, or nothing at all.
In light of the Supreme Court’s abolishing laws barring corporations and unions from spending as much as they want directly out of their treasuries, the City Ethics Commission responded barely two week later by abolishing all restraints on their ability to buy elections. Not that they had any trouble doing so in the past.
What they didn’t engage — what they have never engaged — is various proposals from full public financing to complete and immediate full disclosure to make city elections fair and democratic.
The failure of city ethics laws to protect the public interest is the single most important reason why our elected officials have failed to serve the public interest for so long, why we have a fiscal crisis of such enormous proportions, why public services are being gutted and why the policies the mayor and City Council are enacting will lead to bankruptcy or the perpetuation of this crisis for decades to come.
Personally, I like all our elected officials and think they are decent people at heart. Of course, I feel that way about some murderers and mobsters I’ve known.
But they are beholden for their high stations and ridiculously high salaries to the unions and corporations that get them elected. So they routinely sell out the public interest to those special interests and, for the most part, don’t even see that what they are doing is wrong.
To residents looking in, their actions seem incompetent if not corrupt, a betrayal of the public trust. But within the bubble of consciousness at City Hall, it all seems normal.
Incumbents routinely win re-election against no opposition or virtually no opposition because all the campaign cash flows to them. They vote unanimously on almost all things and Council members who dare to speak with an independent voice put at risk their ability to look after their constituents’ needs and to achieve their own goals for the city.
It is a tight system and it has failed so badly that a groundswell is building to recall all 15 Council members and the Mayor, Controller and City Attorney as well.
I am participating in a forum on campaign finance reform in the City Hall Chambers at 9 a.m. on March 4. Councilman Jose Huizar is moderating and other panelists include Kathy Feng of Common Cause, Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, Xandra Kayden of the League of Women Voters LeeAnn Pelham of the City Ethics Commission and James Sutton of Campaign Lawyers.
Notably absent from the group is a representative of the Clean Money Campaign that seeks full public financing.
My own view is there’s never been a law that can clean up our political campaigns and never will be. Smart lawyers for special interests will always find a way around them just as they did McCain-Feingold.
The Supreme Court has ruled money is part of free speech. So be it.
What we could do is require that all contributions be listed on the Ethics Commission website within 72 hours of being received with complete disclosure of what the financial interests are of contributors with regard to city business.
Penalties need to be stiffened considerably and appointments to the Ethics Commission need to be balanced by giving Neighborhood Councils the power to name one or more members, something that should be done on all commissions.
With full and immediate disclosure, the free speech issue would truly be brought to life.
Instead of waiting six months to find out who gave money without any indication of their interests, the public and the press would have the opportunity in real time to create a public discussion that inhibit many of the back room deals that now rarely come out, or come out long after they can impact elections.