Friday, October 25, 2002
Use of Public Money for Meals for Officials’ Guests Limited—Lockyer
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Body:City officials may spend public money to buy meals for lawmakers and constituents at meetings to discuss city business only if the city charter specifically allows it, Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said in an opinion.
Answering a query from Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, the Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday that public funds of a general law city may not be expended to reimburse city officers for their expenses in purchasing meals for third parties.
“If the charter so authorizes, public funds of a charter city may be expended for such purposes,” Lockyer said in the opinion prepared by Deputy Attorney General Marjorie Cox.
The request for the opinion originated with members of the public, who took their concerns to Cooley’s Public Integrity Division, Lockyer explained.
The unit was set up by the district attorney shortly after he took office in 2000. The division has taken unprecedented action in cracking down on allegations of corruption and violations of open meetings laws by elected officials.
Earlier this week, Huntington Park Councilwoman Linda Luz Guevara became the first elected official to face eviction from office after prosecution by the elite unit. A Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Monday convicted Guevara of perjury for lying about living in Huntington Park.
Representatives from Lockyer’s and Cooley’s office could not provide details yesterday on the specific incidents that led to the queries.
Breakfast meetings and more elaborate mealtime sessions at which public officials treat business leaders, voters and state and federal lawmakers are common practice. The officials’ meals are often paid out of their office budgets as necessary expenses. Local and state ethics rules govern the degree to which officials may accept meals from others.
But Lockyer’s opinion goes to the question of whether elected officials, and other public employees, can use public money to treat others at mealtime meetings.
The majority of California cities, including more than 70 in Los Angeles County, are General Law cities that operate without charters under the state Government Code. Such cities usually have five elected part-time city council members. In most, one member serves as mayor. In some, by local option, one of the five is elected mayor by voters.
Under Government Code Sec. 36514.5, Lockyer said, only claims for a General Law city council member’s “actual and necessary expenses” are to be reimbursed. In an earlier opinion dealing with school boards, the Attorney General’s Office concluded that the phrase did not include meals purchased for community leaders even where the purchase was deemed to benefit the school district.
Another prior opinion, dealing with city officials’ expenses incurred in lobbying for state or federal legislation, interprets reimbursable costs and expenses as excluding the purchase of meals for others.
“If meals are served at this meeting then the county representatives costs of their meals result from and are connected with that meeting and are therefore incident thereto and are chargeable to the county under [Government Code Sec.] 50023,” the attorney general said in the prior opinion.
There is no other statutory authority for reimbursement, Lockyer said.
It is another matter in charter cities, which include large cities such as Los Angeles but also some smaller, older cities such as Pasadena and Redondo Beach.
Reimbursement provisions in the Government Code may be superseded by the charter provisions in a charter city, the attorney general said.
“[T]he electorate of a charter city through the adoption of a charter or its amendment has the constitutional authority to determine which, if any, expenses incurred by city officials will be reimbursed,” Lockyer said. “The charter and the implementing ordinances would govern the right to reimbursement in the circumstances presented.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company