Thursday, January 16, 2003
Rules Panel Acts on Recusal Measure Aimed at City Lobbyist Donations
By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor
A long-delayed proposal to sever the perceived links between contributions from City Hall lobbyists and decision-making by elected officials moved to the City Council floor yesterday, and a shelved plan to curb the impact of “independent” campaign expenditures appeared likely to follow suit.
The council’s rules committee signed off on an Ethics Commission recommendation that for the first time would require members of the council to recuse themselves from voting on matters over which they were lobbied by a professional advocate who gave them money at some point in the previous year.
City staff sought more time to mull the proposal, which first was raised in the mid-1990s by then-Councilman Mike Feuer. But further delay was rejected after Feuer and others noted that the ethics panel devoted five lengthy public hearings to the matter over the last two years.
To say that lobbyist groups have not had enough input is “simply absurd,” Feuer told the rules committee.
The committee itself has conducted several hearings on the measure.
“It literally is very, very long overdue,” committee member Cindy Miscikowski said.
But Miscikowski also noted that if the law already was in place, nearly every member of the council might have had to recuse themselves from Tuesday’s vote to override the Police Commission’s decision to require verification before police respond to a burglar alarm.
Council members were heavily lobbied by a firm hired by alarm companies. The firm, Cerrell Associates Inc., also advises city candidates and conducts fundraisers on their behalf.
Wholesale recusal of City Hall is unlikely, given the high $7,000 donation threshold the committee is seeking to trigger recusal. Lobbyists and others already are limited to donations of $500 to a council campaign, plus another $500 to the candidate’s officeholder account if he or she is an incumbent. The numbers are doubled for mayor, city attorney and controller.
Only under rare circumstances can those limits be lifted to levels that make recusal an issue.
A rich candidate would have to blow spending caps by funneling huge amounts of his or her own cash into the campaign. Even then, no individual donor would be able to exceed a citywide limit on contributions in all races. That limit varies depending on how many offices are up for grabs, but it often falls below $7,000.
The Ethics Commission wanted to put the recusals trigger at only $1,000 from a lobbyist.
Recusal would apply to the mayor and other city officials as well as council members.
Feuer said officials who don’t want to have to recuse themselves have “unilateral control,” because they simply don’t have to take the money. Anyone who took money but still wants to act on the matter must return the donation within 30 days of learning that there will be a vote or other decision to make.
The new requirement also would expand lobbyist reporting requirements. City law already mandates that lobbying firms and individual lobbyists disclose how much money they give directly to elected officials. Reporting under the new proposal would be required whenever a registered lobbyist throws a fundraiser for a candidate or elected official, or follows the official’s suggestion to give money to a charity or other organization.
Also, prospective city contractors would for the first time have to flag their donations to city candidates or elected officials. Bidders currently have to report donations along with everyone else, but under the new proposal they would have to officially advise the city when they put in their bids and when they win contracts that they have made contributions.
The rules committee also appeared ready to send the council a revamped campaign finance reform package that Mayor James Hahn vetoed in an earlier form.
Key features include an attempt to make sure candidates can raise extra money when their opponents reap the benefits of so-called independent expenditures.
Currently, the spending caps candidates must observe if they want city matching funds get lifted for everyone in the race if one candidate benefits from outsider donations not coordinated with the campaign.
That meant that billboard companies’ independent expenditures supporting Rocky Delgadillo in the 2001 city attorney race resulted in permitting more fundraising and spending not only for his opponent, Feuer, but for Delgadillo as well, defeating the intended leveling impact of city campaign finance laws.
Under the proposal expected to be sent to the full council next month, the candidate deemed by the commission to have benefited from the independent spending will not get to raise the extra money.
Independent expenditures also would boost the rate at which city matching funds are released.
The rules committee yesterday also rejected a bid by soon-to-be termed-out Councilman Nate Holden to send voters a ballot measure to end term limits.
Holden had hoped to get the proposal on the May ballot. He also wanted to offer an alternative that would change the current two-terms limit to four terms.
Former Councilman Mike Hernandez, who himself was termed out before going to work in Holden’s office, said constituents have told Holden they believe term limits have cost the city a lot of talent.
Council President and rules panel chief Alex Padilla was not convinced.
“I don’t think we have gone through a satisfactory process of putting this on the ballot,” Padilla said.
Hahn vetoed a 2001 council attempt to get a ballot measure boosting the allowable number of terms to three.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company