LOCAL

Candidates agree online donor reporting should be L.A. County mandate

PoliticsElectionsLaws and LegislationPolitical FundraisingLocal GovernmentZev YaroslavskyMark Ridley-Thomas
Changes to L.A. County's donor reporting system has been a recurring theme on the campaign trail
L.A. County doesn't require electronic disclosure - or timely posting - of detailed campaign contribution info

More than six weeks after Los Angeles County supervisorial candidate Bobby Shriver reported raising $848,000 and took the lead among seven candidates seeking to replace Zev Yaroslavsky, the public still was unable to go on the county's website and see who was giving to the former Santa Monica council member.

Shriver, anticipating the delay, posted his 413-page campaign finance report on his own website, saying he wanted to ensure the list of contributors was "publicly available to the voters and media immediately.''

He's not the only candidate disappointed that the nation's largest local government doesn't require electronic disclosure — or timely posting — of detailed contribution information. A chorus of Shriver's rivals and candidates for sheriff and other open county offices on the June 3 ballot agree on at least one thing: The bureaucratic bottlenecks and lax rules of the county's campaign reporting system need a major overhaul.

Modernizing procedures would be easy and cost effective, public officials and experts say. "What's the whole point of having sunshine laws on campaign [donors], if you can't see them?" said West Hollywood Councilman John Duran, who also is seeking Yaroslavsky's west county seat.

Duran said he was told to "come down to Norwalk," where the registrar-recorder's office is located, when he asked to see a batch of recent contributions. "Who has time to do that?"

In Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, candidates are required to file contribution information electronically, revealing donors within hours, or at most a couple of days. The cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Monica have similar requirements.

Los Angeles County still requires paper filings. In many cases, that means two data clerks must enter each contribution — sometimes filling hundreds of pages — into a computer program before a candidate's report can be posted. Candidates can choose to file electronically as well. But even then, L.A. County officials check the electronic record for accuracy, adding delays.

Shriver's thick paper document was filed in late March, and was only posted online Friday. Reports for two candidates who filed electronically in March — sheriff's candidate Todd Rogers and assessor's candidate Jeffrey Prang — did not appear on the county website for more than a month.

A 2012 state law allows — but doesn't require — local governments to make electronic filing mandatory for candidates who raise more than a nominal amount, in which case paper filings are not required. That's created a patchwork of campaign reporting in California resulting in widely varying standards for disclosing names of those helping finance candidates, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which tracks filing requirements.

And county governments are a "forgotten second cousin'' of campaign funding transparency, she said. "A lot of people active in politics put their focus on what's happening at the federal level or at the state level, and don't pay attention to what's happening at the local level."

Changes to L.A. County's system has been a recurring theme on the campaign trail, but not a matter of discussion for the County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said that's probably due to a dearth of competitive races for seats on the five-member board until now. He's the newest member, elected in 2008. The other supervisors all have been in office for more than a decade and are beginning to be pushed out by term limits.

Ridley-Thomas said he supports mandatory electronic campaign reporting and quick, user-friendly presentation of the information to the public.

"There should be one set of rules for all candidates … and transparency should be the order of the day,'' he said.

At least one of his colleagues, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, would oppose requiring candidates to file electronically, according to his spokesman, Tony Bell: "The supervisor believes the candidates should have a choice in how they file." The other three sitting supervisors did not respond to requests for comment.

Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan, whose department oversees elections, said his office encourages campaigns to voluntarily use such a filing option because it improves efficiency and can speed up release of the information to the public. He did not respond to an inquiry about whether electronic reporting should be mandated.

Since Watergate-era reforms of the early 1970s, state and local candidates have been required to report political giving and spending in California. For decades, campaigns filed paper forms with city and county clerks' offices.

But computers and the Internet have made it simple, cheap and more environmentally friendly for campaigns to file digitally. San Francisco, which operates as a city and county, began electronic-only filing last year, using a $90,000-a-year software system.

"Just cutting down on paper is a good thing,'' said John St. Croix, executive director of the San Francisco Ethic Commission. "But it's reduced staff time for us and for the campaigns. It's just a relief for everyone."

Orange County has had mandatory electronic filing since 2009. "The more we can get off the paper system, the more efficient it is and the more people can search easily on our website," said Neal Kelley, the county's registrar of voters.

Betty Ann Downing, a veteran campaign treasurer handling Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell's run for sheriff, said, "What most of us who are professionals in this business would prefer is electronic filing only."

Any change in L.A. County's system would come too late for the current June primary campaign.

But some of the races could carry over to November runoff contests. And in 2016, there will be two more races for open supervisor seats, as terms limits push Antonovich and Don Knabe out of office.

April Saucedo Hood, a school police officer and rival of former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in the current east county supervisorial race, said a simplified system would make filing easier for candidates. "I would prefer to only have to file online, if I was given the choice," she said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsElectionsLaws and LegislationPolitical FundraisingLocal GovernmentZev YaroslavskyMark Ridley-Thomas
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