By last month, however, when my term expired, I had learned my lesson. I left City Hall frustrated, irritated and saddened -- and most of all, humbled by a culture impervious to change. "Free at last," I said when my colleagues asked me if I had some final words at my last meeting June 10.
I was appointed to the five-member, part-time commission in 2003 by City Controller Laura Chick. Chick had invited people to apply for the post, and I sent her a letter asking about the appointment, thinking that it might teach me something about government from the inside after years of covering it as a journalist.
In fact, more than a decade earlier, I had actually written about the founding of the commission and about how a hostile City Council had approved it only after its creation had been linked to a pay raise for the lawmakers. Perhaps that should have been a tipoff.
The commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, the council and the controller, administers the city's system of partial public financing of city elections. It also enforces laws regulating campaign finance and conflicts of interest on the part of city employees. For obvious reasons, most of the council members dislike the commission, which has the ability to embarrass them, and its staff, which they consider unnecessarily intrusive.
Looking back at my time on the commission, I can now see two main impediments to accomplishing anything: the rules and regulations limiting ethics commissioners' ability to speak out on issues that were basic to our mission, and the City Council's relentless disdain for anything we proposed.
First the free-speech issue.
One of my first efforts after being appointed was to try to improve our relations with the council. But that was not to be. The city attorney's office had ruled even before I got there that the state's open meeting law (which is supposed to guarantee that the business of government be done in public rather than behind closed doors) sharply limited the number of private contacts an ethics commissioner could have with council members. If I ran into a council member at a party or a ballgame or a restaurant, I really wasn't supposed to talk about city affairs.
This was stupid, and I have to admit that (in part because I was counseled that the city attorney's interpretation was wrong) I didn't always follow it.
Another ruling by the city attorney's office was even more limiting: We weren't permitted to comment on any potential scandal that might eventually come before us. Such comments, we were told, might suggest that we were prejudiced and might disqualify us from hearing the case.
For example, in 2005, Times reporters Rich Connell and Robert Lopez reported that a developer had exceeded the allowable political contribution limits by illegally using his employees and investors to launder $300,000 in contributions to Mayor James Hahn.
That seemed like a no-brainer to me. By speaking out, we could use the issue both to highlight the negative influence of money in politics and to assure the public we were investigating the situation for any violations of campaign finance law. But the moment I brought the subject up at a meeting, the city attorney warned me off, saying I was in danger of breaking the no-comment rule
As a result, we spent too much of our time levying fines for minor violations of campaign laws while, in the real world, others were digging into serious wrongdoing, identifying significant problems with the system -- and we were forbidden even to comment on it.
The second impediment to accomplishing anything on the Ethics Commission was the City Council, whose support was necessary on most of our recommendations in order to turn them into law.
Unfortunately, whenever the commission proposed something, the council's rules committee -- the graveyard committee, as we came to think of it -- buried it. Our proposal to ban city commissioners from fundraising for city political campaigns, for instance, was buried for almost 10 years.
Early on, I tried and failed to drum up support for reviving its corpse. But by 2005, even the rules committee had to bend to public pressure. News reports revealed that commissioners were raising money for Hahn from people doing business before their commissions. That was so blatantly unethical that federal and grand juries, using information from our investigators, were already beginning to question people about it.
There is nothing like a couple of grand juries to wake up City Hall. I got Doug Ring, a former commissioner and major fundraiser, to testify in favor of the ban, along with David Fleming, the attorney who led the Valley secession movement, and Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a political reform advocacy group. Chick packed the meeting room with her supporters, who favored the ban.
The commission's president, former L.A. Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, said he was inclined to vote for it, but he wanted another month see if he could get us a unanimous vote (which would help win council support). I wasn't happy but went along with a delay. I had learned to appreciate Garcetti's political smarts.
A month later he got it, and the measure soon passed the council and was signed by the mayor.
But, as Chick later pointed out to me, there was a huge loophole in the law. It didn't cover contributions to independent committees sponsored by business, labor and other interests, which have become the dominant force in financing city elections. These third-party independent groups are not supposed to be affiliated with particular campaigns, although they spend large amounts on behalf of specific candidates.
So we won, but we lost.
Politics is a rough business. To get anything done, as Garcetti taught me, it's often necessary to compromise. But even as I learned to compromise, I saw that it could also be a cover for gutlessness and inaction -- as are the large numbers of rules and regulations that provide ways for politicians and bureaucrats to duck responsibility.
After five years as a commissioner, I have to admit that politics doesn't mix well with my background as a newspaper reporter and editor.
A journalist's drive to get the story and, hopefully, to right a wrong is in direct conflict with a City Hall culture of protecting the status quo. A reporter digs up a story and expects results. I think the public does too. That's why so many Los Angeles residents who fight City Hall -- whether it is over a crowded intersection or a garbage-filled alley -- walk away as I did, humbled, frustrated and angry.
Bill Boyarsky, a former city editor and columnist for The Times, is the author of "Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics." He just finished a five-year term on the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.