COLUMN ONE : Cities Saying Goodby to the Perks of Power : A new wave of ethical awareness in local politics is sweeping the nation. Many campaign financing reforms have been fueled by scandals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Richard M. Daley took over as mayor of Chicago a year ago, he promptly ordered the towing of cars owned by politicians who had traditionally been allowed to park illegally around City Hall.

Caught in the unexpected sweep were vehicles belonging to a public works commissioner, a cable television administrator and Daley's own press secretary. So stunning was the move by the son of the city's longtime Democratic boss, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, that at least one baffled official concluded his car had been stolen.

The crackdown was a symbolic gesture in corruption-weary Chicago, but it is emblematic of a new wave of ethical awareness taking hold in cities across the country.

In Los Angeles, a contentious debate on proposals for ethics reform and campaign financing preoccupied city officials for most of January. The recommendations that emerged--including partial public financing of political campaigns and a ban on outside jobs for elected officials--have been placed on Tuesday's ballot.

In New York, where serious municipal scandals marred the final term of former Mayor Ed Koch, new laws are in place dealing with a range of official abuses and instituting public financing of local political campaigns.

Seattle and Tucson have also experimented with public financing as a means to control political influence, and other cities are considering whether to adopt similar measures.

And even in Chicago, where "No Tipping" signs are posted in some government offices, a new Board of Ethics has been brought to life after languishing for years in a City Council committee.

"There is clearly a new awareness of a need to rethink the whole issue of ethics, conflict of interest and disclosure at the local level," said John Parr, president of the Denver-based National Civic League. The increasing complexity of local government has raised new questions about the role of elected officials, particularly in their dealings with private enterprise, Parr said.

Michael Josephson, head of a nonprofit ethics institute in Marina del Rey, has helped design some new local laws, including one under consideration in Anchorage, Alaska. "The next five or 10 years are going to see a tremendous amount of ethics legislation," Josephson predicted.

Much of it will center on conflicts of interest, which are the most significant at the local level, he said, adding: "On a small city council, if (a developer) can just get to one or two people, it can mean millions of dollars."

The recent interest in ethical questions is a second wave, emerging a little more than a decade after the Watergate scandal fueled movements for a range of ethical and campaign reforms that began in Washington and spread to state and local governments.

Indeed, Common Cause and other reform-oriented organizations have long touted Orange County's 1977 "TIN CUP" ordinance as one of the toughest around, even today. The ordinance bars county supervisors from voting on any matter affecting a donor who has contributed more than $1,874 in the previous 48 months. The figure seems unusual because the amount is indexed to inflation and has risen steadily.

Also, the ordinance requires lobbyists who spend money to entertain county officials to register with the county as so-called "influence brokers," although few have done so.

Three years ago, in response to an Orange County Grand Jury recommendation, the Board of Supervisors adopted a policy that requires county department chiefs to notify the board before any contract is given to a former county employee. This was aimed at stopping government's revolving door, yet many former county employees now work for big firms that have county contracts. County officials acknowledge the problem but say no new laws are needed, even though Los Angeles and other jurisdictions have been pursuing new ethics regulations.

The post-Watergate reforms followed a decade during which television became a critical--and expensive--campaign tool that forced candidates to solicit unprecedented amounts of money. Most states and cities passed laws in the early to mid-1970s that, for the first time, required the public disclosure of the names of donors to political campaigns and the amounts of their contributions. And, to varying degrees, governments across the country, including the state of California, limited campaign contributions and required elected officials to disclose personal financial information.

The new round of laws, in many cases, attempts to go beyond mere disclosure of information. The Los Angeles ballot measure, for example, seeks to bar elected officials from having outside jobs, the first such ban in the country.

Many of the local reforms have been spawned by scandals. The wide-ranging reform measure on the ballot Tuesday follows a year of revelations about Mayor Tom Bradley's personal finances, including the fact that he was employed by two local banks, one of which held city deposits.

Josephson and others describe the measure as the most comprehensive in the nation because it regulates everything from campaign spending to lobbying activities by former city officials.

But whether voters will endorse it remains unclear. Robert Stern, general counsel for the California Commission on Campaign Financing, said this week that chances for passage are about 50-50. Voters may reject the measure because the City Council tied it to large pay raises for the council and other elected officials, he said.

If the measure fails, several City Council members have said they are prepared to push for quick council passage of an ordinance that includes some provisions of the ballot measure but excludes the pay raises and public financing of campaigns.

The roots of New York City's broad reforms are in a jumble of kickback and conflict-of-interest scandals centered in the city's Parking Violations Bureau. Over an 11-month period in 1986, Queens borough President Donald Manes was implicated in the scandal and committed suicide; the Bronx Democratic leader, parking officials and several others were indicted and convicted of racketeering and conspiracy.

Stung by criticism of his Administration, then-Mayor Koch began pushing a range of reforms.

"Revolving-door" provisions now bar lobbying by former officials. Conflict-of-interest rules for current officials and contractors have been toughened. And a new commission has been given the power to levy fines of up to $10,000.

Perhaps the most fundamental change for politics in the nation's largest city is a Charter amendment establishing public financing for political campaigns. To become eligible for public funds, candidates must limit their spending to specified amounts, depending on the race.

Some New Yorkers attribute Mayor David Dinkins' victory over Koch last year to the new campaign law and its spending limits, a measure strongly backed by Koch.

"I think Koch lost because of this law," said Harold Mayerson, a Manhattan lawyer who was counsel to the City Council's political action committee. "He couldn't spend the money at the end when he had Dinkins on the ropes."

In past years, individuals were allowed to contribute as much as $50,000 to a candidate, and Koch had no trouble raising huge sums from real estate developers and other business interests. But the new law limited individual contributions to $3,000 and overall campaign spending to $3 million per mayoral candidate. (The spending limit for a mayoral candidate in Los Angeles would be $2 million for a primary and $1.6 million for a general election.)

With their spending ability about equal, the vast, grass-roots field organization assembled by Dinkins became an incalculable advantage over Koch, who had no field network.

Overall, New York's first attempt at using tax dollars to pay for political campaigns got mixed reviews. Even its backers declared it only a limited success.

More than half of the 96 candidates for local offices last year chose to ignore the law and forgo the dollar-for-dollar matching funds it provided.

Candidates complained of nightmarish paper work and disclosure requirements that scared off scores of office-seekers.

Nicole Gordon, executive director of New York's Campaign Finance Board, said amendments are in the works, but said the law succeeded in reducing the influence of "big money . . . a very significant change in New York City."

The Los Angeles version is more specifically and clearly drawn than New York's, leaving less room for administrative interpretation and confusion, said Stern, who helped draft the proposed Charter amendment.

Tucson, which in 1987 became one of the first cities to use public funds for political campaigns, has been successful in bringing down the spiraling cost of elections and the influence of big contributors, according to Mayor Tom Volgy, the author of that city's program.

Volgy said his predecessor spent $125,000 in a relatively uncontested race. But in 1987, because of donation and expenditure limits, Volgy spent $89,000 for a hotly contested race, he said.

"I think the single most important thing folks can do in California is campaign finance reform," Volgy said.

The city with the longest history of public financing is Seattle, which enacted a law in 1978. After two elections, the law expired in 1982, and a third election was held without public financing.

A study of the three elections showed that under the public financing system, more contributions were made to campaigns, but they tended to be smaller. In addition, more minorities and women ran for office. This, according to Stern, is what public financing laws are intended to do.

The Seattle law was reenacted in a modified form in 1984.

In Chicago, there is little apparent interest in public financing of political campaigns, and the city's 3-year-old ethics board has gotten off to a slow start. By law, the board may not investigate City Council members and has no real prosecutorial power. The panel issues advisory opinions. The names of those investigated and the results of the probes are kept secret.

Earlier this year, the board's second executive director, Gary M. O'Neill, resigned after only a month in office when reports surfaced that he was under federal investigation in his home state of Louisiana. Last month, he pleaded guilty to a mail fraud charge stemming from his role in the collapse of a Louisiana insurance company. Federal prosecutors said he had been instrumental in funneling $2 million in loans from the company to the campaign of the state insurance commissioner.

The incident was particularly embarrassing to the ethics board, which had rejected Mayor Daley's choice for the position in favor of O'Neill. Board members said their background checks had failed to turn up the information about O'Neill.

"Chicago is still a town where the fix is too often in evidence, but I do think it's changing," said Chicago Alderman David Orr, a Democrat who is frequently critical of his party.

"I think the aldermen are trying to set higher standards."

The public, Orr said, "has been ready for reform for a long time."

SUBLIMINAL SIGNAL--The Huntington Beach Co.'s signposts always seem to feature the candidates it backs. B1

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