Political Ethics Reform Drive Sputters, Stalls in Long Beach : Campaigns: An effort to rewrite election laws falters. Proposed conduct guidelines have been tied up in committee for months, the apparent victim of an election year.


The mood of political and ethical reform that has swept government chambers throughout the country has not been as noticeable in City Hall, where there has been a little bit of talk and no action on attempts to adopt tougher ethical standards for public officials.

An effort to rewrite local campaign laws two years ago sputtered in the wake of Proposition 73, a statewide initiative that appeared to take precedent. A proposal that Long Beach devise an ethics code patterned after the wide-ranging measure recently adopted in Los Angeles has been sequestered in committee for months, kept off the City Council agenda during this politically sensitive election year.

Moreover, a citizen task force appointed by the mayor last year to evaluate the structure of city government concluded that the system was generally working well and recommended no dramatic changes beyond doubling council members' salaries. The salary suggestion suffered a quick death at the hands of voters last month.

"There's a lot of cleaning up to do but we felt this year that no one wanted to deal with it," complained Alan Lowenthal, president of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, a political watchdog group that has long advocated campaign reform.

It is unclear what, if anything, council members are willing to do to adopt tougher standards covering political contributions, outside income, conflict of interest and their dealings with the city after they leave office.

Underscoring that uncertainty is a feeling among some council members that rules beyond the state political regulations that already govern them would only be appropriate if Long Beach's part-time council becomes full-time.

"I think until that happens, it's going to be very difficult to come up with an ethical package that is at all substantive. It's going to be vague and general," said Councilman Ray Grabinski, arguing, for instance, that extensive conflict-of-interest regulations would hamstring council members who must hold other jobs to make a living.

Some council members and community leaders contend that the time has come for Long Beach to have a full-time council. They point out that the city has a population of more than 400,000, a $1-billion budget and a host of major downtown development projects. Indeed, LBACI campaigned against the council salary raise--which would have doubled yearly council pay to about $35,000--on the grounds that it did not go nearly far enough. The council should be paid more, should work full time and be subjected to tougher ethical standards, LBACI contends.

There may be a budding move to do just that. Vice Mayor Wallace Edgerton said last week he probably will start trying soon to gather support for a ballot initiative that would create an independent ethics commission to set council salaries and ethical standards--presumably for a full-time council.

"I truly believe we should get this subject out of the hands of the mayor and the City Council," said Edgerton, who contended that the commission should not be selected by the mayor and council.

"I think this whole concept of image and ethics is extremely important," Edgerton continued. "It's not just enough to be appropriate. You have to appear to be appropriate. . . . I think we need some major, major reform. . . . All of our offices have inherent conflicts of interest coming out of their ears."

The idea of a local ethics code was broached late last year by Mayor Ernie Kell in light of the controversy surrounding Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's financial investments, and the ensuing embrace of political ethics reform in that city.

Los Angeles voters last month approved a sweeping ethics package that increases council salaries, limits political contributions and campaign spending, establishes partial public financing of campaigns, bans gifts and honorariums, expands financial disclosure requirements and prohibits elected officials from lobbying the city for a year after leaving office.

After Kell's suggestion was sent to the Long Beach City Council's Legislation Committee last winter, committee member Jeffrey Kellogg drew up a proposal, but it does not go nearly as far as the Los Angeles measure. It has yet to be acted on by the committee, although Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, committee chairman, said the issue likely will be taken up in a month or two.

"It is reaffirming many things that people don't understand we are already on the books with," Kellogg said of his draft. He too argued that Los Angeles' new rules were not suitable for a part-time council that does not experience the same big-city pressures as its Los Angeles counterpart.

Yet the idea that Long Beach is small by comparison does not impress everyone. "I think there is an unwillingness on the part of some council people to appreciate that we are already a lot like Los Angeles," said Edgerton, who advocates a full-time council.

Activists also dismiss the notion that a part-time council should not be held to the same standards as a full-time council. Saying she thought Long Beach would do well to follow in Los Angeles' footsteps, Norma Mayfield, a Common Cause board member and Long Beach resident, commented: "I don't think there's a serious ethical problem (in Long Beach) at this point. I think it's more cronyism. . . . But as we get larger and larger and there's more at stake, there's a danger we will fall into the pattern that decisions are made not on the basis of public good but private gain."

Paul Schmidt, a Cal State Long Beach political science professor who keeps an eye on local politics, said the city has a need for two major types of reform. He argues that public financing of campaigns would help dilute the influence of private financial backers, while restrictions patterned after Orange County's so-called "tin cup" ordinance would make it impossible for incumbents to repay major contributors with favorable votes on their projects.

The Orange County law, adopted years ago, bars any county supervisor from voting on matters involving a donor who has given the supervisor political contributions totaling more than $1,874 within the past 48 months. The contribution limit changes each year with inflation.

Public financing of campaigns also paves the way for limits on campaign spending, since courts have ruled that such limits are permissible only if accompanied by partial public financing.

But the statewide initiative, Proposition 73, killed efforts to adopt public financing in Long Beach and limit campaign spending. Because the 1988 law bans public financing of campaigns, the Long Beach city attorney has said such funding would be illegal.

Still, the proposition did not stop Los Angeles from adopting public funding. City attorneys there contend that the financing ban does not apply to cities with their own charters--such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"Although the issue is not totally free of doubt, the state does not have the authority to tell the city how to spend its own funds," explained Tony Alperin, assistant city attorney in Los Angeles.

The matter is ultimately likely to be decided in the state's courts. In the meantime, Long Beach officials seem unwilling to mount a challenge to Proposition 73.

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