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Ethics Panel Feels L.A. Budget Pinch : City Hall: Staff positions for the proposed watchdog agency are stuck in a citywide hiring freeze. The commission was to begin work on Jan. 1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new, much-heralded political watchdog agency at City Hall could be hobbled as it moves to enact a sweeping package of reforms approved by voters in the wake of the ethics scandal surrounding Mayor Tom Bradley.

All staff positions for the city Ethics Commission, which is supposed to begin its work Jan. 1, have been frozen under the mayor’s emergency, citywide order to halt hiring and reduce a potential $120-million budget deficit.

A Bradley spokesman said Wednesday that it is “premature” to say whether the ethics panel’s proposed 16-member staff will be exempted from the hiring freeze.

Bradley ordered the freeze to “prevent more drastic measures such as police layoffs and tax increases later,” said Bill Chandler, the mayor’s press secretary. “Exemptions . . . will be considered on a case-by-case basis only.”

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During the campaign for voter approval of Proposition H last June, supporters said the new enforcement agency would be the centerpiece of the ethics reforms designed to reduce the influence of City Hall special interests and curb potential conflicts of interest among public officials.

The first wave of reforms takes effect next month, when the fledgling agency is scheduled to assume a variety of legal duties. Those include enforcing toughened campaign disclosure laws, developing detailed new ethics regulations and educating city officials about potential conflicts of interest.

However, Ethics Commission President Dennis Curtis said his five-member panel cannot perform those tasks without adequate staff. “We’re just going to have to fight it out . . . we’re going to have to get the (employees) necessary to allow us to do our job,” he said.

The USC law professor said he had not discussed the hiring freeze with Bradley, but nonetheless expressed optimism that his commission will be permitted to proceed with plans to hire an executive director in the next several weeks.

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Geoffrey Cowan, who headed a Bradley-appointed citizens’ committee that drafted the ethics reform laws, said the watchdog agency’s job is formidable and that without a “good and full staff” its start-up could become a “nightmare.”

“No one is going to know how the law is supposed to work,” said Cowan, a former chairman of California Common Cause.

Because it is new and small, the ethics agency is likely to be given some staff, several officials said. But the deteriorating budget picture in recent weeks has riveted City Hall attention on more basic concerns, such as maintaining the size of the police force in a near-record year of bloodshed.

Robert Chase, assistant city administrative officer, said the ethics agency positions, while important, must be weighed against other pressing needs, such as police officers, firefighters and trash collectors.

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“The policy question is do you (staff) this new body instead of other high priority jobs,” said Chase, who will be evaluating hiring freeze exemption requests for Bradley. “That’s a tough question. . . . I’m not sure what we’ll recommend.”

Chase said a fully staffed ethics panel would cost up to $657,000 over the remaining six months of the 1990-91 fiscal year. That figure would grow in 1991-92 as more staff and duties are added, including starting up a City Hall whistle-blower hot line.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the city’s Budget and Finance Committee, predicted the ethics panel will be allowed to fill most, if not all, of its positions.

But he added, “There ought to be a debate about how much they need. They (are not) exempt from shouldering the burden” of the budget shortfall. “As bad as our ethics problems are in City Hall, crime in the streets is a much more serious problem.”

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Reform leaders said the hiring freeze spotlights a weakness of the final version of the ethics reform package--the lack of a secure source of funds for the ethics agency.

“We wanted a dedicated source of money from the beginning,” said Cowan. He has voiced concern that shifting City Hall spending priorities--or even politically motivated budget cuts--could undermine the ethics panel’s independence and effectiveness.

Cowan argued that voters addressed the current financial crunch, particularly the choice between hiring police officers and ethics officials. “The campaign against (the ethics reform measure) was run on the basis that we need the money for other services, including police,” Cowan said.


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