The people who work for Los Angeles city government and those who oversee it as commissioners are making an uneasy acquaintance with the city’s new ethics code. Sniping has already started, although we have barely had time to get to know it.
When passed last June, the code was touted as the most comprehensive in the nation. But its advent has not been without fallout. Three city commissioners have resigned because they thought the disclosure requirements too onerous. The City Council has denied the pay level set by the personnel office and the new Ethics Commission for its executive director. And lately, an attorney, who also serves as a commissioner and a lobbyist, formed a group to consider challenging the disclosure provisions in court.
The commission that was charged with drafting a city code of ethics tried to create a tough, clear and comprehensive law. Recognizing that a code alone could not answer every problem, the panel, chaired by attorney Geoffrey Cowan, sought to establish a standing commission to provide oversight. The law clearly would need some fine tuning and evaluation as we gained experience with it.
The push and shove of the political process that got the measure on the ballot led to changes reflecting a multiplicity of agendas. Some were concerned that important problems were unaddressed; some felt that if they, as elected officials, would be bound by onerous provisions, so should everyone else because they were just as likely to be guilty of ethics violations, and some perhaps felt the proposal would never pass and they might as well make it as tough as possible.
As a result, the current law differs from the Cowan Commission proposal in three important ways. The original idea was to give the Ethics Commission secure funding, following the example of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Gifts of up to $50 from people doing business with the city would have been permitted for non-elected officials. And full disclosure would have been required only of elected officials, members of the Ethics Commission and a small group of full-time employees with city-wide responsibility. The Ethics Commission would determine what income and investments part-time commissioners and other employees would be required to disclose.
But the City Council wrote the law in a way that gave itself the power to set the budget, banned all gifts from people doing business with the city and required far more disclosure from part-time commissioners and lower-level city officials.
Consider, first, those disclosure requirements. For the most part, city commission members are public-spirited individuals who give their time and energy for the privilege of public service but who do not derive their income from that activity. Some are thus bothered by the requirement that they must disclose the names of their business partners.
That’s a legitimate concern. But it must be balanced against the fact that business relationships in our complex economy of national and international conglomerates may cause a conflict of interest for those who make decisions about public funds.
The next major question concerns gifts from people who do business with the city. The absolute ban may be too strict because there is a deep tradition of doing business with a certain amount of graciousness as part of the process, and it’s hard to be gracious when you fight over the check for dinner. Can someone really be bought with a free meal? Probably not. But the Ethics Commission may still decide that city officials should pay for their own meals and not risk even the appearance of being unduly influenced.
The city attorney’s office has received a lot of questions about travel expenses under the new law. Clearly, the intention was to eliminate the boondoggle--the conference in Switzerland during the ski season, or the journey to Hawaii to discuss methods of garbage disposal. We need to be concerned about disposing of our garbage, but not if a lobbyist or firm seeking a contract provided the trip. The law might benefit from enforcement with a bit of discretion, but its clarity and directness are what’s important.
Once the commission has an executive director and a staff, there will be more people available to interpret the law and train people to meet its requirements. Ethics Commissioner Ed Guthman says there is a good list of candidates for executive director, and the commission hopes to be operating at full steam by the middle of May.
A challenge still lies on the horizon. Library Commissioner Douglas Ring is forming a private group to test the law. As he put it, “There is the public’s right to know, its need to know and its desire to know.” Believing that some of the disclosure provisions are unconstitutional, he sees no alternative but a court ruling.
Regrettably, Ring seems to prefer that course rather than discussing his concerns with the Ethics Commission, whom he neither approached beforehand, nor invited to the meeting called to discuss the challenge. Surely it is possible to make a persuasive constitutional argument outside the formality and expense of a court. New regulations by the commission or changes in the ordinance by the City Council could solve the perceived problems, if one were willing to go those routes.
The voters of Los Angeles passed the ethics code overwhelmingly last June. It reflects their strong belief that confidence must be restored in city governance, a confidence that has been hard pressed recently. Some individuals may find the law too intrusive, but there is the greater probability that the law will encourage more people than it discourages because it will raise the expectation that government in Los Angeles is a strong and honest endeavor.