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Even Lobbyists See a Haywire System : * Financing Reform Must Be Carried Out at Local Level

As recession grips the nation and Southern California, Anaheim clings to its ambitious dreams of expanded facilities for tourism, the industry that made it what it is. And developers continue to wield a great deal of influence in City Council politics. Recent articles in The Times have taken a look inside the campaign financing process to reveal a system awash in money.

The bottom line seems to be that if you want access, you can get it by paying for it. And for those who make it their business to understand how staff and council decisions are made on development, the rewards can be considerable.

Two lobbyists in particular, Frank Elfend and Carmen Morinello, together have made thousands of dollars in political contributions over the past five years to the City Council. And for their diligence, they have had rewards. In one case, they made a sales pitch to the city for it to buy a parcel of land at the Melodyland Christian Center. The city went against an initial staff recommendation and approved the purchase. This was despite tough economic decisions forcing budget cuts and layoffs in Anaheim. The agreement to buy the land was made with just one dissenting vote.

The lobbyists themselves call this a system out of control, and political leaders such as Mayor Fred Hunter, who himself has raised more than $575,000 since entering local politics in 1984, says flatly: “The perception is that the City Council is being bought.”

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The mayor is to be commended for such a forthright statement, but the question is whether there will be any proposal for reform that is tough enough and legal at the same time. Clearly, a system such as Anaheim’s, where politicians consider $100,000 the entry level just to be in contention for municipal office, needs fixing.

Those who say the dollars do not translate into favors are kidding themselves. The council, for example, voted favorably on two projects within one hotel complex development in June, 1990, the same month that council members received $8,220 in campaign contributions from lobbyists.

There are ways that municipal campaign financing reform can proceed. Term limits, one idea that has been floated, are not generally good public policy; they punish experience and constitute an admission of failure in the overall system.

Voluntary limits on campaign spending can be a useful tool, when tied to public financing of campaigns. It may be possible, as some places around the country have tried, to provide matching funds for those who abide by limits.

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Limits on contributions are also a good way of curtailing the influence of individual donors or political action committees. Another useful idea is off-year fund-raising restrictions.

Anaheim has a useful model to study right in Orange County, now that it is likely that the Board of Supervisors will vote to put a county campaign financing reform measure on the ballot next year.

The shockingly high price of municipal political participation in Anaheim and places like it constitutes a warning that the process of democracy at the grass-roots level is compromised, going essentially to the highest bidder. There is no way that council people who receive large campaign contributions can think that all they owe contributors is a returned phone call.

Those who pay to get into the system get the most attention. Serious campaign financing reform must be carried out earnestly at the local level to keep government decisions in the public interest.

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