THE STATE / GOVERNANCE : Does Los Angeles Really Want a Strong Ethics-Code Enforcer?

Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the former executive director of the commission that drafted the city's ethics code

When Los Angeles voters empowered the mayor to fire his general managers, they specifically barred him from ousting members of the city's Ethics Commission. Which may be why Raquelle de la Rocha, the new commission president, took it upon herself to fire Ben Bycel, the commission's director. Of course, she may have acted on her own--without Mayor Richard Riordan's encouragement or support. But either way, it looks as if the Riordan Administration doesn't want strong ethics enforcement, which is not a good posture for a businessman-turned-politician, nor a good thing for the city.

Bycel was said to be "too aggressive" in enforcing the city's ethics code and incapable of getting along with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, with which De la Rocha was associated and with which she appears to retain strong ties. (The FPPC has been more active since it started working with Bycel than at any time in its recent history.) De la Rocha's "investigation" did not include talking to anyone who works for the commission, nor any one, locally or nationally, who supports it. Instead, she spoke only to its opponents, who accused Bycel of unrestrained personal ambition, self-aggrandizement and leaking information to the press, all of which he adamantly denies.

One person's "aggrandizement" may be another's charisma, but isn't "aggressive" behavior what a city wants in its ethics enforcer? Isn't a "balanced, careful" investigation what a city wants in its ethics enforcer?

If Riordan was the presence behind the curtains, he should have made his own case for firing Bycel and not let his new commission president carry his water. If he didn't want Bycel out, he should have demanded a more thorough investigation. It is simply unreasonable to think that Riordan has no view on the matter.

The Ethics Commission is charged with changing the way business is conducted in Los Angeles. As such, it was destined to rub some people the wrong way. But "personality conflict" is too trivial a cause for dismissal, particularly when so many efforts were made to mend strained relationships.

Bycel's firing, however, raises the larger question of what role the city's 48 commissions and 297 commissioners should play in an age when voters want more accountability from government. There has got to be a better balance between giving individuals the freedom to exercise authority, though part-time, and making sure the city is moving in the right direction.

Ethics should be enforced by a commission as free of external influence as possible. Perhaps its members should be appointed by a panel of judges, or by a board that includes civic associations, as Councilman Mike Feuer proposed last week. (He also urged that an ethics commissioner or director should not be removed unless specific grounds for dismissal are stated.) Commission funding should be ensured, thereby shielding it from potential City Council pressure. Maybe commission members should be full-time.

With the exception of the Public Works Commission, all other city commissions are part-time and unpaid. Commissioners must devote a great deal of time and energy to their jobs, but being appointed is an honor. It can also be an extraordinary burden when well-meaning people get themselves into trouble.

Taken together, the city's commissions are too dependent for information on the departments they oversee, on the mayor for their appointments and on the City Council for their budgets. When controversy strikes, they are rarely "independent." A meaner, leaner government more suited to our times would have department heads reporting directly to the mayor. In turn, they should have greater flexibility in running their departments by allowing them to hire and fire their top administrators.

If there is any commission that should be retained, however, it should be the one on ethics, because it requires both independence and judgment. The current commission does not appear to have either. Confidence in government is indispensable, not suspicion that individuals are engaged in personal witch hunts or following someone else's agenda--the mayor's or the FPPC's. Ironically, it is the mayor who must be held accountable for the commission's mistakes, because he has greater appointment power. Someone needs to make sure that the new director of the Ethics Commission will be free to do the job without fear of petty reprisals.*

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