Council Panel Recommends Recusal Rule

Times Staff Writer

After more than a year of delays, a City Council panel on Wednesday recommended adoption of an ethics rule that would prohibit an elected official from voting on issues involving lobbyists who raise or contribute significant amounts of money for that official.

However, the council's Rules and Elections Committee postponed final approval of another package of 60 ethics reforms that include rules to blunt the impact of independent expenditures by special interests seeking to influence elections.

The panel also rejected a proposal to put a measure on the May ballot that would either eliminate term limits for city officials or increase the number of four-year terms that can be served from two to four.

The panel, which consists of Council President Alex Padilla and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, has come under criticism for delaying ethics reforms.

The Times reported in early 2001 that two-thirds of the City Council members at that time had hired political consultants for campaigns and other work who later returned to City Hall to lobby on behalf of commercial clients.

In response, the Ethics Commission recommended in August 2001 that the City Council prohibit elected officials from acting on matters in which they have been contacted by lobbyists who contributed or raised $1,000 for their political accounts or who were paid at least $1,000 per quarter by the elected official for work on their campaign.

The council panel approved the proposal but raised the threshold.

It recommended recusal by officials if a lobbyist or city contractor has contributed at least $7,000 to the official or raised $15,000 for council members within the previous 12 months. The threshold is $25,000 for the mayor and other citywide elected officials. The new rules also require more disclosure of lobbyist activities.

LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the rule will have little impact because contributions and fund-raising rarely rise to that higher level. Still, she welcomed the fact that some action was finally taken and said there may be an effort to get the full council to lower the amounts.

"This is an incremental step and positive step in the right direction," Pelham said.

Miscikowski said the rules recommended by the committee were reasonable and "long overdue." However, she said, they may take some time to get used to.

She noted that on Tuesday, the day before the panel acted, the council took up the issue of police response to burglar alarms after the alarm industry hired Cerrell & Associates, a lobbyist firm that is a major fund-raiser and contributor to council members.

"I dare say that if this law had been in effect, all 14 members or very close to it would have had a recusal, and so it is going to be an interesting situation in the future," Miscikowski said.

Pelham said the high threshold means most council members probably still could have acted.

The committee recommended that the new rules, which the full council must approve, take effect July 1. Dan Tokaji, chairman of California Common Cause, said the action was good even though it was only a "modest" reform.

"We think this is an essential step toward restoring public trust, which has been somewhat damaged in the past by disclosures of fairly substantial fund-raising on the part of lobbyists with business before City Hall," Tokaji said.

Tokaji and Pelham also argued for quick action on a package of 60 additional campaign finance reforms proposed by the Ethics Commission, including new rules to limit the influence of independent expenditure campaigns, which set a record of $3.2 million in 2001.

Although City Council candidates can accept contributions no greater than $500 each, corporations, unions and others can spend an unlimited amount independently to support the candidate.

The Ethics Commission proposals would prohibit corporations and unions from making independent expenditures from their treasuries. Instead, they would be required to form political action committees, which face more financial disclosure requirements.

The council panel also voted Wednesday to table a proposal to eliminate term limits for city officials or increase the number of four-year terms officials can serve from two to four. Padilla said the city has not held sufficient public hearings on the issue.

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