It was a Los Angeles City Council debate that had to be seen to be believed.
Councilman Alex Padilla wanted his colleagues to affirm that there was no money in the city budget for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s school takeover plan.
Never mind that anyone who had read the budget already knew this. And ignore the fact that no one saw the need to affirm that the budget also didn’t contain money to paint city fire hydrants pink.
After two hours of debate spanning two meetings and three votes -- at one point Councilman Bill Rosendahl called the issue “stupid” -- the council decided by an 8 to 6 margin not to affirm for constituents that there was no money for school takeover in the budget.
Padilla said he thought it was important to inform people what wasn’t in the complex budget as well as what was. Left unsaid was whether this had more to do with Villaraigosa’s endorsement of Padilla’s rival in his campaign for the state Senate, Cindy Montanez.
And that leads to the question ...
Q: What else is on the council’s plate these days?
A: A little thing called campaign finance reform.
Backed by Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Rosendahl, the idea is to expand public financing for candidates to increase competition for city office while diminishing the influence of those who have business at City Hall and oftentimes fund political campaigns.
The city Ethics Commission has already formally recommended that public financing be expanded. To make it law, however, the City Charter must be changed, and that means it must go before voters.
Eight of the 15 council members would have to agree to do it, meaning Garcetti, Greuel and Rosendahl have to convince five more colleagues.
Q: How big a factor is money in city campaigns?
A: Let’s take a look at the current 18 officeholders in Los Angeles who were elected between 1999 and 2005. In 33 of the 38 races in that span, the winner had raised the most money.
There are notable exceptions.
For example, Rosendahl’s opponent last year out-raised and outspent him by significant sums and benefited from large amounts of money spent on her behalf by other interested parties -- including $200,000 in the week before the election.
Running on a pro-mass transit and anti-overdevelopment platform, Rosendahl easily won in a runoff by 12.5 percentage points.
Q: What other effects does big money have on city campaigns?
A: Last year four incumbents, including Garcetti, were reelected without facing a challenger. And no credible challengers have yet appeared ready to run against the seven council members up for reelection in March 2007.
Here’s a question to chew on: Do incumbents get reelected so easily in L.A. because constituents are loopy with joy over the job they are doing?
Or is it because the task of raising $300,000 to $1 million to beat them is too daunting for any competition to emerge?
Q: How would the new system work?
A: It would fund the bulk of a candidate’s campaign, unlike the current system, which provides up to $250,000 for those who have already raised at least several hundred thousand dollars on their own.
Exact details haven’t emerged on the new plan. One scenario being discussed would involve having council candidates solicit 500 donations of $5 each from individuals living in the district.
That money would then be turned over to the city and would qualify the candidate for a fully publicly financed campaign.
One proposal tossed about by an activist group, the California Clean Money Campaign, would call for council candidates to receive $150,000 to $250,000 in both the primary and runoff elections and another $600,000 to $1 million, if necessary, to compete against candidates who turned down public financing.
Q: Are there any obstacles to the program?
A: The cost, which the city Ethics Commission conservatively estimates would be $7 million to $9 million a year. Opponents are likely to argue that using taxpayer money to fund candidates -- some of whom will surely be kooks -- is inappropriate.
Another is that public financing would remain optional. A well-known candidate or established politician could decide to forgo public financing.
Most daunting is that the proposal taking shape must deal with independent expenditure committees that are free to back a candidate with as much money as can be raised so long as the group has no connection to the candidate’s own campaign organization.
“The thumb on the scale of local elections is unregulated, six-figure, last-minute special-interest independent expenditures,” said Councilman Jack Weiss.
Federal courts have ruled that such spending is protected by the Constitution as a form of free speech. In L.A., the totals are big -- roughly $4.5 million in the 2005 elections, with much of that coming from labor unions.
Q: What are some ultra-cynical thoughts about public financing?
A: That even if Garcetti, Greuel and Rosendahl lose a vote by their colleagues they would gain a public relations win. They would permanently be associated with so-called clean money -- a politically hip term -- and could portray themselves as having fought a noble battle against the status quo.
It also can be argued that city campaign fundraising is already transparent. The Ethics Commission’s pioneering website, ethics.lacity.org, allows anyone to look up who is giving to candidates. Legislation and votes can be tracked on another city website, cityclerk.lacity.org/CFI.
Q: Is all bad policy that emanates from City Hall caused by corruption?
A: In a two-hour town hall meeting on clean money in Valley Village earlier this month, not one example was provided by Garcetti, Greuel or clean-money advocates of money-twisting policy at City Hall.
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. But anyone who sits through council meetings also has to wonder if the real problem is good old-fashioned political timidity -- the kind of thing that prevents light rail lines from being built in certain places and ineffective programs from being eliminated.
Longtime City Hall lobbyist Arnie Berghoff believes the villain at City Hall is term limits and that campaign finance reform is a “solution in search of a problem.”
“I think the elected officials for the most part try to do what they believe is good public policy,” Berghoff said. “But with term limits they are forced to say, ‘How will this politically affect my next job?’ ”
Berghoff acknowledged that many people believe lobbyists giving money to candidates are the problem. He, of course, does not agree.
Q: And what do the clean-money advocates say?
A: That no system is perfect and expanding public financing would further help eliminate corruption or the appearance of corruption at City Hall.
At the Studio City forum, Garcetti and Greuel both made a point of saying how much time they had to devote to fundraising instead of meeting potential constituents during their first council campaigns.
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said that he believed there would never be a perfect system.
But, he asked, “Is the system that we’re proposing better than the existing one? It is.”