Ethics panel raises donation limits in municipal campaigns

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission voted Thursday to hike campaign contribution limits for candidates in the upcoming municipal election, despite warnings that the panel is tipping the scales in favor of well-connected incumbents.

On a 3-1 vote, the commission allowed candidates for City Council to accept $700 per donor per election cycle, up from the current $500 limit. Candidates for citywide offices — mayor, city attorney and city controller — will see the maximum increased from $1,000 to $1,300.

The plan will go into effect immediately, giving candidates in the March 2013 election the opportunity to hit up donors who had reached the maximum on their contributions under the previous limits.

Commissioner Valerie Vanaman said the changes would give candidates more money to withstand the onslaught of unlimited independent expenditures that typically come from special interests. Unions, business groups and others are permitted to spend as much as they want in support of a candidate as long as they do not coordinate with that candidate’s campaign.


Commission President Paul Turner called Thursday’s decision a “fair and reasonable compromise,” pointing out that the commission scrapped a plan to more than double the maximum contributions. He also said he is not worried about tipping the scales in upcoming elections.

“Challengers can raise more money as well, so it works both ways,” he said.

That did not satisfy critics of the plan, who called it a gift to officeholders and powerful special interests.

Cary Brazeman, a candidate for city controller, said he is considering a lawsuit to block the changes. Others said the panel went too far by giving council members a 40% increase in allowable contributions.


In city campaigns that involved an incumbent between 2003 and 2011, 93% of the donations that reached the maximum threshold went to the incumbent, said Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, an advocacy group.

“Incumbents almost universally out-raise challengers by a significant amount, and it’s because special interests know that the best way to gain access to the elected officials is to give them the maximum campaign contributions,” he said.

Commissioner Marlene Canter, who cast the only opposing vote, said the public did not have enough opportunity to weigh in on the plan. Commissioner Nathan Hochman disagreed, saying only a handful of people had appeared before the panel to discuss it.

“We didn’t fill [the room] in any of the three meetings,” he said.


The vote came three months after City Council President Herb Wesson personally asked the panel to consider raising the limits. The council determines the budget of the Ethics Commission, which enforces the city’s campaign finance laws.

Ethics Commission staffers had warned commissioners that the City Charter requires that campaign contribution limits be adjusted each year for inflation. Until now, the commission had never voted to do so — even though the amounts were first established in 1985.

Canter said she asked if the panel could seek another legal opinion but was rebuffed. She also questioned whether City Atty. Carmen Trutanich’s office should have given the opinion, because Trutanich is an officeholder. “I’ve never been involved with an attorney who said we couldn’t get a second opinion,” she said.

Trutanich is running for district attorney, a county office that isn’t covered by the city’s finance law.


Commission attorney Renee Stadel said her office has no conflict as a result of the campaign contribution changes. Meanwhile, Ethics Commission critic George Rheault called the vote a “travesty,” saying those who do business at City Hall will feel compelled to give even larger donations to officeholders.

“That’s just more ammunition, more juice, in the incumbent’s arsenal,” he said.