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Former ethics commissioner says L.A. charter doesn’t bar her from running for office

Former ethics commissioner says L.A. charter doesn’t bar her from running for office
The American flag is draped on the south side of Los Angeles City Hall on Sept. 8, 2017. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When Serena Oberstein launched her campaign to join the Los Angeles City Council, she touted her experience on the Ethics Commission, vowing to “root out corruption wherever it exists.”

But her time on the city commission, which she left in November, has also raised questions about whether Oberstein is eligible to run for office at all.

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Under the city charter, ethics commissioners cannot seek election for two years after their terms to any city office “concerning which the commission has made a decision” while they served.

Oberstein said, however, that a lawyer in the city attorney’s office had advised her that the prohibition on running for office did not apply to her because ethics commissioners have an “entirely advisory role,” except for approving penalties for violations of city rules.

“The Ethics Commission provides an important but limited function within the city structure — they make recommendations to City Council but it’s the council that sets policy,” Oberstein wrote in an email.

Some experts raised questions about that interpretation, saying that reading the law that way would make it all but meaningless. George Kieffer, an attorney who sat on a city commission that drafted a new version of the charter, said that “whether the commission is advisory or not is irrelevant” and that such an interpretation “sort of nullifies the section.”

“If the Ethics Commission doesn’t make decisions, why have this rule at all?” asked Bob Stern, who helped draft L.A.’s ethics rules decades ago.

Oberstein said that before deciding to run, she had reached out to Ethics Commission staff as well as a city attorney to determine whether the city charter barred her from doing so.

“As Ethics Commission Chair, I did my due diligence prior to deciding whether or not to run by checking with counsel and the Ethics Commission to ensure that everything I am doing is by the book,” she said in an email, adding that as federal investigators scrutinize city officials, “I firmly believe it’s vital that City Hall operates by the book, and that’s one of the reasons I’m running for City Council.”

An Ethics Commission spokeswoman did not provide comment on the issue Thursday. Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said his office would provide advice to the city clerk “as necessary in this matter,” but declined to comment further.

Kieffer said whether a particular candidate is barred might depend on how broadly city attorneys interpret the charter rule, which specifies that ethics commissioners cannot immediately seek election to any “city office” about which they have made a decision.

The question, he said, is whether weighing in on a blanket policy that affects all council or city candidates would trigger the disqualification, or whether a commissioner would have to have made a decision that specifically affected the particular office — City Council District 12 in this case — that they are seeking.

Oberstein voted last year to recommend changes to a city program that provides taxpayer money to city candidates, including people running for council. The suggested changes, which were backed by numerous advocates and groups, made the system more generous for candidates who qualify for “matching funds.” The council ultimately approved an amended version of the plan.

Oberstein also sat on the commission when it voted to approve a nearly $16,000 fine for Kelly M. Lord, a candidate who ran unsuccessfully to represent District 12 eight years ago, for violating city campaign rules. And shortly after she was first appointed to the commission in 2014, Oberstein voted on a fine for Navraj Singh, another unsuccessful District 12 candidate.

Rey López-Calderón, the executive director of California Common Cause, declined to weigh in on how the charter section should be interpreted and whether Oberstein could run.

Although the provision “seems like it was to create a two-year break between Ethics Commission service and city council campaigns … [the] definition of ‘decision’ raises a good question that we don’t have an answer for,” he said.

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"This is complicated,” López-Calderón said. “On the one hand, we don't want people to game the system. On the other, we don’t want to discourage good people from running for office.”

Members of the Ethics Commission are appointed by the mayor, the city attorney, the city controller, the council president or the president pro tem of the council, then confirmed by a council vote.

Although the Ethics Commission typically makes recommendations to the council that it approves or rejects, any rules and regulations approved by the commission will have “the force of law” if the council and mayor fail to act on them in a set period of time, according to the city charter.

Ben Bycel, who served as the first executive director of the Ethics Commission, argued that “there should be a long period of time between being on the Ethics Commission and an attempt to run for any L.A. city office.”

The job, he argued, shouldn’t be used as a political platform. “You want to have people that are only answering to the rules of ethics and the rules of law and to the citizens of the jurisdiction — not to themselves in order to promote future political careers,” Bycel said.

Oberstein is among more than a dozen candidates angling to replace former Councilman Mitchell Englander, who left the council at the end of last year to take a job with a sports and entertainment firm. A special election is scheduled for June, with a likely runoff set for August.

The winner will represent a council district that stretches across the northwestern San Fernando Valley, including the neighborhoods of Chatsworth, Granada Hills and Porter Ranch.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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