Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
The basic thrust of Measure A in Claremont is simple and unassailable: Public officials should not be taking money from those who have business with the city. The problem, as always with such issues, comes in finding a way to stop it.
Shorn of its legalese, Measure A would prohibit city officials who make decisions affecting people or businesses from taking contributions, gifts or employment from those same people or businesses. The measure would be enforced by private lawsuits, brought by residents when an official violates the new law. It does not prevent people from serving in public office – simply abstaining on an issue involving such interests will avoid any problems with the law.
It’s easy in concept, but difficult in practice, to write such laws in a way that will hold up to constitutional inspection while being a practical and understandable guide to official behavior. Already a lower court has ruled a similar measure in Vista unconstitutional, though that ruling was not the final word on the matter, since it’s under appeal. Unfortunately, the issue probably won’t be decided before March 6.
Still, it’s difficult to believe that disconnecting city decisions from any measure of compensation by those benefiting from the decisions is unconstitutional. We already have laws that restrict campaign donations, and in practice this is a logical extension of those laws. There’s also a direct public benefit in ensuring that city government is free from the suspicion that personal betterment, and not public policy, is driving decisions.
When elected officials take contributions from those who have business before the city, they create the appearance of a conflict of interest, whether one is there or not. That contributes to a pernicious suspicion and cynicism about politicians and government. Politicians often say campaign contributions don’t influence their decisions on contributors’ business – but obviously the people giving the money think it helps, otherwise they could find far better uses for it.
Opponents of Measure A argue its restrictions would keep too many people from participating in city government. Those who work for the colleges, say, might have a problem because of the official business between the two. But that argument misses a larger point: Why should Claremont residents want any official voting on matters that affect his employer? Shouldn’t that person be abstaining in any case?
Why Claremont, critics ask – such behavior isn’t a problem in this city. Granted, Claremont doesn’t have the unseemly campaign money chase that plagues some cities, but that’s no reason not to send a message about how Claremont wants city officials to behave. And it’s worth asking just how many of the supposed problems the measure would create actually have a real chance of happening.
Is the ordinance perfect? No, but then there is no perfect way to deal with the complex interplay of political money and public decisions.
Claremont could vainly wait for a perfect law, or strike a blow for good government with the acceptable ordinance on the ballot. Given that choice, it’s obvious that Claremont residents should vote yes on Measure A.