Ballot Victories Only Half the Battle, Campaign Reformers Say

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Three cities where voters approved donation curbs balk at implementing them.

Los Angeles Times

Campaign reform advocates turned to the ballot boxes in three Southern California cities over the past six months and won victories that they thought would help end the corrupting influences of political donations.

So far, they remain frustrated that the change has not come.

Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont have yet to implement the voter-approved restrictions on elected officials accepting contributions from anyone who received their vote for city contracts.

Officials in those cities say the measures could be unconstitutional. And if enforced, they say, the measures would violate contributors’ rights and might discourage citizens from seeking public office.

But irked advocates say politicians are flouting the will of the people. They have asked Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to step in–to no avail.

“When did it come about that the City Council could decide when you could implement a law or not?” asked Paul Herzog, director of the Santa Monica-based Oaks Project. In 1999, the group began deploying volunteers to collect signatures and campaigning for the initiatives in six California cities.

Now, Herzog said, “there’s a distinct possibility” the group might use its limited resources to take the cities to court. “We haven’t done it until this point, because we didn’t think it was necessary.”

The measures were approved under various titles in March for Pasadena and Claremont and in November for Santa Monica and San Francisco.

“The public has a right to know there is no quid pro quo” between politicians and campaign contributors who bid on lucrative city projects, Herzog said.

The measures bar officials from accepting gifts, jobs or campaign contributions from anyone for whom they have awarded city contracts for more than $25,000 in the two smaller cities and $50,000 in Santa Monica and San Francisco. (The measures failed in Vista in San Diego County, and didn’t make the ballot in Irvine.)

Under the reform plan, the ban remains for five to six years after officials leave office. Violations would be treated as misdemeanors, and civil penalties could include being sued for up to five times the amount of the illegal gift plus attorney fees.

The Oaks Project was founded in 1997 as an arm of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Washington-based nonprofit organization headed by consumer activist and attorney Harvey Rosenfield. The project is also allied with Ralph Nader.

The group’s latest campaign reform victories have so far ended on a sour note. Cooley’s and Lockyer’s offices, citing jurisdictional issues, have declined the group’s request to force cities to implement the measures.

“That is not our function, and I know of no authority which would allow us to file such action,” head Deputy Dist. Atty. David Demerjian said in a letter to the group.

Nathan Barankian, spokesman for Lockyer, had a similar response.

“If the office of first jurisdiction is a local one,” he said in a recent interview, “our m.o. is to defer to them.”

In Vista the measure last year lost by 3% of the vote to a counter-initiative drafted by the city, after a failed attempt to keep the measure off the ballot.

Before that vote, the city won a court ruling that pulled the measure off the ballot because of its supposed unconstitutionality. But then an appeal ordered it back on without ruling on its constitutionality.

“I think it’s very poorly written,” said Joseph Lawrence, assistant city attorney for Santa Monica. “It’s very hard to follow administratively, and it’s kind of draconian.”

Santa Monica officials said the City Council has no intention of passing rules for enforcement but will sue in an appellate court for clarification. But city governments have been asking whom to sue.

“The city will initiate a lawsuit against the city clerk,” Lawrence said. “Neither will be represented by the city attorney due to a conflict of interest.”

Pasadena has yet to decide how to handle the entire situation, officials said. Claremont has made a decision.

“The city is not going to implement the law,” said Sonia Carvalho, a private lawyer for the city of Claremont. She questions the measure’s constitutionality and her ability to devise an implementation program, and said it calls for no enforcement on the city’s part.

“The fact that the city is not implementing the law does not mean officials can’t perform due diligence and the public can’t enforce it,” Carvalho said.

But San Francisco, where the measure passed by 82% of the vote, has so far had little problem meeting voters’ wishes.

The city’s ethics committee on May 14 added definitions to the measure, and the package is likely to be approved by the Board of Supervisors this summer, Deputy City Atty. Nathan Ballard said.

Consumer Watchdog
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