Campaign Reform Goes Unenforced;

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Politics: Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont delay action on voter-passed limits on gifts or jobs to officials whose actions aided the giver.

The Los Angeles Times

The people spoke, but those in power didn’t listen. So say proponents of a controversial campaign finance initiative passed by voters in three Los Angeles County cities more than a year ago.

Leaders in the cities–Santa Monica, Pasadena and Claremont–say the initiative infringes on the civil rights of elected officials, and they want the courts to declare the law unconstitutional. None of the cities is enforcing the law.

Now a Pasadena man has sued his city to force it to complete the necessary paperwork to get the law on the books–a process that typically takes no more than five days.

The law, promoted by the Santa Monica-based Oaks Initiative, requires elected and appointed officials to refuse campaign donations, gifts or jobs from anyone to whom they have granted a substantial “public benefit.”

The law in Pasadena and Claremont restricts officials for five years after voting to grant such a benefit or a year after leaving office, and in Santa Monica six years after voting for a benefit or two years after leaving office.

Benefits are defined as contracts or exceptions, such as zoning variances, valued at more than $50,000 in Santa Monica or $25,000 in Pasadena and Claremont.

Pasadena resident Rene Amy says he doesn’t really care what the initiative said. Frankly, he can’t even remember how he voted on the measure. But he says it’s up to the courts, not city officials, to decide if a law is valid.

“We tell people, ‘Your vote counts,’ ” Amy said. “But the city fathers and mothers are basically telling voters, ‘No, no, no.’ ”

Pasadena asked a judge Monday and again Tuesday to declare the law unconstitutional and to set aside Amy’s lawsuit, said Michelle Beal Bagneris, city attorney.

Pasadena voters approved the measure in March 2001. The city did nothing and, according to a June 6, 2001, memorandum, Bagneris instructed the city clerk to wait another three months before filing the charter amendment to enact the law.

At the time, Bagneris said, she believed a decision on the validity of the law was imminent. If the city clerk enforced the law, she wrote, “officials could be forced to spend time and money defending themselves against lawsuits brought to remedy ‘violations’ of an unconstitutional law.”

“It would be unduly costly for the city to install the computer-based administrative system to operate under this ordinance, especially if the law will be declared unconstitutional,” said Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaart. He said the estimate was more than $200,000.

Carmen Balber, Oaks Project director, said the initiative fills a void left by the 1974 Political Reform Act, which limits campaign donations and gifts that candidates for state office may receive.

The group, the grass-roots organizing unit of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, trains citizens to be involved in politics.

Many municipalities passed local campaign finance limits after the 1974 act, Balber said. The Oaks initiative goes one step further, banning gifts to those who vote in favor of a contract because it’s hard to prove in court that a donation is quid pro quo, said Robert Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law. “The only way you can do it is by taping people,” he said.

This initiative is unusual because it puts the responsibility on public officials rather than givers, Balber said. But critics say that an outright donation ban is unnecessary, and that it wrongly singles out elected officials who vote in favor of contracts.

Someone could also benefit from a no vote. “It’s burning the barn to roast the pig,” said John Ramirez, an attorney for several initiative cases.

It may also violate the 1st Amendment, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that political contributions are political speech and protected under the 1st Amendment. Although the court has not ruled specifically on a complete ban on campaign donations, it has stated that limits must be reasonable.

Although the law has not been enforced in Claremont, Santa Monica and Pasadena, it has already had an impact in those cities.

After two Claremont city commissioners resigned to avoid questions of conflict of interest, the council passed a resolution indemnifying any elected or appointed official sued under this law.

John Seery, Pomona College’s politics department chairman, sat through many long meetings about sewer services as a volunteer community services commissioner. But Seery decided he had to step down because the college often contracted with the city.

As a result of the law, “my right to participate in civic life in Claremont had been sabotaged,” he said. “Serving as commissioner implicated me in many affairs of the college that would not normally come under conflict of interest.”

“Our commissioners should not have to be concerned by the restrictions of the ordinance,” Claremont Mayor Paul Held said. “Good and qualified people will be discouraged” from entering civic life.

Claremont and Pasadena tried to join a suit filed by Santa Monica against the law. Santa Monica, where the Oaks measure passed in November 2000, took the unusual step of suing its own city clerk to get a ruling on the law’s merits. On March 29, a Superior Court judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds, but left the door open for an appeal. Santa Monica plans to file an appeal or wait for the outcome of Amy’s case in Pasadena.

The only California city not challenging the measure is San Francisco. Its ethics commission adopted regulations for the initiative in July 2001.

“The weight is for the public official to comply with this requirement,” said Mabel Ng, the commission’s deputy executive director.

Complaints are kept confidential, but Ng does not know of any that were filed based on this law.

Consumer Watchdog
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