Council dilutes watchdog group’s reforms

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Oaks Project of Santa Monica sought tougher conflict-of-interest law

Irvine World News

Irvine public officials have two new regulations for the gifts and campaign contributions they receive.

The City Council voted Tuesday to have City Attorney Joel Kuperberg draw up two resolutions designed to stave off conflict-of-interest violations.

One resolution would “strongly discourage” public officials from receiving gifts and the other would require the city to post campaign-disclosure forms – where contributions to a candidate are officially listed – on the city’s Web site.

That wasn’t nearly enough for five members of the Oaks Project, a Santa Monica-based political watchdog group.

Oaks members and other volunteers nearly got a more comprehensive anti-conflict of interest initiative on the November 2000 ballot in Irvine, but fell 80 signatures short.

Since then, they’ve met with city officials in an attempt to hammer out some kind of resolution. They weren’t pleased with what they saw.

“Where’s the beef,” Oaks volunteer Paul Bunch said. “This report does not represent the conflict of interest reform that voters want. All there is is a suggestion. There’s no teeth. A recommendation is not reform.”

Margaret Strubel, an Oaks organizer and Irvine resident, said she was frustrated.

“There’s barely the substance of what we had in our initiative language,” she said.

They were hoping to see a resolution that would restrict public officials, once they leave office, from lobbying the city on behalf of a company that does business with the city.

They also wanted full disclosure of all campaign contributions – current laws only require gifts of $100 or more to be reported.

Council members questioned why more stringent reform was even needed.

“What is this intended to fix?” Councilman Chris Mears asked the Oaks members. “I think most campaign finance regulation functions as a trap for the unwary rather than genuine disincentive.”

Campaign reform advocates point to apparent conflict-of-interest violations by former Councilman Dave Christensen discovered in August 2000.

He is under investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission for allegedly having financial connections with businesses that also have contracts with the city, and for possibly voting on those contracts.

Christensen was voted out of office in 2000.

But the council bristled at the apparent assumption that all elected officials are untrustworthy.

“When you’re sitting here and there’s an assumption placed on you, it’s frustrating,” Councilwoman Beth Krom said.

Mears said the voters will correct what burdensome legislation can’t.

“I think your efforts misjudge human nature,” Mears said. “I don’t know if there are any laws you can enact that would prevent someone from committing a crime if they are so inclined.

“The process worked (in the Christensen case). He was voted out of office. I think the ballot box is a much more effective remedial device.”

Oaks Project Director Carmen Balber said the emphasis should be on prevention, not punishment.

“It stopped him from doing it again, but it didn’t stop him from doing it in the first place,” she said. “It’s like saying it’s stupid to put speed bumps in until someone dies.”

Mayor Larry Agran and Councilman Greg Smith met with representatives of the Oaks Project three times since the failed ballot initiative.

“We didn’t blow this off,” Smith told Balber. “It’s just a situation where you didn’t make a case. We all feel the greatest disinfectant in politics is sunshine, not laws.”

Smith said the city should be diligent in upholding current conflict-of-interest laws and should close loopholes in campaign funding provided by unknown committees that influence elections.

The council could discuss further regulations later this spring.

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