LOS ANGELES – Voters in six California cities will get a chance next month to pass pioneer reforms aimed at ending any special-interest influence on local decision-making.
Using only volunteer petition carriers, allies of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader gathered 50,000 signatures last summer to qualify local ballot initiatives in the six cities, all liberal-leaning. The identical measures would bar city officials from taking campaign contributions, gifts or job offers from entities to whom their cities have given a “public benefit” during their term in office and for two years afterward.
Public benefits are defined as contracts for services, tax abatements, exemptions from master plans, purchases of city property and exclusive business franchises. To fall under these rules, any franchise, tax break, planning or zoning decision would have to have a value of $50,000 associated with it. So cable TV companies, for example, often among the largest contributors to local election campaigns, could no longer donate to most candidates.
The measure is on the ballot in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Claremont, Irvine, Vista and Pasadena, but it has been most controversial in ultraliberal Santa Monica, where people claiming to be progressives hold the city council majority but fought to prevent Mr. Nader and his chief California ally from placing a pro-initiative argument into the sample ballot booklet.
Designed by the Nader-affiliated Oaks Project, the measures essentially would forbid elected or appointed city officials from working for or accepting contracts from anyone doing business with their cities while they were in office, for two years after they left, or if they stay in office, for six years after the benefit occurred.
That’s overkill, and it focuses on the irrelevant, opponents complain. “I think it’s absurd,” said Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser, a 12-year City Council veteran whose campaigns always have been backed heavily by a renters’ rights group, though the council often makes decisions related to rent control.
He claimed intersections between local government and special interests usually come over policy issues, which he insisted the proposed reforms won’t touch.
“The problems you see come in things like smoking in restaurants or the size of buildings that are allowed in the city, not contracts,” Mr. Genser said.
But Harvey Rosenfield, Mr. Nader’s chief California associate and the author of several statewide ballot initiatives, said those who apply for building permits and contracts “often do so only after policy is determined. If they shape the policy, it will almost always be to benefit themselves.”
In San Francisco, business interests say the measure goes too far. “Essentially, this would require individuals who do business with local government, or whose enterprises are regulated by local agencies, to forfeit their right to support candidates for office with campaign contributions,” said Fred Lowell, a lawyer who has helped business interests challenge other campaign finance restrictions. “This provision would be subject to a constitutional attack.
But backers say passage of the measure in at least some of the cities involved is vital to send a message to national politicians. “We’re saying that contracted-out democracy doesn’t have to be the rule of the day,” said Bill Gallagher, Oaks Project director. “We want to make sure votes are not traded for dollars. Every day, local politicians are faced with decisions that are decided not on what’s best for citizens but on what is best for financing their future campaigns.”
Opponents argue that safeguards against corruption already are in place in all the cities involved. In Santa Monica, for example, campaign contributions are limited to $250 per person or company per election cycle.
But the argument for the measure, included in the ballot pamphlet, reads: “This will ban politicians from taking money, gifts or jobs from businesses that get city contracts, special tax breaks and special land deals from those same politicians. That is how it should be.”