Panel Restricts Perks for Officials

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Ethics Commission Tightens Rules on Municipal Employees Accepting Tickets to Concerts, Sport Events.

SACRAMENTO, CA — A seat on the City Council in Anaheim and other municipalities no longer means an unrestricted supply of free tickets and luxury-box seats for baseball games and concerts, after the state ethics agency acted Thursday to curb such perks.

But the Fair Political Practices Commission decided not to put new regulations on campaign accounts operated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials.

The clampdown on tickets was approved after the panel received complaints from residents that Anaheim City Council members and city employees have been given hundreds of free tickets. They included luxury-box seats for games at Angel Stadium, Ducks hockey games at Honda Center and rock concerts at the Grove of Anaheim theater as part of the leases of the city-owned venues. In Pasadena, 2,100 grandstand seats for the Rose Parade are provided free to the mayor and other city officials.

"There has been clearly a potential for abuse and viewing these as open-ended perquisites and entitlements," said commission chairman Ross Johnson, "and our hope is we will rein that in fairly dramatically."

The new rules apply to cities, counties and fair boards that own sports venues and concert halls that provide tickets to the agencies for distribution to elected officials and other government employees.

With two exceptions, the new rules bar government officials from accepting tickets worth more than $420 in a year from a single source, because it is a gift. Tickets would not be considered gifts if the officials’ attendance at the event was deemed by the government agency to serve a public purpose, or if the official accepted the tickets as taxable income.

The public agency is required to post on its website who is using the tickets and what events were attended, and to provide an explanation of the public purpose served by attendance.

The new rules "should reduce the number of tickets, because some will have to be considered gifts that weren’t before," said Carmen Balber of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog.

Anaheim, Pasadena and other cities argued that attending a sporting event or the Rose Parade serves a public purpose in allowing the government official to see how the city-owned venue is operating. That exception may be widely exploited, Balber asserted.

Cristina Talley, an attorney for Anaheim, declined to say how much the new rules might reduce the use of free tickets. The mayor and city manager did not return calls seeking comment.

Michael Martello, an attorney for the League of California Cities, argued that the rules will provide "a significant amount" of transparency and accountability.

"It will, for the first time, require both the agency and the official to account for and report the distribution and use of the tickets in a very prominent fashion on the agency’s website," Martello said, adding that it "imposes significant limitations" on the number of tickets that can be distributed.

In a separate matter, the commission Thursday took no action on a proposal to restrict the use of some political funds operated by Schwarzenegger and other politicians, after attorneys for the governor said the proposals were unconstitutional. The funds, which are not subject to state contribution limits, are for ballot-measure campaigns.

For example, Schwarzenegger controls a committee called the California Dream Team that has raised millions of dollars to support measures such as Proposition 11, which voters passed last month to change the way legislative districts are drawn. Critics, including Balber, say some such committees have spent money on other matters that benefit the politicians who control them.

Faced with warnings that the new rules might not stand up to a court challenge, the commission decided to look at alternatives.

Speaking generally about such committees, Johnson said, "They have been used as slush funds for elected officials."

The panel acted on a third measure, requiring material put out at taxpayer expense on ballot measures to be "fair and impartial." The ruling follows complaints that Los Angeles County officials provided brochures and radio ads that highlighted the benefits of a transit tax on the November ballot, while stopping short of urging a "yes."

McGreevy is a Times staff writer. [email protected]

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