Several Area Cities Targeted for Campaign Reform Drive

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Los Angeles Times

Led by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a new organization is launching a campaign in Santa Monica, Pasadena, Claremont and three other California cities to change the way races for public offices are financed.

Under the terms of initiatives that the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights hopes to place on next year’s ballot in the six cities, elected officials would not be allowed to receive campaign contributions from individuals or organizations that receive a “public benefit” from the city–such as contracts, zoning easements or redevelopment deals.

“What we’re talking about here is going after local corruption at its roots,” said foundation President Harvey Rosenfield, who achieved statewide prominence in the successful campaign for the insurance reform initiative Proposition 103 in 1988. “By cleaning up the process in these cities at its most fundamental level, we’re trying to restore integrity in government.”

Bill Gallagher, an organizer for the nonprofit foundation, says he has consulted with a number of legal scholars and believes that the initiatives, dubbed by backers the “Taxpayer Protection Amendment 2000,” will pass constitutional muster. Gallagher added he expects Nader to campaign for the measures.

Signature collection to place the measures on the November ballot starts this month in the Los Angeles-area cities and in Vista, San Francisco and Irvine. The cities have been selected to represent a wide range of political persuasions, and if the initiatives are successful, Gallagher said, they may become the model for a statewide initiative.

The laws would bar elected officials, for two years after their term expires, from receiving campaign funds or gifts from any entities that had received a “public benefit”–defined as payments for services of more than $ 25,000, tax abatements, exemptions from master plans, purchase or sale of city property valued at more than $ 25,000, or an exclusive business franchise valued at more than $ 50,000.

The text of the proposed initiative is silent on whether municipal unions would be covered by the new laws. Gallagher said that the measure does not take a stance on that issue and that a court would make that determination.

“These initiatives will be groundbreaking ways to clean up corrupt politics at the city level,” said Nader in a statement. “When citizens read about them, they’ll be hard-put to oppose them.”

But Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser, stressing that he supports campaign finance reforms and public financing of races, criticized the proposal for banning contributions only after public benefits have been secured.

“It sounds to me like they’re using a sledgehammer and missing the nail,” he said, adding that he had not yet read the proposal.

A few Southern California cities have narrower versions of similar laws dating from the 1970s, said Bob Stern, an attorney who wrote the state’s ethics laws. But the policies have not spread.

“Public officials are not going to vote for this,” Stern said. “Tightening up on people who are doing business with the city makes a lot of sense and restricting contributions from people doing business with the city seems quite obvious.”

But Claremont Mayor Karen Rosenthal, who spent only $ 6,000 on her last campaign, questioned why her city of 35,000 needs such a law.

“It’s absurd to include a town where campaigns cost less than $ 10,000 and contributions are mostly at $ 100 or less,” Rosenthal said. “A special election would cost us $ 40,000 we cannot spare.

“It is ludicrous to force a city like Claremont into this issue,” she said.

Several of the targeted cities have seen campaign contributions from contractors become an issue.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown won reelection this week over a surprisingly strong campaign by challenger Tom Ammiano, who questioned deals that Brown backers have won with City Hall.

This year, Pasadena’s first mayoral election became the most expensive election in city history, and contributions to Councilman Chris Holden became front-page news after Holden championed a project to bring a Rite Aid store to northwest Pasadena with the assistance of city funds while receiving $ 7,500 from businesses that would have benefited from the deal.

And in Irvine, the council has come under fire for its closeness to the city’s trash hauler, Waste Management Inc.

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, who made Holden’s donations a theme of his successful campaign, declined to comment on the initiative until he could read it. But he said: “Many of the people in Pasadena are concerned about the costs of political campaigns and potential favorable treatment from politicians for large contributors. Whether this is constructive solution or good provision remains to be seen.”

Consumer Watchdog
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