Leveling LA's Political Playing Field for the People

By Dennis Hathaway

Gil Garcetti, the former chairman of the City Ethics Commission, called it "the biggest ethical challenge facing Los Angeles." City councilman Bill Rosendahl said that it "strangulates the public policy debate" and "impacts dramatically how politicians react."

What were they talking about? Money. The millions of dollars poured into city election campaigns by people and businesses with deep financial interests in city affairs. A system widely regarded as not only corrupting our democratic processes, but contributing to low voter turnout and making it difficult for worthy candidates, including women and minorities, to run for public office.

But now, nearly three years after a "clean money" system of full public financing of election campaigns was introduced by Rosendahl and fellow Councilmembers Wendy Gruel and Eric Garcetti, neighborhood councils are being asked to gather community input and weigh in on the issue. Workshops are being held throughout the city to educate stakeholders about clean money systems in effect in other states and cities, and to gather feedback to give to the city council on implementing such a system here.

This issue should be of particular interest to neighborhood councils, because many, if not most, people active in local issues feel that their voices are often drowned out by those of the special interests that fill the campaign coffers of elected officials, and hire the army of lobbyists that patrol the corridors of city hall. Imagine an elected official beholden, not to deep-pocketed interests, but to the taxpayers of the city, and the stakeholders of the neighborhood councils.

In addition to the clean money system sponsored by Rosendahl, Garcetti, and Gruel, a second system has been put forward by the City Ethics Commission. The details of how these systems work varies, but the central idea is the same-after raising a baseline amount of money, candidates who opt for public financing cannot take any private contributions to their campaigns. In systems now in place in such states as Arizona and Connecticut, and cities like Portland, Oregon, candidates are also required to appear in regular public forums to debate the issues communities care about.

Even though such systems are voluntary, states like Arizona that have experienced clean money through several election cycles have found that more and more candidates opt for public financing. It levels the playing field, and allows candidates to focus on meeting with the public and discussing issues instead of attending a never-ending round of fundraising events. With more candidates able to run, races for offices have become more competitive, which in turn has significantly increased voter turnout.

Feedback gathered at the neighborhood council workshops conducted by volunteers from the California Clean Money campaign will be collated and sent to the city council's Rules and Elections Committee. Barring unforeseen developments, the full city council will be debating the issue later this year, or early next year. Because a "clean money" system requires a change to the city charter, it must be put before the voters, and the soonest that could happen would be at the June, 2009, municipal election.

The neighborhood council workshops give stakeholders a unique opportunity to learn how clean money systems work in other areas and how one might work in Los Angeles. Too often in the past, the city council has bypassed the neighborhood councils when it suits them, but in this case it is actually asking for input.

Garcetti, in a Daily News interview, said, ""The whole appearance of whether there is a conflict of interest by an elected official is based on money. We have the means to change that, but we have to make the case to the public." That case is now put before neighborhood councils, and stakeholders should take every advantage of the opportunity to hear about it, and make their voices heard. (More on California Clean Money at caclean.org . Cartoon first published on California Clean Money Campaign site) (Dennis Hathaway is a community activist and a political observer. Hathaway is a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council Land Use and Planning Committee and a contributor to CityWatch.) _

Vol 6 Issue 30
Published: Apr 11, 2008

See the article on CityWatch LA website

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