Los Angeles City Council Advances Ethics Reform for November Ballot

Los Angeles City Council Advances Ethics Reform for November Ballot

Los Angeles City Hall on Dec. 28, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

City News Service

City News Service

5/16/2024

Updated: 5/16/2024

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LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles City Council this week amended and approved a series of proposed ethics-related changes to the City Charter that are expected to go before voters in November.
Council members voted unanimously May 14 to bolster the Ethics Commission, make it more independent and enhance its enforcement powers. Council members also amended four provisions of the proposal in a 13–2 vote—with Councilwoman Nithya Raman and Council President Paul Krekorian opposing those.
As part of the item, council members also approved creating a Charter Reform Commission, which would be tasked with reviewing the entirety of the charter, and updating specific areas as referred to them by the Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform and the City Council.
The commission would have 13 members, including four appointed by the mayor, two appointed by the council president and another two appointed by the council president pro tempore. The eight appointed members would then begin an application process and develop criteria to appoint the remaining members. The five additional members would be subject to council approval.
The council instructed city staff to ensure funding for the commission and staffing needs in the 2024-25 fiscal budget.
The ethics reform proposal was developed in partnership with Mr. Krekorian’s office, the Ethics Commission, and representatives of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Highlights include a proposed $6.5 million annual budget that would be funded through city revenue, updated fines for violating ethics laws from $5,000 per fine to $15,000 per fine, and allowing the Ethics Commission to retain its own legal counsel.
Prior to the vote, Mr. Krekorian thanked the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform, which he chairs, for advancing “very important steps” to begin the process of restoring the public’s confidence in city government. The council also recently approved a ballot measure to create an Independent Redistricting Commission—a first for Los Angeles.
Mr. Krekorian said the Charter Reform Commission was “long overdue,” and hopes it will mark the start of a regular process of review.
Council members Hugo Soto-Martinez, Eunisses Hernandez and Imelda Padilla introduced amendments to the proposal.
Mr. Soto-Martinez’s amendments altered the provision that would allow the Ethics Commission to hire amid hiring freezes, “unless the City Council makes findings of exigent circumstances.” He also gave the City Council 180 days to hold a public hearing of any approved policy recommendation made by the commission—the provision previously allowed any recommendations made by the commission to take effect without council approval.
Ms. Hernandez’s amendment required that any appointments to the commission by the mayor, council president and pro tempore will be subject to the City Council’s approval, which is similar to the existing procedures for appointees.
Both council members also eliminated a provision to expand the Ethics Commission to seven members instead of five, citing concerns of how power dynamics may negatively impact the entity.
“The first issue I have is with empowering the commission to place measures or to have a process to put measures directly on the ballot,” Mr. Soto-Martinez said. “I say this because as a council member, we are entrusted by our constituents to make these decisions.”
Ms. Padilla’s amendment was intended to increase the scope of public engagement related to the work of the Charter Reform Commission. Specifically, the councilwoman wants to encourage neighborhood councils to participate, or at least 60 percent to do so.
The proposed changes to the City Charter would need to be approved by voters. The Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance was created in November 2022 after a leaked recording in which three council members were caught discussing ways to redraw districts in their favor.
While the proposal has garnered support from some council members, government groups such as CA Clean Money, League of Women Voters of LA, RepresentUs LA, Unrig LA, and Common Cause LA have urged even stronger ethics reform.
These groups support an increase to the minimum budget the Ethics Commission would receive, a provision to force the City Council to act on reform and empower the commission to place ordinances on the ballot. They also oppose the provision that the mayor, council president and pro tempore appoint members to the commission, saying it should be independent and more similar to the Independent Redistricting Commission that’s tasked with setting boundaries for the city’s districts.
Similar to their recommendation for the Ethics Commission, the group is calling on the council to empower the charter reform entity to place proposals directly on the ballot for voters to decide.
“Please define ‘exigent circumstances.’ A finding should only be permitted if the city has declared a fiscal emergency,” Caroline Goodman of the League of Women Voters of LA told the council. “If the Ethics Commission makes a recommendation and the full council—not a committee—fails to act within the required window then the recommendation must become law.”
Rob Quan of Unrig LA, an organization focused on money in politics and representative government in the city, criticized the council for allowing members Curren Price and John Lee, who both face accusations of violating ethics laws, to vote on the item. He also called Mr. Soto-Martinez and Ms. Hernandez' motions “short sighted.”
A representative for Mr. Lee told City News Service that the councilman did not need to recuse himself, and did not elaborate further. Mr. Price’s office was advised by the City Attorney’s Office that he did not need to recuse from the item either.
“This council has gone 1,623 days without addressing corruption with a reform in law. We have four council members indicted in that time,” Mr. Quan said. “That speaks for itself.”
He added, “Our Ethics Commission is being referred to as ‘unaccountable.’ How many of them have been arrested? This policy proposal, thanks to the amendments being proposed would provide zero consequences for council not acting.”
Three former City Council members have been indicted for charges related to corruption, among other crimes: Mark Ridley-Thomas, Jose Huizar, and Mitch Englander. Mr. Price is currently facing charges of theft by embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest—and has vehemently maintained his innocence and denies any wrongdoing.
Mr. Price also faces accusations of 21 violations of city ethics laws for voting on several projects and other matters connected to his wife, Del Richardson Price.
Last year, the Ethics Commission accused Mr. Lee of violating governmental ethics laws by allegedly accepting and failing to report excessive gifts, including some received during a trip to Las Vegas in 2017 he took with Englander, who pleaded guilty in 2020 to lying to federal investigators looking into his alleged receipt of excessive cash and gifts.
Mr. Lee was Englander’s chief of staff prior to being elected to the City Council. The councilman has also maintained his innocence.
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