Citizen’s Agenda Week 6: Should City Council Members Limit Donations from Developers and Vendors?

Mon, Feb 13, 2017   By Staff    7 Comments

election 2017, west hollywood city council
Earlier this month WEHOville asked West Hollywood residents what issues they wanted candidates in the March 7 City Council election to address. We received hundreds of responses and boiled them down to 11 key issues. We have asked each of the ten candidates in the election to offer his or her positions on these issues. On each Monday through Feb. 20 we will publish one or two of the questions and the candidates’ responses.

10) The majority of the money that funds city council campaigns traditionally comes from out-of-town developers, billboard companies and city vendors. As a candidate, and later as a council member, will you:

a) Publicly set a limit on the amount of money you will take from any specific developer or billboard company, including in that limit money from members of that donor’s immediate family, co-workers, lawyers and lobbyists?

b) Recuse yourself, if elected, from debating or voting on issues before the council involving city vendors who have donated to your election campaign or to charitable organizations and institutions where you work or on whose board of directors you sit ?

CYNTHIA BLATT

In answer to question sections a) and b), the answer is yes. Yes, I would set the limits laid out above. And yes, I would recuse myself as stated above. We have seen in the last several elections that the amount of money contributed to incumbents through both independent expenditure committees and direct $500 campaign contributions by families, friends and employees of developers, right down to gardeners has dwarfed the honest efforts of challengers to raise funds sufficient to mount effective challenges.

Cynthia J. Blatt (Photo by Dennis Trantham)

We have then seen the approval of projects out of scale with the neighborhoods into which they are being built. We have seen the violation of our General Plan requirements in order to allow such things as the destruction of rent stabilized housing and small businesses to allow an extraordinarily expensive, academically excellent private school to do nothing more than expand its playground while not increasing the size of their student body or offering any scholarships to the children of West Hollywood, in fact, providing no public benefit to the citizens of West Hollywood. And we have seen a number of other egregious behaviors that, at the very least, give the appearance of impropriety.

This ability to contribute so much money to support campaigns derives from the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. State and local laws can be more restrictive than federal laws; they just can’t be less restrictive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars filling the coffers of incumbents is simply too much in a city of this size. It is too seductive. And it is not possible to guarantee campaigns run on the issues when incumbents are provided with such easy money. It may just be too difficult for some to avoid the “quid pro quo.” And the answer has to be more than a pledge. The answer has to be a measure passed by city council to limit the amounts taken in from any specific developer or billboard company, including in that limit money from members of that donor’s immediate family, co-workers, lawyers and lobbyists and for council members to recuse themselves from debating or voting on issues before the council involving city vendors who have donated to the election campaigns or to charitable organizations and institutions where they work or on whose boards of directors they may sit.

And in order to establish focus on the issues rather than on massive mailers and hired walkers and phone bank “volunteers,” I propose that the city hold multiple actual debates, where candidates interact with each other for longer than 90 seconds at a shot. In this way, each debate could focus on one topic, so the public could actually draw opinions based on the candidates’ responses.

We need to help incumbents help themselves and we need to be vigilant concerning our own moral compasses. So, if I am so fortunate as to be elected to city council, my pledge is to introduce the measure that I propose above.

NATE CLARK

Nate Clark

Absolutely yes to both a) and b). We must do everything we can to limit such contributions and remove these enormous amounts of money from our local elections.

There are several council members whose judgment is questioned because they receive massive contributions from developers. If we withdraw that money from the process, then ethical questions about their intentions or motives should disappear. We need to enact campaign finance reform at the local level by any means possible.

I’m disheartened by the way our city has allowed our local elections to be “bought.” Much of the conversation focuses on who has raised the most money, and that’s not the way democracy is supposed to work. It’s time to elect representatives who care more about serving the city than they do about raising money. It’s time to return West Hollywood to the people who live here.

MICHAEL CAUTILLO

Yes. I will publicly set a limit on the amount of money I will take from a developer, and I would recuse myself from voting on issues involving those that contributed to my campaign. This is a major issue of this campaign and I am pledging NOW that I have not received ANY money from developers. I have learned during this campaign that certain incumbents have been able to circumvent the individual limit on campaign contributions of $500 to candidate by having the developers’ donations funneled through multiple immediate family members, attorneys and other sources. This has allowed certain current candidates in this race to accept tens of thousands of dollars from a single developer.

Michael Cautillo

The immediate result of this behavior: candidates supported by these large developers are able to maintain campaign office spaces, flood our mailboxes and phones with campaign flyers and phone calls and make it difficult for residents to hear the voices of the other candidates over the noise of the incumbents and the developers who want to use our Urban Village as a pure source of profit for themselves.

This begs the question: why would an incumbent need hundreds of thousands of dollars to win a seat on the council in our tiny community of 35,000 residents when they have held office in West Hollywood for 20 to 30 years? If you have the support of the voters because you are doing a good job, your work over three decades should speak for itself ,and you should be able to win reelection on your merits. Clearly, this is not the case in West Hollywood and has not been the case for over 10 years.

What does the payback look like? Oversized concrete, steel and glass buildings with underground garages that are littering our neighborhood and ruining the character and charm of our town.

The existing zoning and project approval system in West Hollywood allows developers to give political contributions to city officials in return for approval of their large development projects, which increases traffic, ruins West Hollywood’s integrity, and results in the eviction of residents—including senior citizens and low-income households. Addressing campaign contributions is one of the best ways to fix systemic corruption at City Hall.

I also propose the following:

— A ban on zoning that lifts land-use restrictions or increases permitted building heights;
— A ban on zoning changes that increase the allowed density or height of buildings;
— A ban on development projects that net loss of land dedicated to open space, agriculture, or industry.
— A ban on project-specific amendments to the city’s general plan
— A requirement that the city’s general plan go through a public review process every five years
— And public hearings during this review period to take place in the evening or on weekends to increase accessibility.

Just last week, one of West Hollywood’s largest developers and biggest political campaign contributors, announced plans to build a nine-story hotel in place of a single-story restaurant and retail space. The current council, including those who are accepting significant contributions from this developer, will decide the fate of yet another precious piece of our Urban Village. How do you think they will vote?

JOHN DURAN

a) The City of West Hollywood has a very low campaign donation limit of $500 per person. By comparison, Los Angeles has a donation limit of $1,300 per person. And the City of Palm Springs has no limit at all on what a donor can give candidates.

John Duran

John Duran

Five hundred dollars from any one person or company is so low that no further limit is needed. My campaign finance reports are public record. And contrary to the assertion in the question, the majority of my money is not from developers, billboard companies or city vendors. The majority of my donors are from relationships that I have acquired over the past 30 years in politics. My donors are LGBT activists, attorneys, labor unions, environmental activists, Hollywood industry workers and personal friends.

b) No. Non-profit organizations are necessary partners in any community for educaiton, the arts, health care and the protection of constitutional rights. I believe that every elected official or business/labor leader should attempt to sit on non-profit boards as a form of public service.

The only requirement is that there be no direct compensation that flows back to that person or his/her family. The non-profit boards that I have sat on like the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Van Ness Recovery House, Equality California, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (to name a few) do incredible amounts of good work for the benefit, protection and health of the people in the City of West Hollywood. I hope that more people in the community, whether individuals or businesses, will give generously of their time and money to each of these non-profits and the many others who serve our people.

As for city vendors, very few of the hundreds that exist on council agendas ever give to council campaigns. And those that do give are limited to $500 per company. The only basis for recusal from a vote is a direct conflict such as a financial interest in the vendor (I have none) or a bias unrelated to city goverment.

AMANDA GOODWIN

No response.

JOHN HEILMAN

John Heilman

a) The City already has campaign contribution limits. No individual or entity is permitted to contribute more than $500 to a political campaign. I believe that limit is appropriate.

b) State law already provides extensive rules with respect to conflicts of interest. I have always abided by them and will continue to do so in the future. The premise of this question is that entities who have contracts with the city contribute extensively to political campaigns. In reality, very few vendors make political donations. A better approach to this issue is to prohibit vendors from contributing to campaigns when their contracts are up for renewal and for a set period of time after a contract is awarded.

 

 

 

 

STEVE MARTIN

The limits for campaign contributions are currently set at $500; if elected I would not lean on corporate contributors and developers from “bundling” contributions, which is the practice of soliciting or collecting maximum contributions from spouses, children and associates such as attorneys, accountants or employees. The number of Beverly Hills “homemakers” who are contributing to the incumbents’ war chest in this race is embarrassing; this is simply a transparent but legal way to undermine our campaign limitations.

West Hollywood City Council candidate Steve Martin

Steve Martin

What is embarrassing is the “progressive” incumbents who have created these limits are the very ones actively undermining the “reforms” they have so piously enacted. While I am not sure what can be legally done to restrict such contributions, I know the best practice is for council members to act ethically and within both the spirit as well as the letter of law. It is very difficult for the public to believe that council members are not influenced by political contributions when you have major developers such as Townscape, which invested $20,000 to re-elect the incumbents in 2015.

Even worse are the “independent” expenditure campaigns that are not subject to any sorts of contribution limitations. In this race at least three such entities are funneling tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to the incumbents. These campaigns are relatively new fixtures to our political culture and are seldom “independent.” In 2015 council member John Duran raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the re-election of John Heilman and Lindsay Horvath; solicitations by a sitting council member should be criminal as they are simply a legalized form of extortion. Unfortunately you can’t have ethical government when you have ethically challenged elected officials.

I would follow John D’Amico’s practice of informing the public of all contributions received prior to any vote when their issues are before city council. The problem with recusing yourself from contributors would logically mean I could not vote on numerous issues where residents have contributed to my campaign. I will avoid seeking charitable or political contributions outside of my election. I will not be a board member of any other organization to avoid potential conflicts of interest; furthermore, in my experience, if you are a good council member you don’t have time to serve on other boards.

CARLA ROMO

Carla Romo

a) I take pride in running a grassroots campaign. My donations are from my neighbors, friends and family. I do not support special interest groups, like developers, donating to City Council campaigns. This creates a statement that council members are bought out for the interests of that group. If elected, I will always represent the citizens of West Hollywood first.

b) I am not accepting any donations from special interest groups. If elected I will vote on issues that pertain to West Hollywood residents without having influence from outsiders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joel Quaresimo

JOEL QUARESIMO

I am self funding my campaign. I am only beholden to the citizens of West Hollywood.

REED STILLWELL

Reed Stilwell

My answer to this week’s question is short as can be. Yes and Yes. Let’s acknowledge that the first question can only be answered in good faith and intent, as sometimes you may receive contributions not knowing the indirect ties to said outside influences.

I think this hits that nerve we’ve been piping up about over the last few months. It’s nearly impossible to have an even playing field when outside interests are pumping incumbents’ pockets full of cash.

And, it’s also hard to earn endorsements when certain clubs know where all that cash pumped into the campaign pockets goes, once the election is over. Odds are likely that they will see a cut of that green, if they chose to back the winning horse. Can’t we call bull on this already?

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7 Comments

  1. Jim C.Mon, Feb 13, 2017 at 8:15 am

    Apparently one of our incumbents misunderstood the second question. I don’t believe that the question was posed as to whether or not councilmembers should be allowed to sit on boards of non-profits. I do agree that it is important for elected officials to support non-profit causes in which they believe, then it is up to their own ethics and the public to ‘keep them honest’ when it comes to awarding grants to these efforts. As the founder of a new non-profit organization, I can give testimony to the fact that building municipal support is extremely difficult – even more so in cities outside Weho, as L.A. etc tends to take the ethics outlined in A.B.1230 – and required as annual training for city officials much more word for word than do most of our elected officials.

    As for the independent expenditure campaigns mentioned in Mr. Martin’s answers above, perhaps Wehoville needs to ask that question specifically – if the candidates would limit the size of the contributions allowed or even eliminate the allowance of those donations to city campaigns and elections. As asked, there is just too much ‘wiggle room’ about donations. I don’t pretend to be an expert in election finance, if I was I would probably have run, that said, I think that Wehoville would do a great public service by explaining exactly what these are, how they work and ask how candidates would handle them as I think that was part of the purpose of this question in the first place. I hate to make more work for you Hank, but ‘the people deserve to know’ and as long as it comes from a candidate, the information is subject to denial and discounting as mere campaign tactics.

  2. Rudolf MartinMon, Feb 13, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Steve Martin is literally right on the money.

    “Independent expenditure campaigns” and PACs such as John Duran’s ironically named “Friends of West Hollywood” are the elephants in the room, a one stop shop for out of town developers, their law firms and associates and some city contractors to legally “buy” a council office.

    Both main beneficiaries of this murky pool of donations (Mr. Heilman and Mr. Duran) managed to answer the question as if the elephants in the room didn’t exist.

  3. David ReidMon, Feb 13, 2017 at 10:27 am

    “A better approach to this issue is to prohibit vendors from contributing to campaigns when their contracts are up for renewal and for a set period of time after a contract is awarded.” – John Heilman. So 33 years (minus a two month hiatus) and he is NOW just suggesting this? Why hasn’t this been the case since day one.
    Mr. Duran is once Trumping, grabbing facts without back up. He states that the City of LA can have $1300 donations. Not the case. $700 is the limit (a big error? well, if you consider the percentage is almost 100% off, yes, it is. If the city has a run off another $700 can go in that race, still not the figure plucked from the sky by the incumbent.
    People are finally aware of the money spree of the past six years. Its gone on longer than that, but the latest $200 million plus for the robogarage and the Taj Mahal being erected at WeHo Park is finally getting voters attention. If you go to the city website and look at the money being donated… http://ssl.netfile.com/Pub2/AllFilingsByFiler.aspx?id=162978513
    Yet less than 20% of the voters vote.

  4. Larry BlockTue, Feb 14, 2017 at 11:29 am

    It would be nice if we had publicly financed elections but we don’t and there is no question that donations from city vendors and contractors should be prohibited.

  5. taiestebanTue, Feb 14, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    Part (a) of the question poses a slippery slope for new faces to enter a race. While I admire those who self-fund in the name of being beholden to the public, it’s virtually impossible to win an election (unless you self-fund $100,000!) without many people contributing.

    Here’s a thought: Why not limit company/family contributions to $1,000? That is, if a commercial developer contributes $500 and their partner contributes $500, then that’s the max allotment. That way, it curbs limitless contributions from any one company/family.

    Alternatively, several LA City Council members, including Mike Bonin, have suggested that the LA City provide a set fund for individuals who want to run for office, so that everyone is on the same playing field. That means, no outside contributions. I like this concept in theory and want to explore more equitable approaches so that new faces can have equal footing.

  6. KayceeTue, Feb 14, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    There appears to be a serious disconnect between the residents of WeHo and the City lawmakers recently. A large part of this comes from concerns about the amounts and types of development going on, and the perception that council members are heavily influenced by developers who are not interested in the impact these projects may have on local residents. For the sake of transparency and to avoid any question of impropriety, why not just go ahead and prohibit those donations from developers and contractors and their families?

  7. MichaelFri, Feb 17, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    @taiestevan: “company/family contributions to $1,000? That is, if a commercial developer contributes $500 and their partner contributes $500, then that’s the max allotment.”

    This is and has been the limit for some time in West Hollywood.

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