The Citizens Agenda: WeHo City Council Candidates on Campaign Finance Reform

election 2015, west hollywood city council candidates
Candidates, right to left, are John Allendorfer, Larry Block, John D’Amico, Brian Funnagan, Joe Guardarrama, John Heilman, Lindsey Horvath, Lauren Meister, Matthew Ralston, James “Duke” Mason, Christopher Landavazo and Tristan Schukraft

Today ten of 12 candidates in the March 3 election for three seats on the West Hollywood City Council offer their responses to questions raised by West Hollywood residents about campaign finance reform and Council ethics (two  candidates,  Christopher Landavazo and Tristan Schukraft, did not respond). Each week through Feb. 23 we will publish one or more questions raised by readers of WEHOville and the candidates’ responses. Candidates spoke to their qualifications for the Council on Jan. 12 and addressed traffic concerns on Jan. 14. They explained their positions on parking issues on Jan. 19 and on pedestrian safety on Jan. 26. On Feb. 2 candidates spoke to questions about development and historic preservation.

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?

JOHN ALLENDORFER

Yes

LARRY BLOCK

I would like to reform the whole system of financing our local elections. Stop the revolving door. Eliminate the influence of lobbyists by not allowing candidates to accept donations from lobbyists and city contractors. And set verified limit donations for any corporation, lawyers office or family to, say, $1,000 per entity. That means going back and raising the amount any single individual can give to the previous amount of $1,000. The City Council previously voted to limit individual donations to $500 while they did nothing to change the flow of dollars from contractors and lobbyists. This gives incumbents a large money advantage. It’s time to level the playing field.

JOHN D’AMICO

The current limit is $500 per person. A candidate can choose to not accept donations from anyone. And there are many companies and developers that I have not accepted donations from during this race. We don’t like it, but the Supreme Court has ruled that donations are free speech, and we cannot limit free speech. I think the better solution is disclosure at the time of voting. I started this practice in West Hollywood, and immediately there was acknowledgement that the process is fairer and more open. And soon Councilmember Duran followed. Councilmember Heilman has not.

Donation disclosure should be a requirement. And with the right people on the Council we can pass that legislation and immediately begin the discussion about campaign funding. We need to elect people who are interested in using their Council seats and their offices to promote openness and fairness.

The next step is to require disclosure of donations over $500 sought by Council members for outside organizations. For too many years council members have been using their offices and positions as fundraising seats for their own workplace or their favorite organizations, and there is no requirement to disclose that information.

Once we have comprehensive donation and fundraising reform and real-time disclosure, a new level of discourse and integrity will enter the decision-making process.

BRIAN FUNNAGAN

In the wake of Citizens United, big money is playing a bigger role in American politics perhaps since the Gilded Age. We need to listen to wiser and populist voices among us, such as Elizabeth Warren.

Yes is the answer and it needs to be across the board for all candidates and incumbents.

JOE GUARDARRAMA

The public limit for any individual campaign donation in West Hollywood is $500. The limit previously was $1,000 per person, but during my tenure on the Campaign Finance Reform Committee we successfully cut it in half in an effort to reduce undue the influence of large individual donations. While we can’t single out specific groups to limit donations from, I would absolutely support further reduction of the campaign contribution limit. Additionally, we could go to a system, similar to that of the City of Los Angeles, where candidates receive public matching funds if they agree to overall spending limits.

There is much that can be done to limit the influence of outside money. Unfortunately, the given the high cost of running a winning campaign in this city, particularly for challengers, candidates have virtually no viable option other than accepting money from outside sources if they want to competitive and have their message reach every voter.

JOHN HEILMAN

There is already a limit on how much money individuals or entities can donate to City Council races: $500.

LINDSEY HORVATH

I think we need to set a limit on the amount of money spent on elections overall, not just from certain kinds of contributors. Beverly Hills sets a limit of $80,000 for individual candidates’ campaigns. Los Angeles provides matching funds for individual contributions. I would like to see West Hollywood consider measures like these to help level the playing field for people who want to be of service to our community.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAVAZO

No response.

JAMES “DUKE” MASON

Yes. I haven’t received any contributions whatsoever from any developers who do business in the city of West Hollywood.

LAUREN MEISTER

Most of my contributions are from residents and local businesses. However, to ask any candidate to put themselves at a disadvantage by agreeing to not accept money while others do is not fair. If you want to fix this loophole, and I do, we need to change the law. If we want to change the law, we need to change who is on the City Council.

I was a member of the 2008 Campaign Finance Reform Committee as was Joe Guadarrama, and while we were able to change the contribution maximum from $1,000 to $500 per individual or company, other recommendations we made to “level the playing field” were modified or not adopted by Council majority. For example:

1) We recommended that candidates/council members may only be allowed to accept donations up to six months after the election, in order to pay off post-election debt. This was changed by the Council after adoption in order to accommodate one Council member.
2) We recommended that state reporting requirements concerning charitable contributions made at the behest of a candidate or elected official be enforced and included with informational packets to candidates and elected officials. This has not been followed in West Hollywood, and we still have yet to see a full list of contributors (and the amounts donated) to the West Hollywood Library Fund or other Council member pet projects.

I’m all for passing legislation, similar to the City of Los Angeles, that places a limit on the aggregate amount of money any individual or entity can give in an election cycle and to restrict contributions from city vendors, contractors, lobbyists, city employees, etc.

MATT RALSTON

Yes I would set the limit at zero for both. Not only is this basic campaign fundraising ethics, but, due to the unfortunate circumstances regarding members of our Council accepting money from the Afriat Group and a plethora of other development companies and financiers, and Ace Outdoor Advertising and some other advertising companies, the city needs someone who will not accept these donations as a symbolic gesture.

Unfortunately the city has been burned in the past, and we see the situation poised to repeat itself, as some of my fellow candidates have been steadily accepting money from developers, financiers, and “students” who have an extra $500 laying around. When I was in college I was lucky if I had $12 for a pizza. Something isn’t right here.

We need to stand up as a city and put a stop to this. I spoke about this at the last Council meeting. I have personally rejected donations from several groups who had ulterior motives. I only accept money from real, actual people.

I’ve made this a central point of my platform. That’s why you should vote for me and not for candidates who are recreating the unfortunate events of the past. This is a huge problem in American politics in general, and unfortunately West Hollywood is no different. This is what we need for progress.

TRISTAN SCHUKRAFT

No response.

b) Refuse to accept donations from a developer or billboard company that works around the campaign donation limit by donating to a so-called “independent campaign fund” that supports your candidacy?

JOHN ALLENDORFER

Yes

LARRY BLOCK

If we raise the amount any individual can donate we can eliminate these independent campaign funds that favor a special interest.

JOHN D’AMICO

I would agree to that.

BRIAN FUNNAGAN

At the risk of repetition, “yes” is the answer, and it needs to be across the board for all candidates and incumbents.

JOE GUARDARRAMA

By law, candidates CANNOT coordinate with Independent Expenditure committees (“IE’s”). This means that IE’s and candidates can’t speak with each other. In many cases, candidates who are the subject of IE campaign don’t want IE’s from sources that they feel are out of synch with their ideologies. My solution to this issue is that mandatory disclosure by Council members prior to public hearings of all contributions be required. I would extend this to disclosure of IE’s made in support of their candidacy by applicants and their lobbyists.

JOHN HEILMAN

The easy answer to this question is “yes.” The problem with the question is that often times a candidate does not know who is donating to an independent expenditure campaign until after the election. How can a candidate refuse to accept donations from a person who contributes to an independent expenditure campaign when the candidate doesn’t know who those individuals are until very late or after the election. In addition, the question assumes that only developers and billboard companies run independent expenditure campaigns. There are individual residents who have created independent expenditure campaigns. There are environmental groups who have independent expenditure campaigns as well as business organizations.

LINDSEY HORVATH

In my last campaign, I returned contributions from a billboard company that I believed was playing dirty. They didn’t have to contribute to an independent expenditure for me to do the right thing. In this election cycle, I recently learned that an independent expenditure was created to support my campaign. Because I cannot coordinate with their efforts, I won’t know who’s contributing to it until reports are filed. Another independent expenditure group exists to support four candidates, including me. Based on the reports I’ve seen, the only person that has contributed to my campaign AND that expenditure is Mr. Zehenni, whose business does not have any active projects with the city. His $500 contribution will help my campaign counter the $40,000 individual contribution to another independent expenditure group that may work against me (or other candidates). I don’t have that kind of money, as a middle class West Hollywood resident fighting to keep the city affordable, so there’s no way I could personally fight that kind of effort.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAVAZO

No response.

JAMES “DUKE” MASON

Yes

LAUREN MEISTER

The problem with independent expenditure committees or Super PACs, whether they are supporting or opposing a candidate, is that they make it that much harder for candidates to communicate to voters. In the next few weeks, our mailboxes will be stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars of mail approved by no political candidate. The efforts of the individual campaigns, like mine, to reach voters directly will literally be lost in the mail.

The developers who are trying to defeat me are pouring tens of thousands of dollars into John Duran’s “Friends of West Hollywood” Super PAC.

Even if a candidate did not want the support of a Super PAC, there is nothing they can do to prevent one from doing whatever it wants. The best we can do is rely on a robust local media, like WEHOville to shine the light on these Super PACs, who is giving them money, and what they are doing to try to influence our city’s elections.

MATT RALSTON

Yes. That’s obviously a shady move, and I wouldn’t think of participating in anything like that. Citizens United is one of the worst things to ever happen to this country. If we want to act like Republicans why don’t we start burning books while we’re at it?

TRISTAN SCHUKRAFT

No response.

c) Recuse yourself, if elected, from debating or voting on issues before the Council involving city vendors who have donated to your election campaign, as is the rule in Santa Monica?

JOHN ALLENDORFER

Yes

LARRY BLOCK

If the finance laws were changed there would not be a reason to ‘recuse’ oneself on a level playing field. But yes, I would be glad to recuse myself on any matter where there was a conflict of interest.

My campaign is mostly self-financed, and I do not like asking people for money. It’s one of the hardest parts of running for office. At the outset of the campaign a nice lady gave me a check for $35, and said “It’s more than I can afford, but I want you to have this for your campaign,” It sat in my pocket for a month because it didn’t feel right. A month or so later I saw this woman at a local restaurant and said “I’ve been walking around with this check and did not feel comfortable cashing it. Thank you but your support is priceless” as I handed her back her check. She replied “I really needed it this month” And from then on I knew my campaign would be based on ideas and not money.

JOHN D’AMICO

I would agree to that. And with the right people on the Council we can pass that legislation.

BRIAN FUNNAGAN

Santa Monica is leading the way on this issue and we should follow that noble lead.

JOE GUARDARRAMA

Yes. As I have said publicly before, I would propose that at Council meetings Council members be required to disclose any campaign contributions that they have received for their own campaigns or solicited for other campaigns from applicants and their lobbyists. If the contributions received or solicited are great enough, I believe that a Council member should be mandated to abstain from voting, so that the public has confidence that their Council has not been unduly influenced by any factors outside of the merits of arguments presented. Furthermore, I would support a reconvening of the city’s Campaign Finance Reform Committee and request that its members develop a plan for a comprehensive campaign finance and governmental ethics reform ordinance.

JOHN HEILMAN

We should explore adopting a policy like the one in Santa Monica.

LINDSEY HORVATH

I will always follow the law and recuse myself from discussions that are legally defined as a conflict of interest. I will also work to make sure that we reform our standards for ethics, as Santa Monica and other cities have, to avoid the perception of unfair influence in our city’s decision-making.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAVAZO

No response.

JAMES “DUKE” MASON

Yes

LAUREN MEISTER

This should be the policy in West Hollywood already. Until it is, I will follow John D’Amico’s lead to disclose any campaign donations made by parties interested in matters coming before the Council, whether they are vendors or developers or otherwise.

On City Council, I plan to be a reliable partner for John D’Amico on ethics reform and agree with the mayor that on this issue, if also elected, Joe Guardarrama will be a reliable partner as well. Joe knows the law, he knows the system, he knows what’s broken and has ideas to fix it.

MATT RALSTON

Luckily this won’t be a problem and it’s kind of embarrassing this would even have to come up. There’s a simple solution: DON’T ACCEPT THEIR MONEY.

TRISTAN SCHUKRAFT

No response.

d) Press city government to require digital filing of campaign donations (now documented on written forms) so that they can more easily be viewed online and can be aggregated into one online database so residents can more easily see who the big donors are?

JOHN ALLENDORFER

Yes

LARRY BLOCK

Yes, guaranteed item to place on agenda.

JOHN D’AMICO

I would agree to that. But I do think disclosure at the time of voting provides an additional layer of transparency that is seen and heard in front of the public. Leaving it up to the community to research online may mean that it remains undone – that people will not or cannot connect the dots. We must open up the process of donations and decision-making to make it completely clear who has interest in the matter before the Council. I believe that would be the most transparent for the public and the process. For 30 years the campaign fundraising machine has been shrouded in secrecy. With the addition of new Council members can come the change we need.

As always I am interested in your thoughts. Give me a call/text too 310.498.5783 or email me at ourweho@me.com

BRIAN FUNNAGAN

That is a duh question. The voters deserve transparency.

JOE GUARDARRAMA

Yes- I would be fully supportive of the digital filings so that the public can get easily accessible, real-time information regarding campaign donations.

JOHN HEILMAN

Digital filing sounds like a good idea except it really works to the disadvantage of candidates who are not well funded who cannot afford to hire a professional treasurer. Campaign disclosure statements are put on line by the City Clerk’s office usually the same day they are filed so all information is readily available to the public.

LINDSEY HORVATH

I support increasing transparency at City Hall across the board, including digital filing of campaign donations. Los Angeles has its own Ethics Commission, which regularly reviews how decisions are made and how campaigns are run in the city. I think a similar body needs to exist in West Hollywood, and we must embrace technology to make sure residents have as much information as possible in real time – not just for elections but also for pending projects and other city efforts.

CHRISTOPHER LANDAVAZO

No response.

JAMES “DUKE” MASON

Yes.

LAUREN MEISTER

Online filing is easier for both the public and for candidates and I support making it the rule for the city in future elections. Most successful campaigns in West Hollywood are raising more than the $25,000 threshold the state of California sets for requiring online filing. We should at least hold ourselves to the state’s low standard.

When I talk to voters about development issues in West Hollywood and buildings growing bigger and taller, faster, my message is, “Let the Sunshine In.” We love West Hollywood for its sunshine and its scenery — especially those of us that moved here from New York or Ohio or other places in between — but we are losing that, block by block, with each five-story condo or ten-story hotel that gets built.

Metaphorically, that applies to reporting and disclosure of campaign contributions as well — Let The Sunshine In!

MATT RALSTON

I haven’t had any problem viewing the forms, but I like the idea of the aggregated database. Whatever makes it easier for people to see what’s going on.

TRISTAN SCHUKRAFT

No response.

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Guy Privaton (@guyprivaton)

Democracy is for voters and not PACs Unions or big business. BOTH parties are controlled by them. Cut them off. Democratic republic is about voter representation not interest group representation.

Begging for candidate pledges are BS

Make it illegal for non-voters to donate to a campaign
(Businesses, Unions, PACs, etc.)

If only voters can donate AND they are limited to the same limit that even the poor can achieve ($100) then the problem is solved. Democracy by the people is restored.

Rudolf Martin
Rudolf Martin
5 years ago

Lots of good questions, many good answers. If actions match words then it looks like the next council will make real election reform an urgent priority. I love Matt Ralston’s answers.

Manny
Manny
5 years ago

@Riley…..i guess when everything is said in one long paragraph you might spin it that way.

Riley
Riley
5 years ago

@Manny – just in defense of Shawn Thompson…he WAS speaking for himself, he said, “To me…”

Manny
Manny
5 years ago

@Shawn Thompson…..hey Shawn speak for yourself. But I’d like to decide who I want to vote for……As I’m sure you’ll decide who you won’t vote for.

Shawn Thompson
5 years ago

Some excellent questions and some solid answers. And by the answers I can see what my vote would do for each candidate that responded. To me John Heilmans answers really speak to me of his old guard style…. which hes been a part of now for 30 years. And full of his community ignoring nice spin of “everything is wonderful in #weho” and “He knows better or is more informed or evolved”? Really? The passing of term limits should of been his day to gracefully let some one else have a chance to serve the #weho community. 30 years later… Read more »

One of Cassandra's Snakes
One of Cassandra's Snakes
5 years ago

Will someone, ANYONE, tell us how you get elected without raising and spending a lot of money; enough money to combat the developers and the lobbyists? Really, HOW does anyone do that? Although, Ross Perot had tons of money and he still didn’t get elected. Maybe the onus, is on the uniformed, lazy voters who DON’T vote….well, not maybe…let’s face it…it IS on the voters, but the voters feel powerless. Disclosing how much someone has donated means nothing unless the councilmember also recuses themselves. I recall one of them saying during the last election that they could remain objective even… Read more »

Manny
Manny
5 years ago

When West Hollywood voters aren’t in the habit of making contributions…..What’s a candidate to do?

It seems that considering the free access to the internet and social media, grassroots candidates stand a better chance of getting their message heard without the throw-away mailers of yesteryear.

In the 2015 election, what does it really take to get the 2000 votes needed to win in West Hollywood? Does it take money or just lots of commitment, devotion and good ideas?