In a 4-1 Vote, WeHo’s City Council Doubles the Limit on Individual Campaign Donations

West Hollywood’s City Council endorsed a recommendation to raise the maximum amount an individual can donate to a Council candidate’s campaign to $1,000, up from $500, at its meeting Monday night. Additionally, all mailers connected to city elections must now be submitted to the city clerk’s office for archiving.

The increase in the contribution limit still must come back to the Council in an ordinance that amends the Municipal Code. That will go before the Council on Feb. 18 for a first reading. There will be a second reading on March 2, and if the Council approves the amendment, which is all but certain, it will take effect 30 days later.

Along similar lines, the Council approved allowing council members to continue serving on the board of directors of non-profit groups, but they now must make yearly public disclosures about the boards upon which they serve.

These were all changes recommended by the city’s Ethics Reform Task Force, a three-member task force first convened after the2015 City Council election and convened again in 2018 to make more changes. The task force consists of WeHo resident Joe Guardarrama, a government ethics attorney, Max Kanin, an election law and campaign finance law attorney, and Elizabeth Ralston, a former president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles. 

$1,000 Maximum Donations

With a 4-1 vote, the council approved raising the maximum amount an individual can donate to a City Council candidate’s campaign to $1,000. The previous limit had been $500.

Starting this year, City Council elections will be held in November instead of March. The November election will coincide with the presidential election, which means a significantly larger number of people will be voting. Approximately 80% of registered West Hollywood voters turn out for presidential elections, versus approximately 20% of registered voters in city elections.

That means City Council candidates will now have to reach a greater number of people to get elected and the associated campaign costs rise substantially. As Councilmember John Duran explained, the most effective tool to get election messages across in West Hollywood is mailers.

“Most of the campaigning happens in mailboxes,” said Duran.

According to Duran, it costs approximately $10,000 per mailer to reach the approximately the 6,000 WeHo residents who regularly vote in municipal elections. But that cost per mailer will now quadruple as the candidates will have to reach the 24,000 WeHo residents who vote in presidential elections.

Thus, by raising the campaign contribution limit to $1,000 per person, it could potentially help all candidates in their election bid.

The task force suggested the $500 limit, enacted in 2009, encouraged the creation of Independent Expenditure Committees to campaign for certain candidates or certain issues. Independent Expenditure Committees operate separately from a candidate’s campaign, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is no limit to how much an individual or company can donate to them.

Thus, the task force theorized that raising the contribution limit to $1,000 will reduce the number of Independent Expenditure Committees created since more money can go directly to candidates’ campaigns. The city will now get the chance to find out if that theory is correct.

Councilmember Lauren Meister voted against raising the limit, saying Independent Expenditures Committees will get started no matter what the limit.

During the public comment period, resident Steve Martin, who served on the City Council from 1994 to 2003, urged keeping the limit at $500. He contended that raising the limit will only allow more money from developers and real estate interests to enter the campaign.

“That doesn’t help the residents and doesn’t help the process,” Martin said of the possible influx of more developer money into elections.

WEHOville research into campaign contributions has shown as much as 40% of some candidate’s money comes from developers, billboard companies and similar businesses that stand to profit significantly by council votes.

Resident Stephanie Harker also urged keeping the limit at $500.

“More money just allows more questionable activity,” said Harker. “It allows people to bundle even more in an attempt to sway candidates.”

“Bundling” is the term when several members of a family or a business donate to the same candidate’s campaign. For example, a husband and a wife and a son are each allowed to donate as individuals, so they could now potentially donate $3,000 to a candidate. Or a business owner, his secretary and other members of his staff can all donate as individuals to a particular candidate.

Harker and resident Dan Morin both bemoaned the fact that it costs so much to run for office in such a small city.

“I think it should not cost $100,000 to get elected in a city that’s 1.9 square miles,” said Harker.

Meanwhile resident Larry Block, a past City Council candidate who will run again in 2020, railed against Council members Duran and Heilman voting on the $1,000 limit since both will be up for reelection this year. Block said both should recuse themselves. He pointed out that Duran has already started his fundraising and his voting on a rule change that will directly affect his campaign was unethical.

“What we’re talking about is gaming the incumbents into this election, raising the limits so they can bundle more and gaming the election,” said Block. “That’s what it looks like. The two people who are running this year should recuse themselves from a vote on this [item].”

However, neither Duran nor Heilman recused themselves from the vote. Heilman dismissed Block’s charges by reminding the no candidate is official until he/she files a candidate intention form and turns in signatures, a process that doesn’t open until July.

Serving on Non-Profit Boards

The council voted unanimously to continue allowing councilmembers to serve on the board of directors for non-profit organizations, but also requiring councilmembers to make yearly disclosures at council meetings about the boards upon which they serve.

Some residents have long called for an end to this practice saying it creates a conflict of interest. In fact, during public comment, resident Steve Martin denounced the idea, saying the city should be a councilmember’s main priority.

“You can only have one master. If you want to run for City Council and serve the people, then do that. If you have to have other hobbies, then don’t run for City Council,” said Martin. “Either you care about the city and that’s your first priority, or you don’t.”

However, Guardarrama disagreed, explaining the task force’s research showed that council members serving on non-profit boards was a good thing, but didn’t elaborate as to why. However, Guardarrama added that public disclosure is also a good thing.

“Just service on a non-profit board alone isn’t enough to give rise to a conflict of interest because there is no financial interest for the council member,” said Guardarrama.

Since some non-profit agencies receive funding from the city for various programs, Meister insisted the council add to the council members’ code of conduct that they must recuse themselves from votes involving non-profits on which they serve. That’s been the informal practice for years – Duran has routinely recused himself from votes involving non-profits with which he is involved – but now it will be codified.

City Attorney Mike Jenkins said he has long advised council members to recuse themselves from such votes regarding non-profits since there is a perception of a conflict of interest.

Filing Campaign Literature

With a 4-1 vote, the Council added a new requirement that candidates and Independent Expenditure Committees must file copies of all campaign mailers with the city clerk’s office, which will create a central repository for all campaign literature.

Guardarrama explained having such a repository will also make it easier to track potential campaign violations, especially failure by Independent Expenditure Committees to disclose on mailers who is sending out the mailer and who their top donors are, things already required by law.

Task force member Max Kanin explained that having copies of all campaign mailers in one central place allows citizens to understand how campaign money is being spent.

Duran liked this idea, explaining that his campaign often targets certain audiences such as women voters or Russian voters or LGBT voters. Thus, not everyone gets every mailer, but this will allow potential voters to view all mailers.

Some have argued that submitting campaign literature to the city clerk would create an undue burden on smaller campaigns, but Duran said it is a necessary part of running a campaign.

“The benefit outweighs the burden,” said Duran.

Councilmember John Heilman cast the only vote against this item, saying he thought is was “silly” and inappropriate to file campaign literature with the government.

Other Ethics items

The Council also unanimously approved allowing the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to have oversight for enforcement of campaign violations. But the Council also gave the city clerk’s office power to issue warning notices before turning a case over to the FPPC. Thus, if it was a minor mistake, the city clerk could simply tell a campaign to fix it without involving the FPPC.

Additionally, the council unanimously passed a code of conduct regarding city contracts. The purpose of that code is to ensure professionalism and maintain standards of integrity for city contractors and consultants.

Consideration of two items involving rules for lobbyists were delayed to a future meeting as the Ethics Task Force said those items needed more work, especially coming up with an exact definition of what a lobbyist is.

  1. The people who say increasing the (donation) limit will lower the number of Independent Expenditure Committees created is as disingenuous as talking points such as raising wages will destroy jobs. Or raising taxes will reduce innovation. Or other nonsensical tropes.

    Some people are stupid and believe this crap.
    Others are not.

    They count on us being stupid.

  2. The ethics reform is a bust – led by Duran crony and Horvath shoe licker. It took four years to unveil these wonderful anti-resident ideas at the end of the meeting with nobody around on a cold Jan night- if they were proud of the reform it would have been front and center on the agenda.

  3. Well, thank GOODNESS the city attorney doesn’t want any unethical, immoral, or illegal behavior covered up at city council or city hall! Doing the right thing and standing up against wrongness no matter how much money you can make is crucial at the top.

  4. The City has been bought by big money, years ago.
    Don’t be fooled by a not-profit board positions.
    They pay HUGE corporate salaries.
    A former council member was given the chair for THE TREVOR PROJECT paying $250,000 – $300,000 a year.

    The council member then voted the “HEILMAN PARTY” voting. Kinda like the Republican Senate.

    Isn’t Heilmans term limits coming up?
    How many more Elections is he allowed under WeHo’s resident passed TERM LIMITS some time ago

  5. Of course, John Duran would vote yes. He needs the money to cover his $130,000 unpaid taxes! The rest of us pay our taxes, but for Duran, it’s all just pay to play!

  6. With all due respect to my friend Joe Guardarrama we have seen plenty of reasons why City Council members should avoid being on the Board of Directors of Non-Profits. John Duran used his position as a City Council member to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Gay Mens’ Chorus from local developers and people doing business with the City. While the Chorus is a noble cause, there is an obvious conflict of interest as well as an appearance of “pay to play” politics. City Council is a full time job on top of your day career. If you are not really interested in putting WeHo residents first, then don’t run for City Council. The notion that the City benefits from Duran’s presence on the Boards of the Choir or any other non-profit is specious at best.

    Raising the limit from $500 to $1,000 just means developers can give more directly on top of their gifts to independent expenditure campaigns. It is strange that only Lauren Meister raises 70%+ of her funds from residences while long term incumbents like Duran and Heilman only raise 10 to 15% of their funds from residents. It is hard to believe you are a beloved public servant when you have to raise outlandish sums of money and pay people to walk door to door on your behalf in such a small town.

    1. I am not against a candidate having most of their donors and/or donations coming from residents within the district they represent, however, the candidate’s donor base alone does not create a complete picture. We live in a small City with some very wealthy residents but also with many very low-income residents. I think most candidates, whether incumbents or first-time, realize this about their neighbors and do not aggressively seek campaign contributions from many of their supporters. I don’t personally recall ever being solicited for funds from a candidate running for office in West Hollywood. In the past, I have tried to give of my time by volunteering for them making calls and walking door to door. I know many others who have donated far more of their time than I have for our local candidates. Which makes me think that maybe a beloved public servant would be better defined by the number of volunteers and the number of hours contributed making phone calls or walking door to door rather than the amount of dollars they raised from the residents they represent – at the very least, those hours should be quantified and included in the calculation with local monetary donations……and when doing the math, remember, my volunteer hours are at premium prices! 🙂

  7. Heilman may not have filed his candidate intention statement yet but Duran has, and others. The writer of this piece is wrong that ‘that process does not start until July’.

    1. Individuals can begin soliciting campaign funds not more than 24 months before an election, however the formal nominating period begins July 13 and ends Aug. 7, 2020. Anyone who wants to be on the ballot must submit a nomination form with the signatures of 20 eligible local voters to the City Clerk’s office during the nominating period and also submit a Candidate Intention Form (Form 501) to the City Clerk’s Office.

      If the candidate expects to receive or spend $2,000 or more on the campaign; he or she must need to submit a Statement of Organization Form (Form 410) to the Secretary of State and provide a copy to the City Clerk’s office.

      1. Yes but that’s not what Heilman or Mills said. They said that they have not filed an candidate intention statement and that must be filed before soliciting funds. I filed mine- Duran Filed his. This vote took place after the candidate intention statement- – the nomination period is not what Heilman or Mills was referring to.

  8. So now, as one council member said, those people living in $3,000,000 condos will now be able to donate $1,000……I guess he’s right, I mean, what else are they going to do with their money?! Oh wait, they’ll still be able to shed even more cash on any independent expenditure committee they want.

    The sky’s the limit!

  9. Again, Lauren Meister is the sole voice of reason in voting against the higher limit. It will NOT limit money going to the Independent Expenditure Committees.

    1. She voted against to grandstand. She still reaps the benefits. She only cast the no vote to be able to say/appear high and mighty.

      1. Standing on principle is not grandstanding. Lauren is the beneficiary of more donations from West Hollywood residents than any other candidate. She understands what local fundraising and keeping it local is all about. It’s a fact that in a city of renters this was a power play for the certain money interests.

  10. It is the height of naivete to assume that an increase in dollars directly to candidates will result in a lowering of dollars to independent expenditure committees. It is also shocking that in this tiny city of 35,000 people we can’t find a better way of campaigning than stuffing resident’s mailboxes with environmentally unfriendly mailings which come by the dozens. I save all of them and the candidate with the shortest pile of pollutants gets my vote (kinda sorta kidding but not really). It takes almost nothing to walk the neighborhoods, greet voters at coffee shops, and engage in one-on-one discussions with as many people as possible. I remember one candidate from a few years ago who regularly parked himself outside of Gelson’s and engaged folks–he got my vote.

    1. Alan, I usually agree with you, but I think what Duran said made sense the other night. We live in a city where most residents are not engaged, don’t attend public meetings, or debates. “Door to door” doesn’t work, with so many gated buildings. If this many people actually turn out to vote, mailbox campaigning is the most effective outreach, unfortunately. I also question how many people who come out for the general election will actually cast a vote for a local candidate. Some might just leave those spots blank. We shall see. We live in a very transient community of renters who frankly don’t care about the future of the community that they live in, as they don’t plan to live here more than a few years. Everything is different when you are a homeowner, and set roots in the community.

      That said, I’m not sure that I agree that the $500 limit should have been increased to $1000. It seems like the system can be gamed, no matter what, as stated in this article, when a family of three can contribute $3K (one per family member).

      But, for the most part, these are all positive changes.

    2. I immediately throw them away and the candidates/s who sends the most mailers are eliminated.

      You ain’t kidding, though.
      How hard can it be to have a couple of rallies and meet the people whom you want to put you in office?

      The debates need to be produced better (w/volume) and they need to have several.

    1. The quote “Money is the mother’s milk of politics” is from former CA Assembly Speaker (1961-69) Jesse Unruh. 🙂

      He had another attention grabbing one regarding elected officials and lobbyists-something to the effect of “If you can’t drink their wine, eat their food, screw their women and vote against their bills, then you have no right serving in the state legislature.”

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