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 the 2015 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.