In what City Council Member David Ryu called a “bittersweet” action, the full Council yesterday passed a revised version of a campaign finance reform measure that Ryu has been promoting since he was first elected to office. The new ordinance, resulting from the fifth such motion Ryu has filed in the last four years, will prevent developers from contributing to the mayor, city attorney, city council members and candidates for those offices while they have a development project pending with the city, and for a year after a determination is made on their project applications.
“Since the day I entered office, this is the legislation I have believed in, and this is the legislation I have fought for,” Ryu said in a statement after the vote. “Today, we took a crucial step in rebuilding trust in City Hall. There is nothing more fundamental than building trust in our democracy, and today, we are laying the foundation for a City Hall that works for the people.”
That was the “sweet” part. The “bitter” came from the removal, prior to the vote, of another part of his reform proposal, prohibiting “behested” payments from developers (in which a developer makes a contribution to a local cause or project supported by a city official).
Also, comments from other Council members on the ordinance that did pass were a fair bit less than sweet.
For example, Council Member Paul Koretz said he feels it’s premature to prohibit developer donations until the city does a better job of defining who would be prohibited from making contributions, and building a working database of those prohibited donors.
Council Member Mike Bonin said, referring to Winnie the Pooh’s downer donkey friend, “I hate to be Eeyore,” but that “piecemeal” legislation, as he feels this is, is not the best way to deal with campaign finance reform. “Full public financing,” he said, “is the only way to have clean money.”
Bonin also objected to the way the plan will be phased in, taking effect in 2022, right before half of the council members are up for re-election. And the fact that it’s the half that doesn’t include Ryu himself (who is running for re-election in 2020) is “disingenuous,” said Bonin (sidestepping the fact that Ryu had, a bit earlier, offered a motion – which wasn’t supported by the other council members – to move up the date that the new rules would take effect, so they would encompass his own election date as well).
Finally, Bonin said he and the other Council members would vote yes on Ryu’s amended measure yesterday, in spite of its weaknesses…but only because they’d be savaged in news coverage later if they didn’t.
On the topic of behested donations, several Council Members, including Marqueece Harris-Dawson, noted that these kinds of donations, carefully steered by knowledgeable city officials, shouldn’t be completely prohibited, because they have greatly helped many deserving non-profit agencies and their work over the years. And losing that funding source, said Harris-Dawson, could be very damaging to the city. “Unintended consequences hurt people,” he said.
Council Member Paul Krekorian agreed, saying that increasing transparency of campaign donors and donations is just as important, if not more so, than limiting behested payments themselves. He and Bonin offered an amendment requiring full disclosure of any behested payments of more than $1,000, which passed unanimously.
In the end, Ryu’s amended measure passed unanimously, despite the criticisms, and despite – or maybe because of – its fairly limited scope. (According to the LA Times, the new measure, while preventing outright contributions from developers, “does not prohibit developers from hosting fundraisers or raising money from other donors. It does not penalize politicians for knowingly receiving those banned donations. And critics lamented that it does not apply to major subcontractors on a development project.”)
So Ryu took the victory, even if it was a bit messy. “Doing nothing today is not an option,” he said during the hearing. “Trust is the foundation of very democratic government in the world…and restoring the public trust must be our higher goal.”