Off To A Flying Start, LA-style

I guess this must be my day to pick holes in half-baked electoral strategies.

On the Los Angeles city ballot this fall will be the measure to change term limits by allowing incumbents to run for re-election not once, but twice. I wrote about the movement to let councilmembers stay in office four years longer a couple of months ago. Since then, the measure has gotten onto the ballot, despite the fact that it excluded the City Attorney, City Controller and the Mayor from being able to serve three terms, which appalled City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and created suspense over whether Mayor Villaraigosa would allow the vote. (He finally did.)

Besides feeling left out, Delgadillo told the council that their measure would not survive a legal challenge because it contained two subjects: Extending term limits and some changes to the ethics laws for lobbyists that councilmembers say will “toughen” them.

This is a classic strategy. Whatever the public policy merits of relaxed term limits, the council figured the voters would see their ballot measure as purely self-serving. So they threw in some sugar to allow advocates to campaign for the measure as an ethics reform and downplay the part about councilmembers staying in office longer.

Except they forgot about the city’s Ethics Commission, which was never given a chance to review the ethics changes. Now, according to the Daily News (hat tip to LA Observed), when finally given a chance to review the measure yesterday, the commissioners were told they couldn’t say anything about it that might be construed as a judgment on its merits.

Vice President Bill Boyarsky kicked off the discussion by asking how the ethics reform measure on the Nov. 7 ballot would affect the city’s existing rules.

“So instead of strengthening the lobby control laws as the proponents of this measure have claimed, could it be said that it actually weakens it?” Boyarsky asked after staffers advised him that some lobbyists might be exempted from registering under the new rules.

But Deputy City Attorney Renee Stadel interrupted him to warn that, because the ethics package has already been placed on the ballot, city employees or public resources cannot be used to support or oppose it.

And that includes using “valuative adjectives” during an Ethics Commission hearing.

“I am concerned that by using words such as `strengthen’ or `weaken,’ it becomes an advocacy on either side of the issue,” Stadel said.

Effectively, if the councilmembers campaiging for the measure say it strengthens ethical standards, the Ethics Commission can’t contradict them–even if councilmembers are misrepresenting its provisions. I’m not sure how far this rule goes. I guess they can say what they want on their own time, but I don’t know if they can identify themselves as city ethics commissioners.

Seems like a clever plan, except did you notice the point Boyarsky was making? The “tougher” lobbying rules aren’t “tougher.” The sweetener designed to bait the voters turns out to be a bitter pill, if Boyarsky is correct. So LA voters get two reasons to dislike the new measure, instead of just one. Three, if you count the “silencing” of the commission, which is sure to rile the media.


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