LONG BEACH — The majority of the City Council may have violated state conflict-of-interest law when it voted March 24 to halve the city's insurance requirement for the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn., according to the state's political watchdog agency.
By accepting gifts of 10 tickets worth $400 from the association for its April, 1986 race, six council members were disqualified from voting on matters affecting the Grand Prix for one year, said Jeanette Turvill, spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento.
She cited the state Political Reform Act, which prohibits for 12 months a public official from acting "to influence a government decision" concerning the donor of a gift worth at least $250.
However, City Atty. John Calhoun said in an interview that the tickets were not gifts as defined by state law, and the council therefore did not have to abstain from voting.
Given as Part of Contract
They could vote on Grand Prix matters without a conflict of interest because the tickets were given to the city as part of a contract, not to the individual officeholders, Calhoun said.
"They're using them in their capacity as a city official . . . to represent the city at that event," he said.
But Turvill said the statute cited by Calhoun requires the city to follow a formal "adopted policy" that regulates the distribution and use of the tickets. Otherwise, they are legally gifts to the public officials who receive them and must be reported if they are worth $50 or more, she said.
Calhoun said a phrase in the city's Grand Prix contract that says the tickets will be used "for promotional purposes" satisfies the legal requirement for an adopted policy that regulates the tickets' distribution and use.
But Mayor Ernie Kell, through whose office Grand Prix tickets are allocated each year, said the city has no formal policy for ticket distribution.
"We've had sort of an unofficial policy . . . where the city receives 200 tickets for promotional purposes. We give them to people who will be investing in the city, to sort of showcase the city itself," Kell said.
Tradition Began in 1975
Following a tradition begun with the first race in 1975, 10 tickets are given annually to each of the nine council members, including the mayor, Kell said. Four tickets each are also given to the city's attorney, prosecutor and auditor.
City department heads get two tickets each, and most of the remaining tickets are sent to local businessmen, real estate developers and representatives of community organizations, he said.
Kell said City Atty. Calhoun had advised him that the tickets were not legally gifts. But the mayor said he listed them on his Statement of Economic Interests filed last week as a precaution.
Three of the other five council members who received tickets last year--Jan Hall, Thomas Clark and Warren Harwood--also listed them as gifts from the Grand Prix. Edd Tuttle and Wallace Edgerton did not, though Edgerton said he would file an amended statement that includes the tickets.
Council members Clarence Smith, Ray Grabinski and Evan Anderson Braude were elected after the 1986 race and received no tickets last year. All nine members got 10 tickets each for last weekend's race, according to a city document.
Calhoun also listed the tickets as a gift on his 1986 economic interests statement to the state, but he said the city Tidelands Agency was the source of the gift. The Grand Prix sends the tickets to that agency, which in turn forwards them to the mayor's office for distribution.
Reported 'Out of Caution'
"Out of caution some officials like myself do list (the tickets) in case someone does question it," the city attorney said. "It's probably to err on the side of caution rather than to take a chance that they should be disclosed under some loophole."
Eight of nine council members said they were not aware of the state law that disqualifies them from voting after receiving gifts worth $250. The ninth, Tuttle, could not be reached for comment.
Council members said they saw no conflict of interest in their March vote on the Grand Prix's request that the city cut its liability insurance requirement from $20 million to $10 million.
The city had no option in that unanimous vote, they said, since the race would have been canceled if the higher insurance requirement had not been waived. Race promoters said the extra liability insurance was not available at any price and city staff members confirmed the statement.
Council members also said they felt that in attending the race they were doing their jobs by seeing how well it is run.
Many Tickets Given Away
Most council members said they could not use all 10 Grand Prix tickets and gave many away to family, friends and constituents. Kell, Braude, Smith and Harwood said they personally used only two tickets and gave away the other eight.
Hall and Grabinski, who have large families, said relatives used most tickets. Grabinski said he treated a couple of campaign workers to one day of racing during the three-day event.
Edgerton said he gives his tickets to his aides at City Hall and to friends and business associates.
Smith, who joined the council in August, said the tickets were of little value to him.
"I've never had an interest in car racing," he said. "I went just to see what it was about. I'd never been to it. I don't have that kind of money to spend. This was an opportunity to see how well they run that operation."