SACRAMENTO — A little-noticed last-minute legislative amendment that would greatly ease restrictions on campaign fund raising by board members of a proposed Los Angeles transportation super-agency was approved Monday by an Assembly committee.
One watchdog group warned of public disapproval. Backers said there were practical reasons for the change in the bill setting up the agency. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a potential beneficiary, said the change was unnecessary.
The amendment, authored by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), who hopes to win an appointment to the potentially powerful transportation panel, would exempt the agency from a strict conflict-of-interest law drafted several years ago after campaign fund-raising abuses were disclosed at the California Coastal Commission. It prohibits board members of many local commissions from voting on matters of interest to anyone who has contributed more than $250 to their campaign funds.
Robbins and others said they recently discovered that the proposed metropolitan transportation authority board, which would include Bradley and the five Los Angeles County supervisors, would fall under those restrictions.
Under legislation heading for a vote in both houses, the authority would be created as a super-agency in charge of public transit in Los Angeles County, replacing the much-criticized Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. Elected officials would serve on the board in person instead appointing proxies as they do for the RTD and the county transit commission.
The bill approved 13 to 10 by the Ways and Means Committee on Monday and sent to the Assembly for a vote is part of two-bill package that would create the agency. The Senate is expected to vote as early today on the other bill.
If the conflict-of-interest restrictions are eased, transit authority board members would have a major base of special interests from which to raise campaign funds. Over the next decade, the authority would oversee billions of dollars in public works contracts for such projects as Metro Rail and would decide which areas of the county would get commuter rail lines and highways.
Robbins denied that the exemption is intended to make it easier for politicians to raise campaign funds. It was sought by members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Robbins said, because they feared they would have to disqualify themselves too often, paralyzing the agency's ability to act.
"It's an impossible guideline to meet," Robbins said, noting that some prominent members of the proposed board have thousands of campaign contributors.
A lobbyist for the county supervisors, Clancy Leland, agreed, calling the restriction "unfair."
Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Michael Gage said, however, that Bradley is "quite comfortable" with the strict conflict-of-interest law as it is. The exemption "just seems absolutely unnecessary," Gage said.
A spokesman for Common Cause, an organization that has supported limits on campaign fund raising, said the exemption "does not seemed justified."
"I think they are making a mistake," said Walter Zelman, the group's executive director. "People with contracts before that board will start giving huge amounts of money, and the board will have no credibility with the public."