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An Ethics Code Worth Pride

November 27, 1989

Realistic people do not expect their government always to act in a wise or farsighted manner or, for that matter, even to behave competently in all situations. But people have an absolute right to expect their elected officials to conduct their business in an honest and ethical fashion. They have a right to demand that decisions made in the people's name serve the public interest and not the self-interest of the decision-makers.

In the long, somber months since the scandal involving Mayor Tom Bradley's personal financial affairs first came to light, the people of Los Angeles have been forced to stand and watch as these minimal expectations have gone unfulfilled. They have seen their mayor fail to provide a credible explanation for his conduct. They have seen their city attorney shamble through an investigation whose conclusions amounted to a bewildered shrug. They have seen the majority of their city council members duck, dodge and delay every halting effort to get to the bottom of this unhappy affair. As a result, public confidence in the basic integrity of city government may be at its lowest ebb since the dark days of the Shaw Administration a half-century ago.

But while the city's government has failed its people, the people have not failed each other. In April, in what many at the time dismissed as a public-relations ploy, Mayor Bradley appointed a citizens' commission to write a new code of governmental ethics for Los Angeles. The group's chairman was a respected public-interest lawyer, Geoffrey Cowan. The panel's other distinguished members included Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, Archbishop Roger Mahony, Judge Delbert E. Wong and attorneys Antonia Hernandez, Margaret M. Morrow and Gilbert T. Ray. Within a month, they announced their intention to operate as an independent body, securing outside financial support for their operations and staff.

Their integrity thus secured against suspicion, these private citizens proceeded to discharge their duties with diligence, intelligence and a high sense of purpose. The result, which today is in the hands of the city council, is not simply a new code of governmental conduct, but the most comprehensive civic reform package proposed since the Progressive Era. It already is being cited as a model for the nation--and rightly so.

The council now should set aside the dithering of its own ad hoc ethics committee and enact this package as the commission has recommended. If the council fails to do so or attempts to weaken these proposals, The Times will vigorously support a campaign to write them into law through the initiative process.

Among the commission's most welcome recommendations are these:

--It proposes "a total ban on all outside earned income and board memberships" for elected officials and top members of the bureaucracy.

--City officials will be required "to disclose all income and investments, including their primary residence and property and investments held outside the city of Los Angeles by exact amounts." It proposes similar requirements for candidates for elected office and nominees to appointed posts. It would require "all lobbyists . . . to file detailed quarterly statements, including full disclosure of all moneys paid or received to influence official action."

--Common-sense limitations would be set on city officials' private investments and a ban imposed on all outside honoraria and travel expenses. Gifts would be limited to those of a value not exceeding $250 from any unrelated individual in a calendar year.

--A new City Ethics Commission would be created and empowered to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas and take testimony under oath. In criminal cases involving elected officials, the commission would have the right to petition a judicial panel for a special prosecutor.

--To ensure that the commission discharges its own duties, the panel recommends that "private plaintiffs be given the power to seek civil sanctions" in cases where the commission and city attorney have been given adequate notice and decline to act.

--A stopper would be shoved in the notorious "revolving door" by permanently prohibiting former city officials and employees "from becoming involved as lobbyists or advocates in particular matters with which they were personally and substantially involved while in city government."

--Finally, the commission recommends ceilings on campaign spending, limits on contributions and partial public financing of campaigns. It would prohibit all fund-raising until nine months prior to an election, and ban ostensibly separate contribution committees controlled by an officeholder's "friends."

Do the Cowan commission's proposals somehow presume the dishonesty of public officials? Not at all. These are clear-eyed recommendations that recognize the constancy of human nature: that avarice is one quality utterly unflagging in its ingenuity. If Los Angeles' city government is conducted according to the code the commission has proposed, honorable people can aspire to serve it without fear of taint or compromise.

The city council has the responsibility to remedy this situation by enacting the commission's recommendations into law. If it fails to do so, the people have been given a superb blueprint by which they can take action on their own.

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