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Council Gets an Ethics Message

March 16, 1997

In its first formal enforcement action against a member of the Los Angeles City Council, the Ethics Commission last week sent a clear message to elected officials: Play by the rules or pay the price. The commission fined Councilman Hal Bernson $1,500 for improperly spending money from his officeholder account on tickets to the Hollywood Bowl--just the sort of extravagance that aggravated voters sought to end last November when they approved tough limits on how public officials spend campaign contributions.

Bernson argued that the expenditure was proper because he used the box seats to discuss city business with constituents and other politicians in an informal setting. He took issue with the commission's broad interpretation of 1994 spending guidelines, which regulate how officials can use their officeholder accounts. The accounts consist of contributions from supporters and lobbyists and do not include public funds. Over 21 months in 1995 and 1996, the council, mayor, city attorney and city controller spent a combined total of $1.1 million from their officeholder accounts. The law specifies 19 ways in which officials may spend the money--including sending out mailers and showing appreciation to employees--but also makes a point of explaining that the money can be spent in other ways that serve constituents.

That exception permits considerable leeway. When public officials have crossed the boundaries in the past, a quick notice from the Ethics Commission or a hearing examiner has prompted them to pay up quietly. Bernson's refusal to follow the Ethics Commission's early recommendations on the case forced last week's hearing, the first of its kind since the commission was formed in 1991.

No one minds public officials spending officeholder accounts to hire an extra staff member or to keep constituents up to date on city business. But expensive perks like Bernson's box seats only irk voters already suspicious of City Hall. Under state Proposition 208, voters last year limited officeholder accounts to $10,000 annually. Next month, the council will ask L.A. voters to bump the limit up to $75,000. That's a hard sell. The Ethics Commission said last week that Bernson's fine was meant as a message to public officials who might abuse the public trust. Is City Hall listening?

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