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City Employees Eligible to Donate in Secession Fight

Ruling: Ethics panel says workers should get leeway because jobs could be affected.

June 30, 2002|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles city employees can be solicited for donations in the fight over the proposed secession of Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, according to a new ruling by the city Ethics Commission.

The decision, expected to be made public this week, is an exception to a state law that bars the raising of funds from city employees for local ballot-measure campaigns. Ethics officials said city employees should be allowed greater leeway in the secession contests, because the measures could affect their work conditions, pay and retirement, among other things.

The ruling helps secession opponents, who see the city work force as a natural source of votes and money to defeat the break-away movements.

Advocates of the split say the decision will let Mayor James K. Hahn and the rest of City Hall overstep local limits on the use of public time and resources in a political campaign.

The ruling still prohibits use of city resources by city officials and employees to promote or oppose the ballot measures. And city employees cannot be approached for campaign contributions during their work hours or while in city offices.

The participation of city workers is just one aspect of City Hall's growing focus on combating secession, which will be on the ballot citywide Nov. 5.

Hahn also is turning to city commissioners--who include business and community leaders, attorneys and activists, among others--as a bulwark in his effort to thwart the city's breakup.

The mayor said he is convinced that commissioners and others in City Hall can be great assets to his campaign to keep the city together. Hahn has appointed 212 of the 315 commissioners in his first year in office. These positions typically are considered a valuable tool for the mayor in moving his agenda through city departments. Commissioners are mostly volunteers who oversee departments.

"They can be a real important communication network themselves," Hahn said. "They have their own networks of people they'll be talking to, constituent groups."

The mayor used a reception last week at the Museum of Contemporary Art to pitch arguments to commissioners on secession. In their goodie bags? Perfume--and a list of "talking points" on secession.

Secession advocates criticize the mayor for promoting his political agenda with city officials and employees.

"What you're seeing, I think, is really the coalescing of every aspect of City Hall government and the downtown private sector conspiring to use whatever tools they have to fight this," said Richard Katz, head of a campaign committee promoting secession in the Valley. "It's one thing to be straight up and factual, but the city's never been straight up and factual."

Additionally, Katz said, he believes that public money should not be used for the "talking points" distributed to city officials.

In the two-page, 12-point document to city commissioners, the mayor said new cities in the Valley or Hollywood would result in higher taxes, reduced services and few, if any, emergency reserves.

"Working together is the best way to ensure improved quality of life for every resident of Los Angeles," the document says. "Secession leaves every neighborhood and community wounded."

Further, the document says: "In the event of a catastrophic emergency like the Northridge earthquake or a terrorist attack, the new cities will go broke immediately."

It also says new Valley and Hollywood cities would require increased water and electricity rates.

Another document distributed to the city's 35 general managers and to members of the mayor's staff paints a gloomy portrait of life in the new cities. On the question of whether secession would result in the loss of jobs for current city employees, for example, the answer is: "Yes ... the new city would be able to cut the pay and benefits of its employees and may be forced to do so due to lack of resources."

Hahn defended the documents by saying he believed that city officials needed "to know the facts about secession--not so they're engaged in persuasion but so they can give the facts."

Several commissioners and other city officials, appointed to their jobs by the mayor, said that they had not taken offense at the mayor's anti-secession pitches and that they know he is single-minded on the issue.

"We all know that this is his No. 1 priority," said Ronald Stone, a member of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. "Certainly there was no pressure, but I think he saw it as an opportunity to get the message to the commissioners."

Added Silvia Saucedo, an attorney and police commissioner: "The hot issue of discussion is secession.... Being part of [Hahn's ] cabinet is to talk about the major issues, and secession is the major issue."

Several commissioners said their positions on secession had been formed independently, regardless of the mayor's view on the issue.

Jay Grodin, a fire commissioner who attended a fund-raiser for the mayor's group last week, said his opposition to secession has nothing to do with the mayor's position. "I've given money to fight it," Grodin said. "I would have, whether I'm a commissioner or not."

Not all the city's commissioners agree with the mayor. David Fleming, for example, resigned recently from the Ethics Commission to promote Valley cityhood. Under ethics rules, he could not serve on that panel while donating money and campaigning for secession.

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