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Window on City Council

January 28, 2003

Imagine a Los Angeles City Council chamber that looks like the set of "Wheel of Fortune" or "The Price Is Right." Big green numbers flash in front of each council member, reflecting how much money lobbyists for or against the issue of the moment have contributed to council members' campaigns, office accounts or favorite charities. If the flashing number gets too high -- BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ -- the council member loses his or her chance to vote.

Who says ethics rules can't be fun?

The Los Angeles City Council today is set to consider a proposal to bar an elected official from acting on issues involving lobbyists who contributed to or raised a certain amount of money for that official.

Lest anyone fear that government would grind to a halt, the council committee that is recommending the rule's adoption has raised the amount a lobbyist could contribute from $1,000 -- the amount first proposed by the city Ethics Commission -- to $7,000. The provision would also be triggered if a lobbyist raised, rather than directly donated, $15,000 for a City Council member or $25,000 for the mayor or any other citywide official. Contributions and fund-raising rarely reach those higher levels, according to Ethics Commission Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham. But even the higher threshold prompted City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski to say that, had the rule been in effect last week when the council took up the issue of police response to burglar alarms, most members would have had to remove themselves because of alarm industry contributions.

As it turns out, that's not true, at least as far as can be determined by city campaign records on file. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who opposes the Police Commission's controversial decision not to answer unverified burglar alarms, received the most contributions from Cerrell & Associates, the alarm industry lobbyist, and its associates: $2,200 from 1999 through 2001. But that is below even the strict original threshold recommended by the Ethics Commission, which requires only that donations not exceed $1,000 in the previous 12 months.

What the records don't show -- because city rules don't currently require such reporting -- is whether, in addition to direct contributions, registered lobbyists held fund-raising events or solicited donations for any elected officials. The rule would require registered lobbyists to disclose activities of this sort as well as donations to nonprofit or charitable organizations made at the request of an officeholder or candidate.

The reporting would give voters valuable information about who might be influencing whose vote, even if it didn't trigger recusal. It would give voters the assurance that if an elected official makes a deal, they will at least see the flashing numbers.

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