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Free tickets for city officials targeted

State may curb gifts of admission to sporting events and concerts.

June 13, 2008|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Ahhh, to be a member of the Anaheim City Council, with access to free tickets to baseball games at Angel Stadium, Ducks hockey games at Honda Center and rock concerts at the Grove.

But, like the Ducks' offense, those perks may soon disappear.

In Pasadena, the 2,100 grandstand seats for the Rose Parade that are gratis for the mayor and other city officials may also be in jeopardy. Ditto the luxury box reserved for San Jose city officials at Sharks hockey games and hip-hop concerts.

The grinch who would restrict the freebies going to politicians is Ross Johnson, a former Orange County state senator who some would say has turned against his kind since he became chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

On Thursday, Johnson sided with the commission staff on a proposal to limit free tickets for officials to cases in which their attendance at an event serves a legitimate public purpose. The gifts should be curtailed, Johnson said.

That set politicians howling. The Rose Parade tickets are "reasonable," objected the city attorney for Pasadena. Angels tickets used by the Anaheim mayor do not provide undue influence, said the top lawyer for the Orange County city.

Johnson is unpersuaded.

"These are gifts that are going to elected officials and others in these communities, and I think the public is largely unaware of that," he said. "There not only are situations that I would consider to be abusive today; the potential for far greater abuse is there as well."

Under existing law, city officials and their families can use free tickets without being subject to state gift rules, provided the tickets were not earmarked by the giver for a specific official. And such tickets need not be used for official public business.

Existing state rules say that if free tickets are given to a city rather than to an individual, they are not gifts. Elected officials are required to publicly report gifts of $50 or more and are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $390 a year.

Under new rules the commission proposed Thursday, government agencies would have to give public notice on their websites of any officials who use free tickets and state the government purpose.

Anaheim officials argued that their city owns Angel Stadium, the Honda Center and the Grove of Anaheim, and leases and other contracts require that private operators provide the city with tickets to all events.

Anaheim City Atty. Jack L. White said in a letter to the panel that when tickets are given directly to an elected official, there may be at least a perception that the giver is "seeking favor from" the official.

"On the other hand, where tickets are provided to an agency pursuant to contractual obligation . . . there is no such incentive to provide favorable treatment to the party which provides the tickets to the agency because such party is obligated to provide such tickets to an agency," White wrote.

He argued that tickets provided under contractual obligation are not a gift but consideration for using the city-owned facility. Once owned by the city, "such tickets are similar to compensation and benefits provided to public officials," White said.

By that logic, Johnson countered, the city could reach a contract to buy 400 cars for its police force and negotiate a provision that set aside five or six free cars for City Council members.

Commissioner Robert Leidigh differed with Johnson. He said the issue is one for cities -- not the state -- to address.

"That's an issue for the [city] taxpayers to take the entity to task over, that they could have gotten more rent money and instead they got these freebie tickets," Leidigh said.

The commission agreed to meet with city officials to hear their concerns before voting on the proposals.

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patrick.mcgreevy@ latimes.com

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