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Ethics Commission delays vote on raising contribution limits

L.A. panel puts off action on donations to city candidates. It also moves to shorten fundraising season.

February 24, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

After a heated hearing Thursday, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission put off a controversial vote to more than double the limits on how much candidates can accept in campaign contributions. But in a separate vote that could also have a big effect on how elections are run in Los Angeles, the commission moved to shorten the length of the fundraising season.

If the commission's ruling is approved by the City Council, candidates in council elections will have 12 months in which to raise money, compared to 18 months now. And candidates for citywide elections will get an 18-month fundraising period compared to the current two-year period.

Ethics Commission staff members say both measures would allow candidates to spend less time on fundraising and more time talking to voters. But critics say the measures would give a greater advantage to incumbents with large networks of special interest donors and would drown out the voices of ordinary voters.

The majority of the individuals who contribute the maximum allowed to a candidate do so because they want something in return, said Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and an opponent of the proposal. New limits, he said, would give those donors "that much more access, and make the small contributor less important."

A few months ago, council President Herb Wesson asked the commission to consider raising the caps on contributions, saying that candidate-controlled campaigns risk being overshadowed by independent expenditure committees, which the Supreme Court has ruled do not have to comply with spending limits. In recent years, independent groups have spent millions to influence city elections.

In a staff report, commission officials recommended raising the limits to allow council candidates to accept $1,100 per donor per election cycle, up from the current $500 limit. Candidates for mayor, city attorney and city controller would see the cap lifted from $1,000 to $2,200.

The increases reflect inflation since 1985, when the caps were approved.

The staff report and the city attorney's office say the City Charter requires an annual adjustment for inflation in the campaign contribution limit.

But there is a debate over interpretation of the law, with some saying that the charter's campaign finance requirement is trumped by a provision of the municipal code that calls for a review of the contribution limits every five years.

The last review was in 2008. At that time, commission members decided not to raise the limits, saying that it would unfairly benefit incumbents. A report from the commission at the time did not mention the charter provision.

Ethics Commissioner Nathan J. Hochman said the charter provision shouldn't be ignored. "The fact that this hasn't been debated before doesn't mean we shouldn't have it right now," he said. "I for one am not going to kick this can down the road for another day."

But another commissioner, Marlene Canter, said she had a "tremendous amount of doubt" that city officials were interpreting the law correctly. She said that before making a decision, she wants to see a written opinion by the city attorney about the necessity of the increase.

The commission also asked for an analysis of what the increase would be if the city raised its limits to reflect inflation since several other dates, including 1990, when the charter provision was written, and 2003, when the city code was updated.

The commission will vote on the increases March 8. Members plan to make it an all-day meeting because interest in the topic is heavy.

On Thursday, opponents of the increase testified. They included Tomas O'Grady, who last year ran for a council seat against incumbent Tom LaBonge. O'Grady, who said he raised $85,000 to LaBonge's more than $300,000, said that with the new laws, "you're making it more difficult for us to be competitive."

There was one — albeit satirical — supporter of the increases: a man in a top hat who identified himself as a "billionaire" and said the increases would protect the "special bond between big donors and the elected officials who live in their pockets."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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