Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, center, unveils his balanced budget plan… (Los Angeles Times )
Los Angeles city government must cut its expenses with two distinct but related goals in mind: It must slash deeply to ensure that the coming year's budget is balanced and includes a responsible reserve fund; and it must restructure so that when fiscal times are better, City Hall is left not merely leaner but also more focused on core functions. The first goal could be accomplished through equal slashing across departments, but the second requires budgeters and policymakers to take a breath, think things through and recalculate as necessary. One place where some budget recalculation is in order is in the Ethics Commission.
The commission is the city's political watchdog, enforcing laws to protect against improper influence in contracting, unfairness in political fundraising and spending, and conflicts of interest among officeholders and lobbyists. It is a crucial element in the checks and balances of city government. Citizens may miss the importance of the commission, in part because it is a relatively new box on the city's organizational chart and in part because city government doesn't lend itself to the much tidier and far more familiar federal system of three co-equal branches. But city voters in the 1980s saw the need for stronger oversight of their politicians and top-level bureaucrats, and they adopted an ethics code and created the commission to provide some accountability that had been lacking.
Politicians and their campaign consultants, unwatched, are prone to test the boundaries of the law. They have little incentive to hold themselves back when they see opponents going unpoliced and unpunished for ethical breaches. The same is true of contract-seekers and lobbyists. Many violations are beyond the reach of the city attorney or district attorney because they are administrative in nature, and not criminal. They do undermine the integrity of city government, but they generally are not within the purview of prosecutors. If Los Angeles is to fend off depredation by political and pecuniary interests, it requires an adequately staffed Ethics Commission.
The commission today is not adequately staffed. With 19 people on its payroll, it has two fewer than when it began its work in 1990 and 12 fewer than at its peak five years ago. Even then it had its hands full. In the intervening years, the mayor and the City Council have heaped on new laws and regulations for the commission to enforce, sending the message that they believe in high ethical standards and strict enforcement, but then withholding the funds needed for the new rules to be enforced.
As if the commission didn't have enough politicians, contractors, lobbyists, contributors and employees to keep an eye on at City Hall, the council added the entire Los Angeles Unified School District, with seven elected officials, thousands of managers and employees and a budget that exceeds the city's. The number of city employees who must file financial disclosure statements has increased, and therefore so has the amount of compliance checking and, when necessary, the amount of penalizing the commission staff has to do.
Now the budget calls for the elimination of three more positions — currently filled by the staff who ensure that top-level bureaucrats properly report the relationships and contacts that could constitute serious conflicts of interest, and who advise officials about what conduct is permissible and what crosses the line. That's a bad move.
Oversight is a core function of city government, and it must be funded. Yes, public safety and emergency services come first, and while the police and fire departments must also streamline, of course they should remain the top budget priorities. But the political branches — the mayor and the City Council — must not be permitted to use the budget crisis to escape ethical scrutiny. As the financial problems have persisted, in fact, the mayor's payroll has grown; the council in this budget goes uncut. In order to keep faith with voters, and to demonstrate that their commitment to ethics is more than mere lip service, the mayor and council should leave the Ethic Commission's budget alone and look closer to home for the necessary cuts.