Monday, April 1, 2013

Time for Long Beach to Ban Campaign Contributions from Contractors and Disclose Private Texts with Lobbyists During Council

California Watch
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Long Beach Needs to Ban Contributions From Lobbyists and Contractors, Make Elected Officials Disclose Conversations Before Vote Including Texts and Emails During Council and Disclose Private Text Messages or Other Electronic Communications About City Business

by Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske
As part of “Open Up Long Beach” – a project to make the City of Long Beach more open and transparent, I monitor the efforts of organizations that are working on transparency in government, such as the Sunlight Foundation. Recently, that organization announced that the District Court in the District of Columbia upheld the long time ban on political contributions from any person negotiating or performing a federal government contract stating:

The ban on such contributions guards against “pay-to-play” arrangements, in which people seeking federal contracts provide financial support to political candidates in return for their help securing government business. It also protects such contractors from pressure to contribute or risk losing their work.  

The Court further stated that it was not the “courts’ practice to “‘second-guess a … [legislative] determination as to the need for prophylactic measures where corruption is the evil feared’.”

It seems then it might be time for the City of Long Beach to enact a similar contribution ban. Conceivably, that ban could be applied to those who seek approval for a development, an entertainment permit or those who are lobbying for a specific ordinance. Some would argue that it should extend to employee unions who are under contract with the City.

I was particularly taken back when year ago on February 14, the City Council voted on whether or not to ban operation of medical marijuana collectives.

Why? Because in excess of $8,000 had poured into the campaign and officeholder accounts of several council members from businesses and lobbyists representing the medical marijuana industry. Now that may not sound like a lot of money. But considering that contributions are limited to $350 for a campaign and $500 for an officeholder account, this is a considerable sum.

City Attorney Robert Shannon told the City Council over the past several months that we needed to ban the operation of medical marijuana collectives because the court ruled on a case specifically involving the City of Long Beach’s regulation of medical marijuana collectives. The court held that the City cannot regulate that which is illegal. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. A ban not only impacts access to medical marijuana by residents but stops an extremely lucrative revenue stream for those who operate the collectives. Some of these lobbyists who gave contributions also sent Council members language they wanted inserted into the City’s ordinance – a fact never disclosed during the discussion or the vote.

Long Beach should handle this situation in one of two ways: Either ban the contributions from anyone who is negotiating with the City or doing work for the City and/or require the elected official to disclose before voting at City Council if he or she has received a contribution and a statement that he or she does not believe there is a conflict of interest. Plain and simple.

Several cities have enacted laws which disqualify a council member from participating in decisions affecting his or her campaign contributors. These laws disqualify the council member from participating in certain proceedings if the official has received campaign contributions from a party, participant or their agents within the 12 months preceding the decision. They also require disclosure on the record of the proceeding of all campaign contributions received from these persons during that period. In addition, these laws prohibit solicitation or receipt of campaign contributions during such proceedings, and for three months after the decision, from parties, participants or their agents.

The voters of the City of Los Angeles enacted changes to their charter in 2011 that create new campaign contribution restrictions on contractors bidding on contracts with the City. They have prohibited making campaign contributions to any elected City office, candidate for elected City office, or City committee controlled by an elected City official or candidate if the contract requires approval of the Council and the contract requires approval by the elected City office that is held or sought by the person to whom the contribution would be given. (In LA, the ban starts with contracts worth $100,000 or more.)

It is time that Long Beach strengthened our campaign finance laws by either prohibiting campaign contributions from those trying to do or actively doing business with the City and by requiring elected officials to publicly disclose before they take a vote whether or not they have received any contributions from anyone benefiting from a council vote.

Additionally, just this week the City Council of San Jose unanimously passed an ordinance requiring themselves to disclose if a lobbyist contacts a councilmember by text, email or handwritten note during a public meeting and to announce the identity of the lobbyist and the subject of the communication before it comes to a vote.

Another major development regarding texts and emails came last week with a court ruling that San Jose City Councilmembers’ private text messages, emails and other electronic communications about city affairs must be made public.

The City Council can pass these legislative items to increase openness and transparency or the voters can gather signatures to place a package of reforms on the ballot in the next general election. In either case, Long Beach needs to move forward on this issue.

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