October 5, 2006
Measure ‘R’ contains curious ‘reform’
On November's ballot, tucked among the local measures affecting only Los Angeles, is curious Measure R, a plan by the Los Angeles City Council to provide each of the 15 council
members an extra $570,000 in pay, by my own estimate roughly $1.25 million in subsidized health care per person for life and an extra pension windfall per person worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Council President Eric Garcetti, as chair of the city Elections Committee, assigned the measure the letter "R" for "reform." But critics -- including retired Department of Neighborhood Empowerment chief Greg Nelson, city ethics commissioner and journalist Bill Boyarsky and the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times -- call it something else: a sneaky way to loosen the accountability of our public officials.
And here's the kicker: The "proof" that purports to demonstrate the measure's effectiveness? It doesn't exist.
On the ballot, Measure R will be described by proponents as a law that improves term limits and city ethics rules. Many voters will assume it's a good idea, since it's backed by the League of Women Voters and Chamber of Commerce.
In truth, Measure R wipes out the limit of eight years, allowing our existing crop of 15 council members -- and all subsequent ones -- to stay in office 12 years. (Voters can try ousting them earlier, but the history of such efforts is not encouraging.)
Measure R did not arise from citizens. In fact, polls show that Angelenos oppose efforts to soften term limits. Nor would voters seek to hand each of our current council members an additional $1 million to $2 million in pay and perks.
Only history will tell the tale of how Measure R really came to be. What is known, however, is this: It was proposed in vague outline by the chamber and league on a Friday. The council -- which can take months just deciding the color of recycling bins -- backed it the following Tuesday.
I've seen a lot of self-interested moves by politicians. One was the clever move in 1990 by the City Council, also peddled as "reform," to forever tie their pay raises to those of Superior Court judges. As a result, every time overworked judges get a pay raise, so do the 15 council members. That's why they earn $149,000, the highest-paid council members by far in a major U.S. city. (New York City, a far costlier place to live, pays its council members $90,000; San Francisco, another more expensive city in which to live, pays $91,000).
Although Measure R is touted as ethics reform, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Ethics Commissioner Boyarsky -- who is also a columnist for The Jewish Journal -- have said it actually helps lobbyists cover their tracks.
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board member Ron Gastelum defended Measure R to me, saying the chamber and league proposed it because "it takes a council member the entire first term to really learn the business of the city," and council members start running for other offices during their second term.
According to Gastelum, "after closely examining all these factors, we had to conclude that an additional term is needed."
Except no "examination" happened. In an interview, Gastelum told me that neither the chamber nor league studied the achievements of legislative bodies limited to eight years, vs. those with 12. Moreover, they did not contact other cities or regions, nor did they define what "effectiveness" is.
Over the summer, league past president Cindy O'Connor admitted to the Tarzana Neighborhood Council that the league set up Measure R as "a carrot and stick."
The carrot, she said, was their claim of an ethics crackdown. The stick, she said, was the unpopular term limits extension which could never pass alone.
Nelson says, "Measure R is really horrifying, because if you are lobbyist and you work on a contingency and don't get paid until the issue you're working on is over, you don't, under this 'reform,' have to report that you are lobbying on the issue. So they are invisible! This is what Boyarsky and Delgadillo found unconscionable."
Boyarsky, who cannot criticize Measure R because he is on the Ethics Commission, has nevertheless voiced extreme displeasure that it arose from backroom dealing and waters down city ethics laws.
"When I found out it eases regulations on lobbyists, I started asking all these questions of our [commission] staff," he told me. "But that was all I could do. I am prohibited from criticizing ballot measures. My only consolation is I believe it's going to lose."
Would the City Council be more effective given 12 years instead of eight? Nelson, who spent decades as an aide to fiery former Councilman Joel Wachs, says no.
"I realized it didn't matter how much time council members have in office, the day I got this call from the Los Angeles Times," he told me. About 15 years ago, before term limits, the newspaper asked Nelson to name the most important things the council had achieved that year.
"I couldn't think of a single thing to put on a list for them," he recalls. "The lesson is, given more time, the council is no more effective and no more interested in the big issues. I saw it firsthand."
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist. Her website is JillStewart.net.