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No ‘pushovers’ on Zukin’s Ethics Commission

by Bill Boyarsky

August 27, 2008 | 11:50 pm

Helen Zukin

Helen Zukin

I thought my editor was making an odd request when he asked me to write about Helen Zukin, the new president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.

I had just finished a five-year term on the commission, where I had been Zukin's colleague. I thought highly of Zukin and had nominated her for commission vice president, a post she held before moving up to president.

Moreover, I had left the commission with conflicted feelings, disillusioned with its inability to change City Hall's political culture. As I told Los Angeles Times reporter David Zahniser after my final meeting, the ethics commission is "on the periphery of power" at City Hall and the real "power is with the business lobbyists, the union lobbyists, the people who run the campaigns."

But we agreed I could do the column if I confessed all this at the outset. So one morning I drove to the Beverly Hills office of her Zukin's firm, Kiesel Boucher and Larson, where she handles big, complex cases representing those who have been hurt by toxic wastes and other environmental outrages. She also tries cases for victims of bad business practices and poorly made products.

The ethics commission that she now heads was created by a 1990 ballot measure. The commissioners and their staff have the job of enforcing campaign-spending and conflict-of-interest laws. Various elected city officials appoint the commissioners for single five-year terms.

The campaign-contribution, financial- disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws have an important goal: to limit the political clout of campaign contributors, many of whom do business with the city, and to bring transparency to the murky business of special interest influence.

As we talked, I could see that Zukin is particularly interested in an important issue that places the ethics commission at odds with the city council -- the future of the neighborhood councils.

The neighborhood councils are volunteer organizations made up of residents and business people who offer City Hall advice from the grass roots. They were approved by the voters as part of a 1999 City Charter reform forced by long-standing protests that the mayor and council were unresponsive to the neighborhoods. Such complaints had helped fuel the Valley secession movement. Since the inception of the neighborhood councils, however, some City Council members have been unenthusiastic about such grass-roots participation.

"I feel very strongly about the issue," Zukin said. "We live in a diverse and very large city that can only benefit from having thriving neighborhood councils that have input to the [City] Council."

City Councilman Richard Alarcon, supported by other council members, has proposed that board members of each of the neighborhood councils be required to fill out detailed financial disclosure forms, listing their incomes and their financial holdings.

This extension of financial-disclosure laws would weaken the neighborhood councils because it would force members to make public personal information they may want to keep private.

The forms are mandatory for government officials with decision-making power. But the neighborhood council members are volunteers, empowered only to make recommendations to the City Council and the mayor. The ethics commissioners felt that requiring the volunteers to disclose their finances would discourage people from participating in the neighborhood councils. The ethics commission sent a milder alternative to the council, but Alarcón, who heads the Education and Neighborhood Committee, rejected it.

Zukin fought back. She sent a letter to Alarcon warning that strict disclosure for volunteers would have "a severe chilling effect on local neighborhood council participation in the political life of Los Angeles."

Then she did something unusual. She issued a press release with the same message. In City Hall, commissioners usually don't argue with council members. On the rare occasions they do, the argument isn't conducted through press releases. Her action, taking the important policy dispute to the media and the public, sent a strong message to the council: "We're not going to be pushovers."

The issue will be played out in the months ahead.

Such an attitude is in her genes. She told me about her father, a psychoanalyst who, while a medical student in Italy, was swept up by Mussolini's forces and put into a concentration camp. He and the other Jews were allowed to go into the town during the day, and he owned a radio. From the radio, he learned the Germans were approaching, bringing with them a death camp regime. He told other prisoners he was leaving. Eleven joined him in an escape into the mountains, where he led them for several harrowing months until they reached Canadian troops.

Zukin has a balanced view of the council members. She said she understands the pressures on them. When I was on the commission, I was critical of the council because the legislators consistently turned down our proposals. She showed more understanding.

"I have respect for them," she said. "I think that because of the process itself, it is very hard to get important issues through, not just because there are competing interests but it takes a long time to understand an issue and reach a consensus."

On the campaign contribution laws, she said, "I think overall, the elected officials try very hard to comply. I don't think anyone wants to run afoul of the ethics commission...." But, she said, the potential influence of contributors "requires the ethics commission to enforce the laws."

Zukin is a member of American Jewish University's board of directors. She's been a temporary Superior Court judge and has been chair of the State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.

She and her husband, Jim Zukin, an investment banker, have two children, Julia, 14, and Sam, 8, and she has three stepchildren, Emily, 21, Michael, 23, and Sarah, 24.

After about an hour, the interview ended. I had asked all my questions and Zukin had to pick up a sick child at camp and take her to a pediatrician. I drove away thinking that the ethics commission, about which I have so many mixed emotions, is in good hands.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net. His column appears here monthly.

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