At the recommendation of an Ethics Reform Task Force, the West Hollywood City Council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Lauren Meister as the lone no vote, to raise the city’s campaign contribution limit from $500 to $1,000.
The task force convened seven times since May 2018 to craft recommended updates to municipal laws concerning government ethics, lobbyist regulations and campaign finance. Its members include Joseph Guardarrama, an ethics attorney with Kaufman Legal Group; Max Kanin, an attorney specializing in election law, campaign finance law and government ethics; and Elizabeth Ralston, a past president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.
Both council members and public commenters disputed Recommendation 4, as to whether the current $500 campaign contribution limit should be increased to $1,000 and increased each election cycle by the Consumer Price Index.
A consensus was reached that the council would scrap the annual increase and allow future councils to decide when to make additional increases.
“I find it interesting that the female candidates, especially the women of color, indicated that raising the [campaign contributions] amount would have been beneficial to their candidacy,” Mayor Pro Tempore Lindsey Horvath said before voting in support of the recommendation.
She was referencing Marquita Thomas, who ran for City Council in 2019 and voiced her support for the increase during public comment.
“There were candidates in the race who didn’t have the means to promote their platform because they didn’t have the funds needed,” Thomas said. “I believe this recommendation can help in ensuring fresh new voices are in the race and have the funds they need to address the increasing costs of running a viable campaign, and it decreases the barriers to access that may keep newcomers from entering the race.”
Other public commenters disagreed. Stephanie Harker, who formerly served on the city’s Rent Stabilization Commission, said she was “vehemently opposed.”
“It’s not campaign finance reform for the better,” Harker said. “I think it should not cost $100,000 to get elected in a city that’s 1.89 square miles.”
Meister served on a task force in 2009 that lowered the former campaign contribution limit of $1,000 to $500.
“If the argument is that we’ll end up with [independent expenditures] being created, we’ll end up with [independent expenditures] being created regardless of whether it’s $500 or $1,000,” Meister said.
Councilman John Duran thought it should be raised, citing West Hollywood’s consolidation of municipal elections with the 2020 general election. With voter turnout for municipal elections in West Hollywood historically hovering at 18-20% of voters, Duran said campaigns will need extra funds for the upcoming election, which will draw closer to 80% of the city’s voters.
The task force also made seven other recommendations, three of which were supported by a unanimous vote and four others that were tabled for future discussion, eliminated or heavily deliberated.
Recommendation 1 suggested creating and adopting an ordinance requiring all campaign communications be submitted to the city and included in its online campaign filing system, Netfile. This would include campaign reporting data, mailers and scripts for robocalls and door-to-door solicitations.
“I think it is burdensome on small campaigns and it seems silly to me. This is literature that, as a candidate, you’re distributing to the public already,” Councilman John Heilman said. “It seems inappropriate for the government to be involved in any way of stockpiling the literature of candidates.”
Task force member Gaurdarrama added that materials could be uploaded as PDFs using an online submission tool, and that the process would be “quite simple.”
“I think it is more burdensome for the smaller campaigns … but in the interest of having more information available to the public rather than less, the benefit outweighs the burden placed on each of the campaigns,” said Duran, who voted in support of the recommendation.
After calling a vote, the council voted 4-1 in support of the campaign filing recommendation, with Heilman voting no. Recommendations 2, 6 and 7 were also approved and were supported unanimously.
As a third party, the Fair Political Practices Commission would contract with the city under Recommendation 2 to provide enforcement services related to local campaign finance or government ethics laws. The council agreed that the city clerk’s office, which currently handles campaign violations, will determine if a major violation has been made and only then refer it to FPPC. Smaller infractions, such as using the city’s logo, will still be handled internally.
Recommendations 6 and 7 direct the council to implement a code of conduct for city contractors and consultants and require elected and appointed officials to publicly disclose any boards of directors for nonprofit organizations that they serve on.
“Every single one of these recommendations brings us a step closer to more transparency and putting in safeguards that will give us a more ethical government, or at least one that is perceived by the public as more ethical, both of which are important,” Guardarrama said.
Recommendation 3 would define what constitutes a lobbyist and is still being discussed with the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The task force agreed to provide the chamber and public more time to gather comments for discussion at a meeting scheduled for April 27. Any recommendations regarding the definition of a lobbyist will be presented to the council at a future date. Recommendation 8 was also tabled for further discussion and would potentially restrict campaign officials from serving as lobbyists.
Crafted through Senate Bill 1107, Recommendation 5, which would have created a public financing system, was eliminated after the bill was invalidated by the California Court of Appeals. Guardarrama said the only way to implement public financing would be to become a charter city and that the topic can be considered by a future task force.
Supported recommendations will be turned into action items by the City Council at future meetings, although no dates have been set.
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