Law ensures that officials will represent public
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home / citizen / in the media

Inland Valley Times
Apr 09, 2001

by Irving Prager

Law ensures that officials will represent public

Claremont voters recently enacted Measure A, a law forbidding any city official from receiving rewards, gifts over $50, campaign contributions or jobs from anyone to whom they award public benefits worth more than $25,000.

Very similar versions of this law have been enacted in several other California cities.

Incredibly, the Claremont City Council members voted unanimously to disregard this duly enacted law until they engage in a potentially lengthy court battle designed to defeat it.

They have piously stated that the intent of this legal maneuver is simply to ascertain the court's opinion on constitutionality. It seems more accurate to state, however, that they will spend the taxpayers' money not for lawyers to be impartial or to argue both sides, but only to vigorously present arguments against the measure.

On many occasions, City Council members have been charged with the obligation of implementing duly enacted laws. Only on this occasion have they refused to do so until they can mount a legal battle against the law.

What makes this law different, they say, is that they believe it might be depriving some citizens of their constitutional rights, namely, "free speech, free association and to seek lawful employment."

The free speech that these politicians refer to is, to be more direct, the right, as the politicians see it, of certain donors -- the beneficiaries of their votes -- to give them money, gifts or future employment.

The argument of unconstitutionality is unlikely to prevail. Measure A was written by constitutional scholars specifically to comply with U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding reasonable restrictions on donations and other benefits to politicians who favor the donor with some beneficial action.

Arguments can be made opposing many laws, including this one. These arguments, however, are properly made once the law is implemented and enforced against the complaining party.

It is extraordinary, to say the least, that the city government should take it upon itself to challenge a duly enacted law. It is, in fact, questionable whether the city has the legal authority to do so.

Besides the argument that the measure deprives donors of the 1st Amendment right to freely "express" themselves, city officials argue that city commission members are being deprived of their right to receive anything (for instance, employment) from those favored by their actions. This argument is far from compelling for the following reasons:

First, Measure A only applies to the relatively small number of city officials who actually "approve" or "vote for" a benefit of over $25,000; it does not apply to all officials or commission members generally.

Second, officials can simply remove (recuse) themselves from "approval" or "voting" on any particular matter if they wish to take money, gifts or employment without violating Measure A.

Third, in any event, Measure A only bans the official from taking gifts, campaign contributions or employment for one year after the official leaves office (or five years if the official remains in office); thereafter, there are no restrictions.

If an official finds it too difficult to serve the public without personally benefiting, it would be better for all concerned if he or she declined public service. It is the clear intent of those who wrote and voted for this measure that expectations of personal rewards should not influence the actions of public officials.

There seems to be no shortage of citizens who would be willing to serve under Measure A (one council member referred recently to the large pool of applicants for commissioner positions). Many citizens have given up the hope that public officials will act in the public interest, uninfluenced by donations or gifts from those seeking their favors.

Whether or not this cynicism is merited, it is crucial that the attitude of the public be altered. This can be done by laws that not only prevent corruption, but also remove the appearance of corruption. Measure A is a well-written law that serves this purpose.

Irving Prager is a professor of law at the University of La Verne College of Law and an Oaks Project Volunteer Organizer

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