Ethics rules called for
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home / citizen / in the media

The Press-Enterprise (San Bernadino Edition)
Sep 17, 2001

by Imran Ghori

Ethics rules called for

San Bernardino County supervisors say they've taken steps to keep government clean
SAN BERNARDINO: In six California cities, from San Francisco to Santa Monica, voters have overwhelmingly approved conflict-of-interest laws. And in counties such as San Diego and Orange, public pressure has brought about stricter campaign-finance rules.

From campaign-finance reform to the establishment of ethics commissions, government reformers have prescribed a long list of measures to try to end corruption in politics.

Such changes may not have prevented the kinds of scandals that have surrounded San Bernardino County for the past few years, in which officials are alleged to have accepted bribes for contracts.

But advocates say reforms can make it easier to spot instances of wrongdoing and reinforce ethical standards of conduct. Bob Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, recommends taking action while these scandals are still fresh on people's minds. "Now is a good time to be looking at the whole gamut and reform the whole system," he said. "That's the only time it gets done."

In the wake of corruption allegations, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has adopted several measures such as policies preventing county officials from taking part in county auctions, requiring firms who do business with the county to disclose whether they employ former county employees, and increasing background investigations of potential employees.

The county also has undertaken audits of policies relating to contracts and leasing, and adopted the International City/County Management Association code of ethics, a list of pledges to provide honesty and professionalism in government. But most of those changes affected only county staff and internal practices and few regulations applying to elected officials have been proposed.

Viewed with skepticism

Several county supervisors say they are skeptical about proposed campaign-finance changes such as contribution limits. Supervisor Jerry Eaves, who has been accused of using his position to seek campaign contributions, is scheduled to enter a plea on federal bribery and corruption charges today in Los Angeles.

"If county officials implicated in the current scandal weren't afraid of violating current laws, new rules wouldn't make much difference, Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said. "All we've done is made it tighter for those people who already abide by the rules," Hansberger said.

Supervisor Bill Postmus' chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, said Postmus considers contribution limits an infringement on free speech. "He believes in full disclosure and timely disclosure of who's contributing to whom but he doesn't believe in restricting people's rights to support candidates they support," Mitzelfelt said.

Supervisor Fred Aguiar said such limits would only serve to give wealthy candidates an advantage. In recent years, many cities and counties, such as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, have taken steps to try to restore confidence in government by establishing campaign contribution limits, conflict-of-interest laws and ethics commissions. Many of these changes were brought about by public pressure, Stern said.

In California, 70 cities and counties have adopted contribution limits ranging from $250 in San Diego to $1,000 in Los Angeles. Some cities also have voluntary spending limits and provide matching public money for those who abide by them. In Los Angeles City Council races, spending limits have opened up the process to more candidates, Stern said.

Conflict seen

Campaign finance is a key issue for Common Cause, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that lobbies for government reform. Ed Davis, director of state organizations for the group, said the drive to raise campaign funds and the people who tend to contribute the most create an inherent conflict. "That money for the most part comes from people and organizations that have a particular interest in legislation," he said. "They want something for that money."

Voters have also taken aim at business influence on government in recent years. The Oaks Project, a group associated with consumer advocates Harvey Rosenfield and Ralph Nader began initiative drives in six California cities last year to adopt conflict-of-interest rules. The campaigns in Santa Monica, Pasadena, Claremont, Vista and San Francisco proved successful. In Irvine, the initiative failed to qualify for the ballot by 81 votes. While voters approved the initiative in the rest of the cities, only San Francisco has enacted the law.

In the other cities, officials have fought to prevent the rules from being implemented. "These cities want to make sure they have possibilities to keep their cozy relationships with businesses ," said Margaret Strubel, an organizer with the campaign, which is by The Oaks Project. "This would stop cozy relationship and would make things much more fairer for the public."

The proposal, dubbed the Taxpayer Protection Amendment by The Oaks Project, prohibits elected officials from receiving gifts, contributions or employment from companies -- or high ranking representatives of such firms -- doing business with their city or county. "This actually gives people something where they can fight the bad influences that can run City Hall," Strubel said.

Ethics panels

Several counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, have also formed ethics commissions that act as a local version of the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency that investigates complaints against elected officials.

Stern, a former general counsel with the FPPC, said the state agency doesn't have the resources to investigate many local complaints. A local ethics board would act as a watchdog and could restore confidence in San Bernardino County, he said. "They have the moral authority of drawing attention to problems," he said. "They really act as a deterrent I think."

But Michael Johnston, a professor of political science at Colgate University in New York, cautioned that such bodies can be just as subject to political manipulation as any other. In some cases, they could be used to go after political enemies, he said.

Hansberger said he is open to the idea of an ethics commission. But Aguiar rejected the idea, saying the current oversight agencies are sufficient. "I don't think the county of San Bernardino needs an ethics commission to investigate complaints," he said. "There are systems in place that do that."

Hansberger said the problem is people who are willing to violate the law and the way to monitor against that is to have the public and the press holding public officials to greater scrutiny.

"The truth is virtually everything we're concerned about today was a violation of existing rules," he said.

CONTRIBUTION LIMITS
Southern California-area campaign donation limits include:
* Los Angeles City, $1,000
* San Diego County, $250
* San Bernardino County, none
* Riverside County, none
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