(April 12, 2007) -- The City Council's Elections Oversight Committee, chaired and created by Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal, has voted to forward a recommendation to let Councilmembers double the amount of campaign contributions they can shift to Council "officeholder" accounts from which incumbents can dispense money within broad parameters -- that critics have called slush funds that incumbents can use to curry favor with politically useful or favored constituencies.
The recommendation to double the account amount from $5,000 to $10,000 for Councilmembers, and increase it to $25,000 for citywide officeholders, came at the Committee's April 10 meeting via the office of LB City Auditor Laura Doud, citing its ability to defray tapping General Fund money, particularly for items on which use of public money isn't allowed.
The report recommending the increases -- which was the agendized subject matter of the Committee's action -- was not publicly available online either before the Committee meeting or as we write on the early morning of April 12.
A press release from Vice Mayor Lowenthal said Council officeholder accounts "fund numerous items and projects that are not covered by the General Fund, including pages in nonprofit program booklets, t-shirts for community clean-ups and events, holiday gift baskets for needy families, and more."
However, use of officeholder accounts, filled by unpent campaign contributions, was a frequent target of the late LB civic activist Jim Sturm, one of the original proponents of LB's Campaign Reform Act, Prop M. Mr. Sturm frequently used the Council Chamber podium to deride use of "officeholder accounts" that he said allowed Council incumbents to hand favors to groups or constitutents useful as elections approached.
And Assistant City Attorney Heather Mahood told the Committee that while the funds can't be used to run for a future office or personal items, the funds can be used for items including "membership in organizations, buying tables at dinners, that type of thing, as long as there's a government purpose or a legislative purpose."
Prop M permits, but doesn't require, incumbents to maintain "officeholder accounts."
Assistant City Auditor Cherin told the Committee:
Mr. Cherin: We undertook the task, as requested [by the Committee in Nov. 06] of reviewing comparable jurisdictions in terms of officeholder accounts and what they allow and what they do not allow, of limitations that are placed on those accounts...Our finding is that the amount should be increased from the current $5,000 level. The ultimate number is obviously a policy decision to be made by you. By way of guidance, we recommended, in an attempt to start the dialogue, a suggestion that for City Councilmembers it should be increased to $10,000 and for citywide electeds they be increased to $25,000. Those are not set in stone. Again they're simply a recommendation to start the dialogue from our office. We do like the concept of these officeholder accounts for a couple of reasons, namely, it defrays money that otherwise would be expended from the General Fund and allows electeds to utilize another source of funding for areas that sort of fall into that gray are between what is an appropriate use of public funds and what is not.
Pressed by Committee chair Lowenthal on the amount of the Auditor's office recommended increases, Assistant City Auditor Cherin reiterated, "Our recommendation is that the current limits be increased. We tentatively suggest that they be raised to those amounts because they're consistent with what other jurisdictions allow, namely San Jose and Oakland. However, we're not set in that. That's a policy decision to be finalized by the Council, but those numbers would not be inconsistent with what other cities. allow."
Asked for what purposes officeholder accounts can be used, Assistant City Attorney Heather Mahood said:
Ass't City Att'y Mahood: Our local code defers to the Government Code...and the general rule is they can be used for any legislative, political or governmental purpose...and then [they] pretty much prohibit any actions that would deal with your future elections, it can only be based on incumbency, so you can't use any officeholder funds to run for a future office. You can't use them for personal benefit either, for clothing or health reasons...but after that, it's pretty broad. It's basically any political, government or legislative purpose, so it involves, you know, membership in organizations, buying tables at dinners, that type of thing, as long as there's a government purpose or a legislative purpose.
Councilman Val Lerch asked "Why are we doing this?" Vice Mayor Lowenthal replied:
Vice Mayor Lowenthal: ...From the time officeholders accounts were designated in the Municipal Code there has never been any change, and the costs of being an officeholder, and the demands of an officeholder have changed tremendously...That's why the City Auditor did the survey for us [actually, because the Committee requested it in Nov. 06] and this is their recomemndation based on the number they've seen.
Ass't City Auditor Cherin: ...And if I could also add from a practical sense, Councilmemebr Lerch, from our office, what it does is allow us to direct an elected to another source of funding if they request reimbursement or direct purchase for something that we don't consider an appropriate use of public funds...
As previously reported by LBReport.com, Vice Mayor Lowenthal is expected to enter the Democrats' race for the 54th district Assembly seat. LB Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga and former Congressional candidate Jim Brandt are also running as Dems. On the GOP side, ELB homeowner and Republican activist Michael A. Jackson is a declared candidate; former Vice Mayor/Councilman Frank Colonna hasn't denied he'll run, saying he hasn't made a decision yet.
The Committee also voted to recommend adoption of a "Lobbyist Registration Ordinance," requiring persons receiving compensation for advocacy to disclose their affiliations. Larger cities, inclduing L.A., SF, SD and San Jose. have such ordinances; the Committee recommended a measure paralleling much of Oakland's ordinance. It would apply to persons receiving over a $1,000 a month for advocacy, requiring filing of quarterly activity reports and a $200 registration fee.
In a written release, Vice Mayor Lowenthal said:
"Lobbyist registration and quarterly reporting will greatly increase the transparency of elected and appointed City offices. Open disclosure of lobbyist efforts allows for greater public confidence in the decision-making process. This action reflects positively on the City's continued efforts for ethics reform."
The release cited recommendations from an June 2002 "Ethics Review Task Force" (some recommendations adopted, others not) and says she "brought forward the Task Force recommendations to the Elections Oversight Committee in order to review and evaluate how the City's ethics rules can be further strengthened."
Invoking the ethics issue comes as LB voters consider Proposition B on the May 1 ballot, a measure bundled by Vice Mayor Lowenthal to combine creation of an advisory "Ethics Commission" with creation of a Council "Compensation Commission" empowered to increase Councilmembers' salary to full time levels without requiring full time work and without a public vote by Councilmembers receiving the pay raise.
The proposals to increase "officeholder accounts" and create a lobbying registration ordinance now move to the full City Council for action.