On Monday, the Ad Hoc Committee for City Governance Reform conducted its first meeting of the year. The committee was convened in the wake of last year’s racism scandal on council, which centered around backroom dealings by the council’s power bloc – namely, those allied with former Council President Nury Martinez – to interfere in and distort the then-unfolding 2020 redistricting process.
It has been given a broad portfolio, with the most sweeping slate of changes under consideration to the administration of city government since the secession crisis of the 1990s, which led to the adoption of Los Angeles’s modern charter.
City sees light on governance reform
Before taking up the meeting itself, it seems to me worth asking, “Why now?” Why is City Council initiating the conversation around governance reform now? I do not suggest that there is not clear cause for them to do so, but, rather, I would argue that clear cause has existed for many years without stirring Council to act. The mere existence of scandal and corruption are not evidently enough to push Council to examine the structures that promote bad behavior or even make it inevitable. So what did?
Perhaps it is merely that the weighty accumulation of scandal in City Hall in the 2010s and in the early years of this decade has finally reached a point where public outrage demanded (a public show of) substantive change. At earlier points, a politician could effectively distance themselves from the conduct of an individual embroiled in scandal; now, that is not so easily done.
It could be the specifically racist dimension of this scandal, as opposed to others of a recent vintage (e.g. former CM Mitch Englander playing matchmaker between downtown developers and a home furnishings concern). But, in the immediate aftermath, there hasn’t really been a structural assessment of how city governance may promote racism in high places. Nonetheless, certainly, it is this dimension that led to the scandal achieving supernova levels of heat in the press.
The conservative media apparatus was naturally going to see that coverage of the Fed Tapes went international. The conservative in America, after all, largely experiences evolving cultural ideas around race (and decorous conduct between races) as the product of conspiracy of social repression by which they, the conservative, are targeted by a detached liberal elite. Any example of outright racism by a Democratic politician is so much red meat to the News Corp. jackals.
That would go to suggest that the greater scrutiny attending this affair than others played some role.
There is the nexus of the corruption to a specifically political process: the decennial redistricting of the city’s council seats. A whole host of important things are tied up in here – from the threat that redistricting poses to councilmembers to the direct evidence of corruption by a clique of sitting councilmembers to the immediate vacancy the scandal caused in the president’s chair – that make the Fed Tapes different from the recent run of scandals.
For example of the self-preservation instinct in this, both Paul Krekorian and Nithya Raman, now chair and vice chair of the City Governance Reform committee, were both targeted by the Martinez Bloc to have their districts put “in the blender,” with the intent of jeopardizing their political plans for their districts (in Krekorian’s case, according to Martinez, these extend to the succession after he leaves office).
So is it self-interested? To an extent, it makes sense. While an independent redistricting committee may not protect you from some radical change to your district, some of which hurt your political futures, it also won’t intentionally target you for elimination. Martinez ran things that way, though, and there is every chance someone else will do the same in 2030 unless some changes get made.
But the other primary factor to me seems to be that the Council that was is not the Council that is. Much has been written about the significant turnover on City Council. A larger than expected progressive wing is ascendant, having picked up seats consistently while much of the rest of the council is gripped in the turmoil of suspensions and trials.
While the Council itself chose repeatedly to ignore calls for reform after earlier scandal, instead ascribing each incident of corruption to the choices of a few bad actors, they ultimately did so at their peril. The public continued to get angrier about the aloof misrule they were seeing in City Hall, seething not just at the corruption, but perhaps even more so at the open arrogance and contempt by elected officials who so readily dismissed public concerns.
The new crop of councilmembers can be attributed to the intransigence of the old crop, as much as to more prosaic realities like a growing political machine to support the leftist ideals of many of the city’s under-40s. As successive rounds of turnover have taken place, we have rapidly seen a epochal shift in the makeup of the council. City Council, which in the 2010s was frequently a stop-off for politicians termed out of Sacramento or biding their time for better things, has now become the locus of some very earnest politicking.
It is no doubt that the current Council is more inclined to radical systems change than any in recent memory.
On Monday’s meeting, the bulk of action centered around a proposal to update to Los Angeles’s three-decade old ordinance governing the permissible activities of lobbyists. The Municipal Lobbying Ordinance (MLO) has been known for a long time to be in need of significant revision; in fact, the 2022 report from the Ethics Commission recommending changes was the third such report, following previous doomed attempts in 2008 and 2016.
While the Ethics Commission has been attempting to perform its role in recommending changes to safeguard the City from corruption, both of the previous reports were allowed by City Council, under the presidencies of Eric Garcetti and Herb Wesson, to expire without any action being taken. That made the Reform Committee the first to actually hold a hearing on this issue, a fact that was noted by many members of the public who called in to support reforming the MLO. Callers and councilmembers alike thanked Krekorian for simply agendizing the issue so that it could be debated.
In response, the Council President spoke about his desire that the Reform Committee would serve as a forum for what he called “the many proposals around governance reform and ethics changes that have been made over the years that have gone to die in the darkness.” His comments were directed pointedly at previous Council Presidents, including Garcetti, Wesson, and Martinez, who had used their power as the head of the Rules Committee to pocket veto reform proposals they found inconvenient.
The Committee took up a Nithya Raman-Mike Bonin motion from last fall that would update the ordinance while also amending the changes recommended in the Ethics Commission’s report. Rob Quan of the group Unrig LA called lobbying reform “the single most important thing you could do to reform our broken and battered City Hall without amending our charter.”
At particular issue in public comment, and weighing heavily on the discussion at the dais, was the ability for lobbyists or other compensated agents to misrepresent themselves to neighborhood councils or other public officials. On that subject, Jamie York, Secretary of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, spoke of an experience in which a lobbyist for cement interests addressed her council at a meeting without making any disclosures to the room. York informed the board that the speaker was a lobbyist, which resulted in a spurious ethics investigation being filed against her herself in a targeted reprisal.
A tremendous number of representatives from the neighborhood council system were in attendance for the meeting, and many, if not most, of them credited York with their awareness of the issue.
In this meeting, following a lengthy discussion, initiated by Councilmember Blumenfield, ensued as to whether not just lobbyists but anyone receiving compensation of any kind should also be required to make disclosures before giving comments.
Councilmember Harris-Dawson said that in his years working for the nonprofit sector, he always wanted officials to know if his group had been responsible for organizing a large turnout to a meeting, and, so, was supportive of broad requirements.
Councilmember Raman raised a concern regarding the potential that members of the public who needed financial assistance to cover for missing work or for transportation to meetings would be tarred with a label of “paid” commenter that would lead to their sincere concerns being ignored. President Krekorian drew on the example of Proposition 64 disclosures (“… known to the State of CA to cause cancer…”) as an anti-pattern for the Council to avoid.
At the fore of discussion, too, was the question of how the tiny Ethics Commission would enforce a substantially enlarged pool of required disclosures. Cynically, one could see in the Blumenfield approach a means of rendering stricter regulations incapacitated by so increasing their scope as to make them practically unenforceable.
It would seem that at some point the Reform Committee must run up against the question of how the Ethics Committee is funded and whether or not it can be extended greater independence from the Council itself. But none of those questions were raised, let alone settled, Monday. For now, city departments have been tasked with coming up with a proposal for how a robust disclosure-of-interest policy could work if adopted.