Editorial: Los Angeles City Hall Can't Be Trusted to Fix Itself

The Los Angeles City Council showed its true selfish colors Tuesday when it gutted key reforms to reduce corruption at City Hall and strengthen independent ethics oversight. Bowing to special interests and unwilling to give up power, the council voted to include a watered-down package of ethics policies on the November vote.

This should have been a major turning point for the Los Angeles City Council, where a culture of corruption has been allowed to thrive. Half a dozen politicians and public officials have been sentenced to prison for corruption cases in the last four years. Two current council members face accusations of ethics violations. Rather, it was a display of arrogance that highlighted why it is so important that some power be taken away from the 15 council members.

Last month, the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform recommended a set of policies to strengthen the Ethics Commission, which is the city's watchdog over elected officials and charged with enforcing funding laws. campaigns, hiring, lobbying and conflict of interest.

While not as ambitious as good-government advocates urged, it was a worthwhile package and included changes to make the commission more independent from the politicians it regulates. That included adding two new commissioners appointed by people other than elected officials and therefore not beholden to them.

He also proposed giving the commission the authority to submit proposals directly to voters when the City Council disagrees with the policy or refuses to act, although the council would still have retained enormous power to block electoral measures. Ironically, Tuesday's action shows why bypassing the council is necessary to implement meaningful political reform in Los Angeles.

But even those modest changes proved too much for council members and some special interests. After a last-minute lobbying campaign led by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the council voted 13-2 to remove those two reforms from the November ballot measure. Council President Paul Krekorian and Councilman Nithya Raman, who headed the ad hoc committee on reform, voted against weakening the ethics package. Good for them.

It is disappointing, if not surprising, that Councilman Hugo Soto-Martínez, a former union organizer, has pushed to kill the key reforms. He said he did not want to delegate responsibility for council policymaking to unelected and unaccountable members of the Ethics Commission. But if not them, who? City Council members have been unwilling to pass meaningful anti-corruption reforms on their own. What could be more accountable to the public than allowing the Ethics Commission to bypass a stubborn council and take reforms directly to voters?

Remaining ethics reforms include increasing fines for the first time in decades and setting a minimum budget for the Ethics Commission so that staff are not dependent on the goodwill of the people they regulate for funding. These are positive changes, but voters deserve the opportunity to approve important reforms. And they probably would. Eight in 10 voters surveyed last year said the level of corruption at City Hall is concerning, and 9 in 10 believe ethics standards should be stricter.

It really looked like the City Council might accept major changes to the city's political system after a secret audio recording was leaked in October 2022 revealing three council members, including current Councilman Kevin de León, making deplorable comments and racially divisive. In the recording, they conspired for political power with the former head of the labor federation, the same federation that successfully lobbied this week to gut ethics reforms.

In the wake of the scandal, council members introduced motion after motion proposing long-overdue solutions. Independent Redistricting! A bigger City Hall! Ethical reforms! Diluting the power of councilors over land use! Academics and advocates of good government joined the cause, produce reports, holding town halls and conducting surveys. The message was loud and clear: Los Angeles residents want a less corrupt, more transparent and representative government.

And what have they gotten instead? The bare minimum. The lowest of the ripe fruits of the arrangements.

Starting now, the November vote will have two reform measures: a watered-down version of the ethics package and an independent redistricting commission similar to the one the state and county already have, so City Council members cannot draw their own districts.

Proposals to expand the City Council to provide better representation and fix the city's broken development approval process have been sent to a charter reform commission, whose creation was approved this week by the council. The commission will spend the next two years developing recommendations to improve city governance with an eye toward placing charter changes on the 2026 ballot.

But that commission will hit the same hurdle as ethics reformers: The City Council will ultimately decide what gets on the ballot. And you can bet there will be a lot of lobbying by interest groups to influence the changes voters can make.

Tuesday's vote showed that City Hall cannot be trusted to fix itself. If Angelenos want major change in their city government, it will take continued external pressure and possibly a citizen-driven initiative to make it happen.

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