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Agenda 2013—Transparency in Government

The new City Council says it favors transparency in government. Let's see some action in 2013

(Note: This is the first in a series of articles about issues that the new City Council should take up in 2013).

Although there was some disagreement on issues in the recent campaign for City Council, there was general agreement that government should be more transparent.

Adam Nick – “Will move the City Council and City Hall in the direction of transparency…”

Dwight Robinson – “…make city government more transparent…”

Transparency is important because it minimizes the dirty tricks that politicians can play. In these pages we’ve pointed out some of these dirty tricks which are alive and well in our City. They include:

• Lying to the public (e.g., the claim that Lake Forest is “one of the safest cities in the U.S.” when in fact our crime rate is worse than almost any other city in South County). Click here for the complete story.

• Accepting money from vested interests and then voting to give these vested interests what they want. Click here for the complete story.

But there are some cities (e.g., the notorious Bell) where the dirty tricks that politicians play are even worse. And these involve financial shenanigans that significantly impact the financial well-being of the City. Fortunately we have been spared these egregious activities.

In the past few years Lake Forest has made (reluctant) strides forward in making City politics more transparent. These steps include:

• Making video tapes of Council and Commission meetings available online (This one barely passed with a controversial 3-2 vote)

• Putting City Council minutes and agendas online

• Putting important documents online, including the warrant register (the money we pay)

• Putting information about the City Manager’s contract online. By the way, he gets $240,656 per year plus other benefits including incentive bonus ($12,000), auto allowance ($7,053), $250,000 in city paid life insurance, and the usual retirement and health benefit package. We even pay for his professional dues and subscriptions to professional organizations and his travel to various meetings.

• Putting information about City Council compensation online. FWIW - They get $8,448 per year plus retirement and Medicare.

• Putting some limited information about compensation for Assistant City Manager, Deputy City Manager, and Directors of Management, Public Works, Finance, and Community Services.

We are now compatible, more or less, with other cities, although certainly nothing that we are doing puts us in the forefront of the transparency movement, and until very recently we were certainly occupying the back of the bus.

So here are some suggestions to make our city government more transparent and make Lake Forest a leader in transparency:

1. Provide copies of all completed Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Forms online

Laguna Niguel has almost all FPPC forms online, and Irvine currently posts Form 803. IMO, the most important of forms are the 700 and the 460.

Form 700 is the “Statement of Economic Interests.” According to the FPPC Form 700s are “an important means for the official that files them, the media, and the public to help gauge where potential conflicts of interest may exist. These state mandated forms include information about the sources of an official's income, investments, business positions, real property holdings and gifts.”

Form 460 is the Campaign Committee Statements required for anyone seeking office who spends more than $ 1,000 in a calendar year (that means anybody who runs). Candidates must list who gave them money and how they spent the money.

In my previous series, Follow the Money, I demonstrated that decisions made by City Council members almost always went in the direction of favoring people and businesses who gave them money for their campaigns. This is very unfortunate, and gives the appearance of impropriety, even though it is not technically illegal.

Having Council members post their financial interests may not stop this questionable practice, but it will make it easier for the public to see who is doing it.


2. Amend the “Request to Speak” form

People speak at every meeting of the city council, usually asking for something that improves their life or their community or their business. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some people have also “greased the wheels” by giving money to city council members. They never mention this, nor do the city council members mention it when they vote. Let’s stop the secret deals and put it on the table. If you’ve given money to city council members, and now you’ve come to a meeting, let’s be honest and let everyone know. Let’s level the field. We can do this by adding this statement to the “Request to Speak” form:

“I declare that to the best of my knowledge, in the past 24 months, neither I nor members of my direct family, nor my business nor any associated business, have contributed to the campaign committee of any City Council member, nor given any City Council member a gift whose value exceeded $25.00.”

 “If you cannot sign this statement, please explain, providing approximate dates, amounts, and the names of the council members to whom you contributed.”

3. Require that all Request for Proposals (RFPs) have a new page entitled “Disclosure of Financial Contributions”

Because we are a “contract city” most of our expenses go to companies that compete for our business by completing the RFP process. But unfortunately some of these companies try to get an unfair advantage by giving money to city council members who never mention these contributions. By requiring companies to disclose this in the RFP, we will make public this action.

Here’s a suggested wording:

“I declare that to the best of my knowledge, in the past 24 months, neither my company nor any associated companies, nor any individuals on behalf of my company or associated companies, have contributed to the campaign committee of any City Council member, nor given any City Council member a gift whose value exceeded $25.00.”


4. Amend the “Code of Ethics”

Steps 2 and 3 listed above will put a public eye on what has been a secret system, but it will not stop the process by which people and businesses unduly influence City Council members’ decisions by giving them money for their re-election campaigns. And even though any reasonable person would read the existing Code of Ethics as prohibiting these practices, apparently the past City Council members do not interpret their Code as prohibiting this behavior, so to remove any questions, let’s amend the Code and specifically address the issue.

Here’s some suggested wording:

“I will not accept any money or gift of value from any person or business that has a contract with the city.
I will not accept any money or gift of value from any person or business that comes before the city seeking a concession that will improve the financial situation of that person or business.
If I have accepted money or a gift of value from a person or business in the past, and that person or business comes before the Council for a contract or a concession, I will either (a) return the money/gift or (b) abstain from voting.
These guidelines apply to the businesses as well as any employees or stockholders in the businesses, and any associated companies, and these guidelines apply to myself as well as persons in my direct family.”

5. Provide complete addresses for people receiving checks from the City.

More than a dozen checks are issued every month for more than $5,000 to people with no addresses listed. The City lists the names and addresses of all the businesses that receive checks, so it seems logical to account for checks paid to people in the same manner. This is one way we can keep track of how much of the City’s money is spent on people in the City.

6. Provide full information about staff compensation

The City provides very skimpy information about the compensation of the Department Directors and the Assistant and Deputy City Manager. All we get is the salary range. Other cities provide much more details. For example, check out Laguna Hills or Laguna Niguel.  Let’s do the same type of thorough job we do with the City Manager as we do with the rest of the staff who receive more than $100,000 in salary.

7. Televise the Candidate Forum

In the past, Cox Cable televised a candidate forum. In 2010 they declined to do this even while they continue to televise the July 4th Parade. So let’s be sure that people get a good chance to look at the candidates for city council. The City should sponsor a debate for all candidates and use the existing video equipment to televise the debate. It should be scheduled for early September so that people have time to get a good look and do their homework as they prepare for the upcoming election.

These 7 steps will go a long way toward increasing government transparency and decreasing the influence of special interests. Since our three newest city council members have all publically endorsed making government more transparent, we should see all these measures adopted in the near future.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Andromeda December 03, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Very nice column, Mr. Gardner. The problem with our society is that we have very few people (let alone politicians) who are fully transparent relative to public matters. Just a handful. Public personas may be transparent in certain aspects of their public actions or positions yet very selective, secretive or dishonest in other parts of their public actions or positions. Billy Joel said it well in "The Stranger". Unfortunately, when there is a direct personal benefit to being dishonest, secretive or selective I would say a majority of citizens in our society today succumb to it. And I would say the large, large majority of our politicians fall prey to it since most get into politics today primarily for personal benefit and not to serve the public. It's a symptom of a larger problem, essentially the decline of an empire. You propose some wonderful ideas above. I love your proposals that would help eliminate the 'play for pay' from political elected office. But again, you face the problem that I addressed. Many electeds ran for political office for this very reason. It's like putting a nice big piece of cheese out at night next to a mouse hole and expecting it to be there in the morning when you wake up. You will only bring disappointment upon yourself. I know you have hope for the changing of the guard. Personally, I think it will be more of the same and very little will change for the better. We will see who was right in 2 years.
Omolu December 03, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Thanks for another interesting article. I agree with the need for transparensy in government. I think the real issue is #4 amend the ethics code which would stop these shady deals. #2 and #3 are not needed if #4 has some teeth. But #4 has to have some teeth for it to work. City council members now violate the ethics code in their behavior, as you pointed out in previous blogs, so giving them more codes to violate is not a solution unless the violation carriues with it some type of punishment.
Jim Gardner December 03, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Yes. Of course you're right. On both counts. The existing code of ethics says that council members “Safeguard ability to make independent, objective, fair and impartial judgments by scrupulously avoiding financial and social relationships and transactions that may compromise, or give the appearance of compromising, objectivity, independence, and honesty.” As I pointed out in my article "Follow the Money" the actions of the council members clearly "give the appearance of compromising" even if they don't technically violate the law. But because they all "have their hands in the cookie jar" no one wants to yell "uncle". And even if someone did, there is no mechanism for doing it, and no consequence for being in violation. So we need an overhaul of the Code of Ethics, not merely an amendment. Thanks for the insight.
Jim Gardner December 03, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Thanks. I hope I'm right and we see some real progress in the next two years. Certainly in this area of transparency, in which both new council members (Adam Nick and Dwight Robinson) and in which the previous new addition (Scott Voigts) are all in agreement, and in which their segment of the Republican Party of OC is also in agreement, we can see some progress in the adoption of these measures and any others they can think of. By themselves they have a 3-2 majority on a vote, so I am hopeful in this area. None of these changes will add substantially to the costs of government and most of them have virtually no cost. All of them will show that the City wants to be in the forefront of an important movement in government.
Andromeda December 03, 2012 at 11:06 PM
But, Mr. Gardner, the problem is it takes the same people who use political office for personal gain to change the rules that would eliminate 'play for pay'. Seriously, do you really think that has a snowball's chance in hell of happening? Let's all be intellectually realistic here. Don't you see that they have the system by the short hairs? If betting were legal I would quadruple down that very little changes for the better and more changes for the worse in 2013. As I told you before, how many times have you hoped for change only to revisit the very same problems every 2 years at election time? As long as politicians can take our campaign contributions and votes during election season and lie or make false promises with immunity I see no real hope for change. Oh sure, we can vote them out in 2,4 or 6 years but by that time the damage has been done. And the electorate is so apathetic and ignorant of bad actions within their respective governments that the liars usually get reelected anyway. So? I think lying or making false promises to voters to attain political office should be a crime like perjury - as it is a form of fraud - by soliciting votes or money based on fabrications or false promises or false pledges. If a businessman made false promises about what his product was capable of to his customers he'd be in hot water. No??? Why not politicians? That's the only hope as I see it and that will never happen. It's like asking the mouse to return the cheese.
Andromeda December 04, 2012 at 04:03 PM
Mr. Gardner, I must say that I am more than a little amused at the idealism of those who run for political office. I'm told that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, then expecting different outcomes. Well, if there's any truth to that perhaps it's time to spend a little of our public treasure to pad the walls of City Hall. Let's be candid. Do you think you are a friend and ally of the young turks on the City Council with all your perpetual calls for transparency and local government reform? Do you? Do you think that they will have a closed door session and say "Hey, Jim Gardner has some fantastic ideas. It won't cost us a thing, Let's implement them." heh. I opine that the young turks on the Council are not necessarily your friends and might even deliberately avoid your suggestions just to spite you. Now I would be estatic if they proved me wrong. I would jump for joy. If I had a tail I would wag it vigorously for hours on end. Unfortunately though, I believe I am right again. But I love your proposals anyway.
Jim Gardner December 04, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Hi Andromeda, Obviously I can't control how people vote. But I can do research and offer my suggestions and hope that some get accepted. In the 4 years I have been very active in city government I have a pretty good record of getting my recommendations ultimately accepted, although most of these have been relatively minor (e.g., online agendas, video taping). The city has even increased their spending in the city, from 2% to 5%, which is still much too small, but better than it was. Would that have happened without my constant agitation? Even on issues that have not YET been successful (e.g., the dog park, the vested interests, Musick Jail), these issues are now much better known as a result of my activities. So I am not discouraged. Indeed, 4 years ago when I first ran for city council, the 5 people there seemed invulnerable - Life time appointments. Now 3 of them are gone. No one in their right mind would have imagined this could happen. Yet it has. My latest proposals (transparency) are perfectly in keeping with what the new council members themselves have recommended. All I have done is to make their general statements into concrete actionable proposals. I can't imagine why they would not want to go ahead and do what they said they wanted to do, especially since they are part of a majority who believe in these issues. I have no illusions. No one on the Council will do what I want. They will do what they want. But I can try to educate/influence them.
Andromeda December 04, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Mr. Gardner, although your columns are a delight to read and thoroughly educational, you can hee and haw until the cows come home - but if no one shows up to a council meeting to protest the expansion of a prison now designed to accomodate the worst of the worst heinous criminals and located in the middle of a Lake Forest neighborhood - do you understand that you are running a race into a 95 mph headwind? You need to chastise the apathy and lack of citizen interest. Not just the politicians who we already recognize as puppets for the special interests! For instance, Mission Viejo just approved a $860,000 dog park. 70 residents showed up to the council meeting to demand approval. It was passed by a 3-2 vote. Without those 70 people do you think it would have passed? When Lake Forest residents finally wake up and see that all the cities that surround Lake Forest have dog parks, yet they don't, and storm city hall demanding equal access, nothing changes, Mr. Gardner. You can write blogs until you're blue in the face and your fingers develop callouses. Change demands citizen interest and engagement. We love your blogs, but it takes more than one chef to make a gourmet meal to feed thousands. I just want to add some realism to our discussions here. That's all.
Dennis Fletcher December 04, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Andromeda, your dog park analogy is a good one. Showing up at City Council meetings to demand more transparency along the lines that Jim Gardner has outlined would be a good way of supporting his and others' excellent suggestions.
Andromeda December 04, 2012 at 09:54 PM
But Dennis, it's just common sense. Trust me, I am no small particle nuclear physicist. But some things just jump out and me. I scratch my head and wonder why others don't see it too. I have come to the conclusion that people see only what they want to see and nothing more. And when you prove to them that the emperor is naked they simply ignore you. The failure of even ONE PERSON to show up at the Council meeting to protest the expansion of Musick proved to me what the REAL problem is. One can blame the electeds only so long. At one point or another we must point the finger in the right direction.
Jim Gardner December 04, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Hi Dennis and Andromeda, In theory it's true, but it fact it often doesn't work that way. In 2008 more than 100 people showed up on several occasions to support a no-kill shelter and a joint venture with other South County cities. The Council voted against. Recently, more than 100 people showed up to ask the Council not to pursue the legal actions against medical marijuana dispensaries. The Council decided to go ahead and spend $1,000,000 doing it. So the past councils did not necessarily listen to the public. That being said, it certainly is important for people to make their desires known, and the fact so few people show up is a poor reflection on the electorate.
MisturChips December 04, 2012 at 10:06 PM
I can't even get ANYONE from my community to show up at the traffic meetings, much less normal city hall meetings (of which I've been to.... one? Two? Can't recall); it's a sad state. Sure, I, too, suffer from the 'leave me alone' argument where I want a quiet evening with my wife and dog strolling about the neighborhood, but there are some things important enough to warrant a mass showing at <insert whichever here> meetings held for our benefit. As far as transparency goes, there are valid points in the above conversations. Sure, it 'SHOULD' happen, but I don't think folks are going to throttle themselves with their own whip either. Hope the MV dog park is nice, I'll probably visit frequently if it's nearby.
Andromeda December 04, 2012 at 10:28 PM
But, Mr. Gardner, with no resistance or support (depending on the issue) there is absolutely ZERO chance that the Council will give due consideration to both sides of the issue and their special interests will automatically get the vote. And if 100 people show up and demand action and have their will thwarted repeatedy on various matters word gets around that the Council does not represent the ones who voted them into office. That's what we call 'the political process'. If we aren't going to promote 'the political process' we might as well call the Council our local 'politburo'. We can't make excuses for citizen apathy. 5 people on the Council does not a government make. The 80,000+ or so Lake Forest citizens are the government. And they have the ULTIMATE responsibility and power. And in the end they will get the government that they deserve.

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