(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.