The Big Reform: Forcing the City Council to Tell the Truth

GELFAND’S WORLD-- (This is another article in a continuing campaign to inform, educate and energize  Angelenos on the reformation of city government … explaining the how, the why and the possibilities.) Let's review a list of outrages that might have been prevented by the reform I will discuss here.

The city has given monopoly power to trash haulers. We all know how well that is working out. We learned how a developer spread nearly a million dollars in donations to three of our liberal lawmakers and subsequently got a zoning upgrade for a major development project in the southbay. We used to have to argue our parking tickets not to a judge, but to the Xerox Corporation! And let's not forget how investors get favors from the City Council, including sweetheart deals on the use of public property. 

In the realm of governmental reform, there is one goal that is the Holy Grail for activists. It has been tried in a few places such as Maine and Arizona, has been attacked by a conservative Supreme Court, and has been referred to as the reform that makes other reforms possible. 

It's called public financing of elections. Sometimes it's referred to as full public financing. Whatever you call it, it's the ultimate approach to ridding politics of the malign influence of donor money. 

What is full public financing and how would it work in a municipal election here in Los Angeles? In the simplest terms, full public financing offers a limited amount of publicly funded campaign money to all candidates who can demonstrate eligibility. In return, those candidates pledge that they will not take campaign money from any other source. 

In one fell swoop, the influence of donor money is removed. The candidate owes allegiance solely to the taxpayers. In our town, the City Council would be free to vote on rezoning issues without having to make political paybacks to developers. 

How does this system work? After demonstrating eligibility, the candidate is funded at a level that is sufficient to run a full fledged campaign, but not one of those money-wasting exercises in which an over-funded candidate sends you 20 mailers in 5 days. Under full public financing, each candidate will be able to send two or three mailers to the whole district (or several mailers to a selected target demographic). Candidates will have the chance to participate in public forums and debates. 

The total allocation for one candidate might be $100,000 for a City Council primary. In a citywide primary in which 100 candidates are trying their luck (an extreme case), the cost to the taxpayers would be ten million dollars. That seems like a lot, but it is only a little more than one-tenth of one percent of the city's yearly budget. And the public benefit is enormous. The other 99.85 percent of your tax dollars will be spent in a more honest and honorable way. The city government will be more efficient and less wasteful of your money. 

Even conservatives ought to be thinking with an open mind about public financing, because the influence of the municipal unions will be reduced. Members of the City Council won't owe the IBEW any more favors than they will owe the builders of skyscrapers. 

Under public financing of City Council races, we might not have had the current scandal with the trash hauler monopolies. (Notice that the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition strongly opposed the new system for good and obvious reasons, but was ignored by the City Council.) How much additional money is it costing Los Angeles residents to get their garbage picked up? That surcharge is just one part of the cost of having a for-sale government. 

Or consider that for years, your parking ticket appeals were judged by a private corporation, until a judge finally said No to the practice. Where were the members of the City Council when this question was brought up? 

One more thing. If City Council districts are made smaller by another one of our potential reforms, then the amount per candidate would go down. 

A number of years ago, I summarized the argument over cost as follows: For a dollar a year, you can have clean government. 


First and most pertinent, there is the worry that a system of full public financing will attract flakes and weirdos. We might think of some of the people who line up to speak to the City Council during public comment, or even some of the people who ran for mayor the last time there was an open seat. 

The recommended system has a solution: 

We filter out the flakes and weirdos in a simple and direct way: In order to become eligible to collect public financing, each candidate has to collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters, and each signature has to come with a five dollar donation. For example, in a City Council primary the threshold might be 500 signatures accompanied by the same number of five dollar bills collected from those who signed. 

The point is to filter out the true crazies and those who are too lazy to collect the signatures. It is a filter that selects for people of serious intent. They have to be convincing enough to get both the signatures and the donations. 

The point about the monetary donation is that for most of us, the amount is fairly small -- definitely affordable -- but we want a filter for serious intent on the part of the signers just as much as we want to filter the candidates. 

In this sense, the $5 requirement gets rid of the people who would sign a petition in your supermarket parking lot just to get rid of you. It's easy to sign a petition, but giving money -- even a few dollars -- is something that requires at least a modest level of committment. 

Counterarguments and Refutations 

The first counterargument that we will surely hear in television ads is that you are being asked to give even more money to the politicians. In these ads, the word politicians is always spoken with angry contempt by a gravely voiced speaker. 

The answer to this complaint is that we aren't giving away money for nothing. We are buying honest government. For every dollar we spend on public campaign financing, we will get ten or a hundred dollars back in the form of increased governmental honesty. There will be fewer give-backs to wealthy donors -- you know, the reduced property taxes and waived fees that the well connected receive in the casino of American government. Think of the insane offers that American cities have been making to Amazon, but without the benefits that would accrue from getting the next Amazon distribution center. 

The Second Counterargument -- Stronger but still Refutable 

Under our legal principles, we cannot limit candidacies to only those who agree to take public money. If a rich man wants to put his own money into running for the City Council, we cannot legally stop him. This makes life difficult for you if you are facing an opponent with wads of cash. The same argument holds for an opponent who goes out and raises tons of money from the special interests. It is a legitimate argument, but it can be answered. 

In the old days of public financing systems, the law was typically written to provide more money to a candidate who is facing this problem. For example, the public stipend could be doubled if you were facing a well funded opponent who refused to accept public financing. This is now obsolete due to action by the Supreme Court, which treats the right to collect and spend campaign dollars as a free speech right.  

But there is an alternative argument which goes like this: In cities and states where full public financing is offered, the voters come to accept the idea that elected officials should be answerable to the public rather than to special interest donors. Historically, the percentage of people elected with full public financing rose as the voters came to accept the system and to expect candidates to comply. Maine is probably the best example, since up to three-quarters of the state legislators who got elected ran using public financing in some years. 

In other words, it is possible to engineer a cultural shift among the voters. It takes time and effort, but the argument can and will be made. 

I offer another counterargument. The way I look at it, if you go up against a well funded candidate and lose, that would be unfortunate. But some publicly funded candidates will prevail and start to make their case on the City Council. We go from zero publicly funded officials to some. 

Now think about the situation a few years down the line. If we have 11 City Council members who got elected with public funding and the remaining 4 did it the old fashioned way by using special interest donations, we are much better off. Yes there will be a few remnants of the old school, but the strong majority (and the all-important president of the council) will represent the new, honest, reformed government that we would like to see. 

In other words, we can't fix the problem of an individual candidate who is facing a well funded opponent -- that's a problem for the individual and for the district -- but we can fix the system as a whole. We do that by electing a Council majority that owes allegiance to you and me rather than to the municipal unions or to the property developers. As the system develops, the remaining minority of self-funded candidates will find themselves increasingly assailed as being bought and paid for. 

There are a lot of details that need to be worked out. How to transition into a system of public funding is a core question. But notice that we have one strong argument to present to voters should they be faced with deciding on full public financing. We would make sure to place this initiative on the same ballot as another initiative that would cut City Council salaries by five-sixths. That by itself would supply seed money for the first round of elections.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at