Voices: A Modest Proposal for Ethics Reform
(Editor's note: Today Newsmakers presents a commentary from environmental attorney and First District voter Jana Zimmer, in response to recent op-eds from election rivals, incumbent Supervisor Das Williams and challenger Laura Capps ,on the subject of campaign finance reform. If you'd like to contribute to our Voices feature send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have been a homeowner in the First District for over 45 years, and have voted in every election since I became an American-by-Choice, as my new hero, Fiona Hill recently phrased it. Thus, I feel duty bound to educate myself on the positions of candidates running to be "my" County Supervisor.
Having read the recent op-eds of both candidates dealing with local election campaign reform, I have some thoughts about how each of them (full disclosure: both Laura Capps and Das Williams are friends) should refine their positions.
There are much less complicated and less costly ways to get at the “problem” of money in politics in this county, at least as it has manifested in our recent stinky cannabis mess, which is the obvious trigger for this discussion.
First things first. As a former colleague on the Coastal Commission used to say, “what, exactly, is the problem we are trying to solve?”
As is most often true in Santa Barbara County, the “problem” has to do with land use, in this case, the County’s roll-out of its regulatory response to the legalization of cannabis.
Something went terribly wrong, we can all agree. It’s easy to say, this is all about corruption, or incompetence, in one or two or five elected or appointed officials, but that view does not register that every member of the Board of Supervisors voted to approve most of the fundamentals of the system, and the current five have barely tinkered with it, no matter how badly it smells.
That said, there is plenty of blame to go around: Not only did the supervisors rush to allow any Tom Dick and Harriet who filled out a Declaration under Penalty of Nothing to start and expand nonmedical grows, without permits, but also, the State issued licenses upon licenses.
Meanwhile the Water Board issued exemptions, the Air Board refused to regulate the odors, the Coastal Commission ‘missed’ the now obvious ways in which cannabis cultivation is quite different than growing avocados, citrus or grapes, and pretty much has washed its hands of the matter.
Still, errors in addressing an overwhelming, new situation can be forgiven.
What cannot be forgiven is blind defensiveness of actions taken, and/or proposing self-serving ‘solutions’ which in no way will improve the lives and livelihoods of my friends who live in Carpinteria, or the winemakers, or the avocado and lemon farmers on which our local agricultural economy depends.
How the candidates fall short. In response to this complex problem, Laura’s proposal, in part, calls for a new county Ethics Commission, an expensive, new bureaucracy (the L.A. Ethics Commission has 27 employees and a $2.3 million annual budget) which, as a practical matter, would do little to address the lack of transparency or accountability in the real time, week-to-week decision making at the Board of Supervisors.
I was equally disappointed in Das’ response, which was largely a rehash of past actions and obstacles to change that are marginally relevant, if at all, to the problem at hand.
They both can do better.
For starters, they should look at the system at the Coastal Commission.
Seen as California’s most powerful regulatory agency, it also may be the most vulnerable to improper influence. The Commission has not been free of error. Yet two of its governing requirements, properly administered, could achieve improved transparency and accountability without impairing anybody’s First Amendment rights if they were applied to the County.
Real Time Disclosure. Every local elected official who serves on the commission is required to abide by a notification that appears on every month’s agenda:
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS. Government Code Section 84308 requires Commissioners to disqualify themselves from voting on any matter if they have received a campaign contribution of more than $250 from an interested party. If you intend to speak on any hearing item, please indicate on your speaker slip and/or in your testimony, if you have made campaign contributions of more than $250 to any Commissioner within the last year, and if so, to which Commissioners you contributed.
In this way, everyone knows, in real time, who made relevant contributions, and to whom.
It is critical to note, however, that state law allows commissioners to vote on the matter at hand, if they return the campaign contribution.
In other words, they get to choose, in public, on a case by case basis, what is more important to them: the campaign cash or the ability to vote. Their constituents thus learn about their values, whichever way they go.
Sunshine behind-the-scenes. A second legal principle essential to transparency at the Coastal Commission is a robust system of reporting all "ex parte" meetings - private meetings and contacts between commissioners and interested parties - which include not only developers, but also affected neighbors, civic and trade associations, environmentalists, as well as unions.
The content of ex parte communications must be fully reported orally or in writing, and their contents made available to the public in a timely fashion, as set forth in the Coastal Act, Public Resources Code Section 30324.
The County could and should adapt and try both of these baby steps before considering more global changes, or creation of new “offices” in the bureaucracy.
Newsmakers Mission Canyon Bureau Chief Jana Zimmer is a longtime local land use lawyer and former Chief Deputy County Counsel, and has served not only on the California Coastal Commission, but also the APCD Hearing Board, the Tax Assessment Appeals Board and the County Arts Commission. She never has, nor ever will, run for elected office, despite the urgings of many, many, many people.
Images: Jana Zimmer; Carpinteria grow house (Melinda Burns); Das Williams and Laura Capps (Paul Wellman); Money, money, money; a pitch for transparency (allgov.com).