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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Proposed Budget Cuts Include Skimping on Ethics

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From the Los Angeles Times:

There’s more to public safety than police and fire protection. A safe city also is one that makes an effort to shield its people from the corrosive influences of sleazy politics, cronyism and corruption.

That’s why, when the full City Council takes up Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s crisis budget next week, it needs to take extraordinary care to see that the Ethics Commission isn’t crippled in the rush to economize. The commission is a unique civic institution, the only city department that gets its mandate directly from the people, who created it in June 1990, when they overwhelmingly voted to amend the City Charter with a sweeping package of ethical and campaign finance reforms.

As a Times editorial pointed out at the time, the new ethics code was the product of a novel process. It was "drafted by a citizens’ commission appointed by — but independent of — Mayor Tom Bradley, passed on by the City Council after days of historic, open debate and, finally, ratified by a decisive 57% of the city’s voters." Like many of those involved in the struggle to draft the omnibus amendment, The Times argued that creation of a permanent city ethics commission — something many in city government bitterly opposed — was the heart of the reform effort.

In the years since, the five-member commission with its staff of 27 has become something of a national model. It also has taken on expanded duties, educating and advising lawmakers and their staffs on ethical and campaign finance issues. Last quarter, it levied $127,000 in fines in seven cases involving money laundering and improper campaign contributions. The staff currently has 46 open cases under investigation.

Thus, the mayor’s proposal to cut the commission’s $2.5-million budget by 17.9% — roughly double the 9.4% median reduction among all city departments — deserves careful scrutiny. Now it’s true that the city’s fiscal crisis is unprecedented, and the mayor’s plan was pulled together in the face of revenues that seem to fall more dramatically and local unemployment that seems to climb more steeply with each passing day. Villaraigosa and his team, moreover, deserve high marks for subjecting the whole range of civic expenditures to searching analysis, and for their determination to maintain essential services and to keep as many city workers as possible on the job.

The question the council needs to ask now is whether the commission’s ability to render its own form of essential public service will be too severely compromised to justify what are, even in this context of dire emergency, relatively meager savings. The commission’s president, attorney Helen Zukin, points out that the proposed $450,000 cut amounts to just .01% of the city’s overall $4.4-billion budget. She says she has no doubt, moreover, that the commission’s ability to conduct investigations and undertake enforcement will be "greatly reduced." Zukin says the cuts will force six layoffs, including an investigator and an auditor, at a time when serious investigations are underway.

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