Opinion: Is the Los Angeles City Council serious about ethics reform or wasting an opportunity?

Los Angeles City Hall.
Charter reforms under consideration are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address City Hall corruption. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Los Angeles city government has a corruption problem. Since 2020, three L.A. council members and a former deputy mayor were found guilty of or pleaded guilty to such charges as bribery and lying to authorities, another council member has been charged with embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest, and yet another stands accused of violating city ethics laws. During the same period, three other council members (including a former City Council president) were caught on tape engaged in racist commentary as they discussed how to gerrymander council districts to their advantage.

This cascade of scandals has eroded trust in local government. Now the City Council is considering charter reforms that would grant new powers to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. The council should be commended for attending to its corruption problem. However, the proposed reforms are inadequate.

Read more: L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price accused of 21 violations of city ethics laws

What is on offer has good points — the reforms include expanding the membership of the Ethics Commission, setting a minimum budget for it and increasing penalties for violations of the L.A. Ethics Code. But the overall package is less than ideal because the City Council will not cede enough of its power to ensure that the commission will have the independence it needs to do its watchdog job.

Specifically, the proposed charter reforms do not grant the Ethics Commission authority to place ordinances related to its mandate directly on the local ballot — without the City Council having the final say.

That kind of independent power has worked well in San Francisco. In the decade 2013-2023, in response to government scandals, the San Francisco Ethics Commission has placed two ethics-related measures on the local ballot. Both passed by significant margins. Those two measures accounted for just 2% of all San Francisco ballot measures during that time period. In other words, the S.F. commission has not abused its authority to independently update the city’s ethics laws, as some Los Angeles council members fear would happen in L.A.

Giving the Ethics Commission the power to go directly to voters would not prevent the agency from first engaging with the City Council to achieve its ends. In fact, that would be preferable: Angelenos’ elected representatives should be able to weigh in and come to an agreement with the commission on repairing flaws in ethics laws as they arise. But if the council and the commission cannot find common ground, the commissioners need the option of putting an ordinance on the ballot.

In other words, ballot placement would be an action of last resort, a lever to help move the council to adequately address city ethics problems.

Unfortunately, the proposal the full City Council is scheduled to vote on this week only looks like it provides a way for the Ethics Commission to enlist voters against a recalcitrant council. The loopholes are gigantic.

Read more: Former L.A. Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan found guilty in sprawling City Hall corruption case

First, the charter reforms would allow the commission to place ordinances on the ballot only if the council ignores its proposals altogether or disapproves them with zero amendments. If the council takes up a commission proposal and waters it down or even guts it with amendments, the commission would have no recourse. Worse, if the council ignores or votes no on an ethics reform, and the commission does decide to take it to the ballot, the council could veto that decision.

This is far from the tried and true San Francisco model, and it isn’t likely to result in changes that will strike at the heart of corruption: consolidated power and inaction on reform.

The barrage of scandals at L.A. City Hall has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to clean up Los Angeles government. It should not be squandered with half-fixes. The reform package the City Council approves, which will have to be passed by voters in November, should give the Ethics Commission the independence it needs to hold officials accountable to the people they represent.

To meet the moment, the City Council must cede power for the greater good.

Sean McMorris is the California Common Cause program manager for transparency, ethics and accountability.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.