Ethics reform measure will go to L.A. voters. Critics say it's watered down

LOS ANGELES, NV - DECEMBER 12, 2023 - Los Angeles City Council President Paul Krekorian oversees a city council meeting at City Hall in Los Angeles on December 12, 2023. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles City Council President Paul Krekorian called the ethics ballot measure passed by the council a "huge step forward" in reforming city government. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Los Angeles voters in November will weigh in on a ballot measure that would strengthen the city’s ethics oversight after a string of scandals at City Hall.

Watchdog groups were deeply disappointed, saying the measure does not go far enough after the City Council watered down a proposal that had included more sweeping changes, such as giving the volunteer Ethics Commission unilateral power to put items on the ballot.

The ballot measure passed unanimously by the council on Tuesday would increase penalties for violations of the city ethics code to $15,000 from $5,000. The city department that includes the commission would get a minimum annual budget of $6.5 million, slightly more than what is now proposed for the upcoming fiscal year. Also, a newly created Charter Reform Commission would review the entire city charter.

California Common Cause, a good-government group, called the measure "disheartening."

"The Los Angeles City Council had a chance to turn the tide of corruption at City Hall and begin a new era in which L.A. residents could trust their local elected officials,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, the group's executive director. “Instead they chose to uphold a broken, shameful status quo.”

The ethics department's budget is contingent on the approval of the City Council, whose members the department sometimes investigates. The department oversees investigations and enforces the city's lobbying, ethics and campaign finance rules. The Ethics Commission oversees policies and votes on proposed penalties.

In January, former Councilmember Jose Huizar was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison for his role in a sprawling set of criminal schemes that involved cash payouts, casino chips at Las Vegas hotels and other bribes from developers seeking to build glittering downtown high-rises.

Read more: Former L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar sentenced to 13 years in prison in corruption case

Another former councilmember, Mitchell Englander, pleaded guilty in 2020 to giving false information to investigators after FBI agents inquired about his own Vegas trip in 2017, during which he received cash in an envelope in a casino bathroom.

Councilmember Curren Price, who represents part of South L.A., was charged by L.A. County prosecutors with embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest in June last year. He has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

Price's colleague on the council, Kevin de León, was one of three then-councilmembers captured on a secret recording of a conversation featuring vulgar and racist remarks. Council President Nury Martinez resigned, and De León weathered months of protests calling for his resignation. Councilmember Gil Cedillo lost his seat in the June 2022 primary, before the recording was released that October.

Ron Herrera, who was president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, was part of the conversation and also resigned.

Read more: Racist remarks in leaked audio of L.A. council members spark outrage, disgust

A group led by the labor federation backed the watered-down version of the ethics ballot measure.

In a letter Monday to council members, the group said that some of the proposals would "erode a system of checks and balances" at City Hall.

In particular, adding more members to the Ethics Commission without approval from the council would create "a quasi-separate government agency that is accountable to no one," the group wrote.

After the council voted Tuesday for the version of the ballot measure backed by the unions, which did not include an expanded volunteer panel, county Federation of Labor President Yvonne Wheeler could be seen with union leaders clapping and celebrating in the rotunda, according to a video posted on X.

City Council President Paul Krekorian and others began looking at ways to bolster the commission's power several years ago.

Krekorian is now chair of the Ad Hoc Committee of Government Reform, which was created by council members after the recording featuring De León and the others was made public in October 2022.

In a statement after Tuesday's vote, Krekorian called the council's actions a "huge step forward" in reforming city government.

He and Councilmember Nithya Raman, who is vice chair of the government reform committee, voted against proposed amendments that were supported by labor groups and were included in the final ballot measure.

The amendments were submitted by Councilmembers Hugo Soto-Martinez and Tim McOsker, with Councilmembers Imelda Padilla and Eunisses Hernandez seconding.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.