Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by John Schreiber.

Amid mounting criticism of the large sums of money developers have given to Los Angeles’ elected officials, City Councilman Mike Bonin Monday proposed substantive changes to the city’s campaign finance laws.

Bonin announced his plan, which includes increased public financing, in a post on his Facebook post that said, “If we are going to try to take money out of Los Angeles politics, we should do it right — and go all the way.”

The motion, which does not include details on how much money would be needed, calls for city staff to study potential revenue streams for the proposal so it can be placed on a ballot in 2018.

The “clean money” system would be paid for through fees on development and a severance tax for all oil and gas produced within city limits, according to a draft copy of the motion that was given to City News Service by Bonin’s office.

Bonin said how much money could be raised through oil taxes and developer fees would have to be studied.

“It’s helpful not to have this tied to the general fund because you are competing against every other interest in the city,” Bonin told City News Service.

“You are competing against firefighters and cops, competing against cleaning our restrooms and trimming our trees. You are competing against senior lunch programs.”

Bonin was one of several City Council members who last week introduced a motion that would ban contributions by developers with projects currently or recently before the council to city elected officials and candidates

The motion came about two months after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office opened a review of questionable campaign contributions allegedly linked to developer Samuel Leung’s $72 million apartment complex in Harbor Gateway.

Bonin said the motion is inspired by a similar one co-authored in 2005 by his predecessor, the late Bill Rosendahl, then-Councilman Eric Garcetti and then-Councilwoman Wendy Greuel.

Bonin said he had not discussed his motion directly with Garcetti, who is now mayor, but he believed he would be inclined to support it. Garcetti is traveling to Washington D.C. Monday and was not available to comment.

The draft of the motion said the “clean money” proposal calls on candidates to demonstrate viability by “collecting a certain level of low-dollar donations, agree to forgo corporate donations, special interest money, or significant self-financing and in exchange receive a statutorily established amount of money sufficient to run an aggressive and well-financed campaign.”

The motion does not define “special interests,” say now many low-dollar donations would be needed or what the dollar level would be.

Bonin served as chief of staff to Rosendahl before being elected to the 11th Council District seat in 2013. He said much of the reason Rosendahl’s motion did not gain enough steam was due to the financial impact it would have but he hoped his proposal to use developer fees or oil taxes would help it gain political support.

The motion said Maine and Arizona have successful versions of this type of public financing and calls on the system to be presented to voters, along with a dedicated revenue stream to pay for it, in the 2018 election cycle.

Bonin suggested matching public financing funds of $300,000 to $400,000 could be made available to City Council candidates, but his motion did not include any specific numbers.

“Part of the analysis we need to do is figure out how much we would need to put into the public funding trust fund and choose among revenue streams to do that,” Bonin said.

“The trick is on this is that the more successful it is the more expensive it is. It’s not the easiest thing to do in the world but democracy is worth it.”

Bonin is up for re-election in the March 7 primary and has raised more than $413,000. His proposal comes after much public focus over the last few months on the influence developers have on City Hall.

The City Council commonly grants special permission, or “spot zoning,” to developers that want to construct a building outside of an area’s zoning rules, and some of those developers and their affiliates have also donated generously to the council or other elected officials.

One example was a recently proposed building near the Beverly Center by developer Rick Caruso that would be 240 feet high, well above the 45-foot limit under zoning guidelines for the neighborhood.

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Caruso and his affiliates had contributed more than $476,000 to all but one of the city’s 17 elected officials or their causes over the last five years. Los Angeles Forward, a campaign committee set up by Bonin to support ballot measures, received $100,000.

Bonin’s motion does not address ballot measure donations, but said “we could regulate for local ballot measures as well. We could certainly try to.”

Mark Ryavec, Bonin’s opponent in the March election, was critical of the proposal.

“This is a hypocritical attempt to divert attention from Bonin’s corrupt fundraising,” he said. “His proposal will have no bearing on the current election nor address the public’s current concern that the city’s planning process has already been sold to the highest bidders.”

Ryavec added, “If Bonin wants to get developer cash out of City Hall decision-making he should start by returning the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has raised from special interests over the last four years.”

Bonin directed any campaign questions to his campaign manager, Steve Barkman, who said, “Mike’s been working on this for a long time. He attempted to move clean money before and is carrying on the legacy of Bill Rosendahl and his work on clean money.”

–City News Service

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