Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tracking the money flow between Central Basin Water District and Tom Calderon

Interviewed on KPCC for this piece.

Southern California has dozens of small public agencies that don’t get much attention. The Central Basin Municipal Water District is one of them, but it made headlines last month after getting a federal subpoena in connection with an investigation into State Senator Ron Calderon.
Federal officials have also sought to speak with his brother, political consultant Tom Calderon, who shares a long relationship with the Commerce-based water agency.
Tom Calderon left the state Assembly just over a decade ago and started a political consulting business. One of his first clients was the Central Basin District, which serves a broad expanse of Southeast L.A. County. Over the past several years, Calderon donated $26,000 to board candidates at the district.
"Most people give contributions, not because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside, but because they think there is some way that they can benefit from this candidate being in public office," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election law and governance issues.
Over a 10-year period, the Central Basin District paid Calderon nearly $1 million to build relationships with state and federal politicians, develop community outreach strategies, and give general guidance to the district’s leaders. Contracts from those years describe Calderon as providing "valuable insight and guidance." At the same time, he was donating to board members who approved his lucrative contracts — which is legal.
"The link isn’t always that direct, but I think the question is always the same," Levinson said. "Are contributions really anything more than legalized bribery?”
(Because of the ongoing investigation, none of the district’s board members would comment for this story. Neither would Tom Calderon.) 
In 2012, two new board members, James Roybal and Leticia Vasquez, were elected as reform candidates. Early this year the board voted to terminate the district’s consulting contracts —including Calderon’s.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which works to make  public officials and institutions accountable and responsive to citizens, said the Central Basin's policy is not an anomaly.
"Sadly, it’s pretty rare to have a bidder ban," Feng said. "That’s what would prevent a contribution from a company or individual who is seeking a contract from that city agency. We think it’s actually very common sense, but only a few cities have got it."
The City of Los Angles has such a policy. And, as it turns out, the Central Basin District recently revised its code of conduct. It now states companies and individuals cannot donate to board members while their contracts are in the approval process. Anyone doing business with the district is also prohibited from giving in the months just before and after an election. 
"It’s intended to prevent sense of favoritism or sense that someone’s voting for a particular project because they are getting donations from a particular vendor," said Joseph Legaspi, interim public affairs manager at Central Basin.
For entities that operate largely outside the public eye, Feng says the public can help force government to become transparent and accountable. She notes that the state controller has started posting the salaries of public employees.
"Here, I think it’s really a matter of public pressure and I think it is possible," Feng said. "We saw what happened so quickly after the Bell scandal. And if the public expresses a desire for it, I think often times our elected officials are responsive."
But small cities and agencies are often left to police themselves. At Central Basin, suspected violations of the district’s code of conduct are reported to the board’s two-member Ethics Committee. It’s up to them to report serious violations to the Fair Political Practices Commission or the District Attorney’s Office. 
"If someone had felt that a member of the Central Basin board of directors had not been compliant with the code of conduct, they do have the opportunity to raise that issue with the district’s Ethics Committee," Legaspi said.
In recent years, there have been no complaints taken to the Ethics Committee that were found to be valid or worthy of further investigation, according to Legaspi. The committee’s members include Phillip Hawkins, who last year was elected to his fourth term on the Water District board. Six days before the election, Hawkins received a donation that made up one-fourth of all the money he raised. It was  $10,000 — and it came from Tom Calderon.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Gay Marriages Will Continue in California -- For Now

Many may not know that there is a still a legal battle raging over the fate of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California back in 2008. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Protect Marriage, the proponents of Prop 8, did not have legal standing to appeal their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, the ruling by the trial court became the final word on the constitutionality of Prop 8. Judge Vaughn Walker had struck down Prop 8, finding that it violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Translation: same-sex marriages could resume after a more than four-year ban.
So why isn't this the end of the story?
Well, the couples who sued to declare Prop 8 unconstitutional hailed from two counties: Alameda and Los Angeles. Undeterred by losing at all three levels of the federal judicial system, Protect Marriage is now asking the California Supreme Court to find that Judge Walker's ruling only applied to the two counties. Put another way, they claim that Judge Walker's opinion does not apply statewide.
In a little noticed decision last week the California Supreme Court denied a request by Protect Marriage to halt gay marriages while it rules on Protect Marriage's claim as to the scope of Judge Walker's ruling. A ruling by the California Supreme Court is unlikely to come before August, at the earliest.

No More Special Elections, Please! Here Are 2 Ideas to Avoid Them

Almost every time elected officials leave their posts early, there is a special election. The word special makes it sound like there is something to celebrate -- there is not. These "special" elections cost all of us time and money. And they may not be worth it.
On Tuesday, July 23 there will be two special elections in the California legislature and one in the city of Los Angeles. The first is a Senate race in the Central Valley, where Senator Michael Rubio resigned to go work for Chevron Corporation as a government affairs manager. The second legislature race is in the 52nd Assembly District. there, former Assemblywoman Norma Torres played some musical chairs and became a State Senator. In L.A., 6th district City Council member Tony Cardenas left for Congress.
There will be additional special elections in September for two other former state legislators, both who left for to become members of the Los Angeles City Council. Those elections will be held in the San Fernando Valley, in the 45th Assembly District, and in Culver City, in the 26th Senate District.
In addition to costing time and money, special elections also tend to be very low turnout elections. This means that the representatives are often chosen by a small percentage of the eligible voters.
So what should we do?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Redistricting Controversy Hits LA City Council

Here is my appearance on the local NBC. 

How you draw the borders of legislative districts determines who gets elected to those districts, which is why it is a controversial process.
Now civil rights attorney Leo Terrell is calling for a federal investigation into the LA City Council, saying the boundaries of the 15 council districts were unfairly drawn.
"It is against the law to use race as a basis for redrawing district lines," Terrell said.
Terrell has filed a lawsuit against the city over the redistricting of council seats, based in part on the reported comment of a staffer for City Council President Herb Wesson. The staffer, when discussing one proposal for Wesson's district, allegedly said it contained "too many Mexicans."
"For a city councilman's representative to say we have too many Mexicans in the 10th District is insulting," Terrell said.
In fact, race has long been an issue in the drawing of legislative district borders, according to Loyola law professor Jessica Levinson. While it can be legally taken into consideration, it can't be the only consideration.
"Race has to be taken into account, in part to protect minorities," Levinson said. "We don't want to put all minorities in one district, so they only have power in one district, and we don't want to crack minorities up so they have diluted power in a a variety of districts."
Wesson's office says as the defendant in the litigation, it had no choice but not to comment.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Am Luscious, and Other Campaign Slogans

I have this piece in Pacific Standard Magazine. 

Here is an excerpt: 

I have a new idea to increase civic engagement, and it is all about vegan food.
Some background for the non-hipsters out there. So all three of you, listen up. There is a vegan restaurant with locations, unsurprisingly, in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, the birthing centers of true hipster culture. The fun (or perhaps failure, depending on your perspective) of this chain is how they name their dishes: Each is a personal, positive, declarative statement. Instead of rice with lentils, you’ll order the “I Am Humble.” Feel like hummus and pesto? You’ll dine on the “I Am Abundant.”
If you’re a rain-on-your-parade curmudgeon like me, you’ll do your best to avoid ordering the dishes by their given names. Instead of confidently telling my server, “I Am Terrific,” I prefer to spend three minutes describing the dish, which is, as the name fails to indicate, made of kelp noodles. One of my very favorite dining companions suggested that I should “pick my battles,” but the opportunity to avoid announcing, “I Am Liberated” (another kelp noodle dish) is well worth the time I spend boorishly pointing at the menu.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

High-Profile L.A. Mayor Exits

A great, quick exploration of Mayor Villaraigosa's legacy in the WSJ. A few quotes by yours truly.  

Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Villaraigosa's tenure has "been a total mixed bag," said Jessica Levinson, a professor and government-reform expert at Loyola Law School. "Good things have happened in the city, but I'm not sure how many the mayor can take credit for," she added.
Los Angeles mayors operate with less power than their counterparts in many cities—notably having no direct control over city schools. Mr. Villaraigosa tried, and failed, to win some direct control over schools through state legislation. But over the years he pushed successfully to expand the number of charter schools in the city and battled publicly with the teachers union. He also formed a group that took over some low-performing schools from the district and ran them as charter schools, raising millions in private funding and raising graduation rates.
During Mr. Villaraigosa's tenure, the city expanded its public transportation system, increased bike lanes and reduced violent crime.
But Mr. Villaraigosa "also failed to do a lot of things," Ms. Levinson said. "We have more traffic. We're still not the nation's beacon when it comes to public transportation or green-tech jobs."