The ordinance amendment was approved by a 5-3 vote with council members Suzie Price, Daryl Supernaw and Stacy Mungo voting against the item. Vice Mayor Rex Richardson was absent from Tuesday night’s meeting due to the birth of his second child.
The original motion was brought by Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce who chairs the city’s elections oversight committee. She first proposed the change during a March 14 meeting where a vote referred it to the city council for final approval. The March meeting lasted about 11 minutes and had no public attendance.
Pearce says that the item is intended to bring the city’s ordinance regarding office holder accounts and who can donate to them, and whether those funds can then be transferred as a donation or loan to other local, state or federal elected officials, into compliance with state and case law.
“This is about eliminating a conflict we have as a city,” Pearce said. “This is nothing more than eliminating a conflict and protecting the city.”
The same body had voted in 2015 to amend the same officeholder accounts and tripled the amount that could be contained in them, raising the limits to $30,000 for council members and $75,000 for city wide positions like mayor, city prosecutor and city attorney.
The funds are typically spent on activities within the council districts like public meetings or events hosted by the officeholder. However, now they can be used as donations to other council districts or even members of the state Legislature or Congress which could leave donors in a position where they’re indirectly supporting a person financially that they might not support politically.
One of the provisions repealed in the vote would allow for funds to be used or expended for future elections for city office, something of note as five council seats and the mayorship are up for votes in 2018.
Long Beach City Attorney Charles Parkin explained that cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 United States Supreme Court ruling that granted the same First Amendment protections to corporations, labor unions and non-profits when it comes to political speech and political donations, set the precedent that the city’s municipal code was out of synch with.
Parkin, when pressed by Mayor Robert Garcia as whether amending the ordinance to allow officeholder accounts to have the freedoms sought by Pearce’s motion would bring the city into alignment, gave a simple answer supporting the council’s action on the motion.
“By the elimination of that complete ban you are being consistent with state and federal law,” Parkin said. “It would be in the city’s interest to eliminate the conflict, at what time the council decides to do that is a policy decision.”
However, that position did not sit well with members of the public who expressed their frustration that the item had lacked transparency and was being rammed through by the council.
Dan O’Leary, a resident of the Third District, asked the council to send the item back to the committee and allow for it to be vetted more thoroughly stating that the idea just generally sounded bad. He asked that if the vote were to be in favor of approving it that there be some restraints.
“I think there’s limits that you can accumulate in your individual funds from an individual contributor,” O’Leary said. “There should be some sort of modest limitations that can be transferred to other candidates.”
Glennis Dolce said that she had sent letters to members of the council and asking what the benefit would be to Long Beach and had received no answers back aside from a reply from Supernaw. She found that hard to accept considering it had been expressed that this item had been the subject of discussion among the council since last year.
“For that to be true and for no one here to be able or willing to write back and express how this benefits the city I think is pretty outrageous,” Dolce said.
Supernaw, who has voted against the item in all stages of it being read prior to its adoption last night, recalled his ethics training dating back to 2007. He said that the city attorney’s memo defending the action came at the eleventh hour and that the council, regardless of what side of the issue you’re on, had “fumbled the ball” in handling the change to the ordinance.
“Public service ethics is not only about doing the right thing, but also about the public’s confidence that indeed the right thing is being done,” Supernaw said. “That’s where I think we failed because somehow, someone got the message that we were just totally self-serving and that’s not our job.”
The action did not take long to spark public backlash outside the public comment realm. Former Fifth District Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske created an online petition that seeks to repeal the officeholder accounts entirely to put a stop to what she characterized as “political slush funds” in Long Beach.