The sleaziest ballot measure in America

Paul Jacob

11/5/2006 12:06:10 AM - Paul Jacob

Are voters stupid? The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the city’s League of Women Voters apparently think so. Both groups are pushing Proposition R on L.A.’s ballot next Tuesday.

Prop R is the ultimate test of whether the slick power elite in the City of Angels can fool the people into voting to weaken the city’s eight-year term limits law by not telling voters what the measure actually does . . . by pretending that it “establishes” term limits already established.

Oh, it also adds phony ethics “reforms” that sound dandy in the ballot title, but will do nothing to end the corruption that even politicians and insiders in L.A. admit is widespread.

In fact, the thrust of the Prop R campaign amounts to saying, We are so corrupt that you voters must pass Prop R to clean up our cesspool . . . by letting us stay 50 percent longer in power.

Except, of course, that second part of the statement vanishes. Mustn’t tell the voters about the extended terms!

The key to this swindle’s success? (1) Hide the anti-term limits provision, conning as many voters as possible into believing the measure is pro-term limits, and (2) sell the phony ethics changes as an anti-lobbyist reform.

As former League President Cindy O’Connor, now running the campaign for R, put it: “We know for a fact that [weakening] term limits alone would fail.”

But the added ethics reforms in Proposition R merely super-size the sleaze. For instance, opponents of Prop R point out that it “allows lobbyists to remain hidden from public view until after winning favors for a client.”

The measure does ban lobbyists from buying travel for city council members. That’s good. But, of course, that’s already state law.

Prop R also mandates ethics training for city officials. Who can oppose that, right? But, again, such training is — you guessed it — already required.

From the beginning, R has been a backroom scam. The measure’s plotters violated any sense of ethical behavior, not to mention city law, in the way they placed it on the ballot. Right off, the Chamber and League found a law firm to draft this anti-lobbyist measure. The law firm chosen just happened to boast many of the big city’s biggest lobbyists as clients.

Then, the wording of the proposal was given to city council members just two hours before it was voted on and passed. There was absolutely no opportunity for the public to speak out to their so-called representatives on the council. One can surmise from this the value the R Conspiracy places on citizen input.

Moreover, even though the measure contained a number of ethics provisions, it bypassed the city’s Ethics Commission. Wonder why?

It also bypassed the city’s voter-enacted Neighborhood Councils — a violation of the city charter. (You can bet there won’t be any “activist” judges to enforce this provision, however.)

What did the lobbyist law firm come up with? A monstrosity that Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said, “weakens current ethics laws, places the city in legal peril and is misleading to voters.”

The legal peril comes from the fact that Proposition R joins separate subjects: ethics changes and a change to term limits. This conjunction violates the state’s single-subject law for ballot measures.

Further — and tellingly — the ethics changes are simple ordinances that could be passed by the council without going to the people; term limits, on the other hand, requires a charter amendment. Highly unusual. And very questionable, constitutionally.

Neal Donner, a citizen of L.A., filed suit on single subject grounds and the U.S. Term Limits Foundation funded that lawsuit. The court struck Prop R from the ballot, agreeing with the challengers, but a California court of appeals stayed the decision, keeping R on the ballot. This past week, Donner and U.S. Term Limits announced they would not seek to overturn a vote of the people. So that if Prop R wins, they’ll drop the suit. Another L.A. citizen has since said he would file suit on these same grounds.

The ballot title has also faced litigation. Written by politicians, it is less than forthright: “Council Member Term Limits Of Three Terms; City Lobbying, Campaign Finance And Ethics Laws. Charter Amendment And Ordinance Measure.” Where’s the mention that there already are term limits of two terms?

The longer ballot summary, less likely to be read, nevertheless reads slightly better. It says the measure “changes” term limits. But not how. A lawsuit by people working with the anti-Prop R committee, called Not PropR, asked the court to require the title to honestly address the issue by using the word “extend” or “lengthen.” Again, the trial court agreed and ordered a change, but the council, using taxpayer funds, appealed. The court of appeals reversed the decision, saying essentially that the ballot title was close enough.

Strange, the Chamber’s website has that very wording, “Extending term limits.” Funny, too, the Chamber’s website offers this rationale for weakening the limits: “It will also provide us with a greater return on the investment we make in them during the first few years of service.” Indeed.

City Attorney Delgadillo wrapped it up best: “The people of Los Angeles have been cheated.”

Around the country, the League of Women Voters has been most active in suing to overturn votes of the people for term limits. The Chamber has been at the forefront of the targeted sneak attack.

In 2004, the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce ran a campaign to gut term limits built around a ballot title Arkansas’s governor called “misleading and dishonest.” Voters crushed that measure 70 to 30 percent. In Michigan, the Chamber sought to add phony ethics “sweeteners” to try to get voters to go along with weakening term limits, much as they have in L.A. That effort, once outed in the media, was dropped.

The Prop R plotters are outspending the opposition by approximately 200 to 1, mailing 62-color, glossy ads that even city council members admit are “a little misleading.” In one mailing, former Mayor Riordan disingenuously says that Proposition R will mean that “City Council members cannot serve for life,” knowing full well that they are already unable to do so.

When reporters asked Jason Lyon, a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council and a leader of Not PropR, to comment on the other side’s latest mass mailing, Lyon responded, “Do you want to go through it lie by lie?”

Most Americans have come to know politicians as less than trustworthy. But what kind of interests back the sleaziest measure in America? Groups once as trusted as the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters can no longer be trusted. They, too, have been corrupted.

Will Los Angeles voters fall for the slick trick that is Prop R?

The answer will determine whether the Chamber and the League rank among the country’s most successful con artists. Or just run-of-the-mill dishonest losers.

We’ll find out Tuesday.