City, county and municipal agency decision-makers file potential conflict-of-interest forms with the state and wondering just what needs to be included.
For the cognoscenti, that’s Form 700 of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“The law keeps getting a little more complicated each year,” said Michael Martello, the Mountain View city attorney. Martello chairs the City Attorneys FPPC Committee of the California League of Cities.
There are about 100,000 officials for municipal agencies in California who are required by law and regulation to file Form 700.
That means 1,000 to 1,200 calls a week (with peaks in those numbers at this time of year) to the commission’s toll-free line to get simple advice, said Roman Porter, executive director of the FPPC. That number is 1-866-ASK-FPPC or 1-866-275-3772. For more involved matters, the FPPC has a legal division to issue written advice.
“Over the last eight years, there’s been a push to make the regulations more understandable and more user-friendly,” said Martello. He works with FPPC staff to craft new language to give greater transparency to regulations about allowed expenses and reimbursements and other potential conflict-of-interest areas. But, with the best intentions, Martello said, new loopholes emerge even as old ones are closed, leaving municipal officials to seek detailed advice at this time of year.
Form 700 alerts the public officials to their potential conflicts of interest in relation to official duties and provides information to the public. The FPPC was established by the Political Reform Act, a proposition passed by California voters in 1974. Besides monitoring public officials’ conflicts of interest, it also regulates campaign financing and lobbyist registration and reporting.
The commissioners are appointed — two by the governor, and one each by the state’s attorney general, controller and secretary of state. The commission is empowered by laws and regulations to issue fines and civil penalties to public officials. It meets monthly, issuing fines for violations. On the average, the FPPC issues about $1 million annually in civil and administrative penalties, Porter said.
With the philosophy that “justice delayed is justice denied,” Porter said, the commission has tried recently to move some of the old cases along and clear some backlog. Sometimes this can mean a jolt to an official who forgot how he filled out Form 700 a few years ago.
For instance, the city administrator of Montebello. Earlier this winter, Richard Torres was startled to learn that he was being fined $426 for accepting a 2005 gift of four tickets, on three different occasions, to see the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Torres took his family to see the baseball games. The gift was from former city attorney Marco Martinez. The gifts, with a value of $516, exceeded the FPPC’s then limit of $360; that has since been raised to $420.
Torres noted that he self-reported the gifts on a form, so it stands to reason that he wasn’t trying to hide anything. “It’s akin to a very expensive parking ticket,” Torres said. “I fill them out every year and don’t think too much about them … but ignorance isn’t a defense.”
Now he advises his peers to know what the limits are for Form 700. A couple of months back, he made it a point to call city council members and let them know about the fine, before they read it in the newspaper. Partly because of that, Torres said, he has not felt any political repercussions from the fine issued by the FPPC.