By Amber Nelson.
California’s Political Reform Act includes some of the most stringent ethics guidelines in the country for elected and public officials but the changes over the years since its 1974 inception have resulted in regulations that are redundant and often difficult to manage for those in office.
“The fact that so many people are confused tells us there’s a problem,” said Glendale city councilmember and candidate for state assembly Laura Friedman, speaking about the estimated 20,000 requests for help received annually by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
Before Friedman ran for elected office, she accepted appointments to a number of commissions, offices which have no financial compensation but have filing and compliance requirements. That experience was her first exposure to the PRA. “People are doing this work for free. Let’s not make it harder for them,” she added.
Help is on the horizon for candidates, office holders and the public, as the FPPC, two University of California law schools, and California Forward continue a project currently underway to review and update the PRA and seek public input. A goal of the project is to simplify the language without changing the substance of the law, in order to decrease the amount of compliance confusion faced by candidates.
Like most of her peers in elected office, Friedman hired a treasurer to manage the complexities of adhering to the PRA’s many regulations. “I knew that I didn’t want that challenge,” she said. She points out that compliance takes a lot of time and can be tricky for those seeking or holding local office. In fact, “some people are afraid to run,” said Friedman, because of the complicated and demanding requirements of the PRA.
“I knew from the beginning I wanted to hire someone,” said Blanca Pacheco, an attorney and first-time candidate running for Downey city council. “I didn’t want to chance it.”
“At first it was really overwhelming,” said Pacheco. She explained that she wanted to focus on her campaign and leave the compliance issues to someone with an accounting background. Like many others, she’s being careful in her first campaign. “We’re over-reporting,” said Pacheco, “just to make sure.”
Pacheco’s treasurer, her mother Mariana Pacheco, said the PRA is not clear and is sometimes hard to decipher.
Friedman points to sections of the PRA that have good intentions but don’t make a lot of sense in practice. For example, those who have financial interest in potential vendors for city contracts must recuse themselves from proceedings. In theory, that makes a lot of sense. But in practice, it means that a councilmember who owns $1,000 of stock in a multi-million dollar company has to sit out the discussion around whether a contract can go to that vendor.
The intention–to avoid corruption–is noble but in reality the city council loses valuable insight and the community loses a valuable voice when a councilmember, who has no real sway in a potential vendor’s business, must remain silent.
Where to go from here? Pacheco’s treasurer recommends simplifying the numerous forms and clarifying the guidelines.
In addition to the sometimes serpentine language of the PRA, the basic logistics of filing can cause headaches for those in or seeking office. Pacheco’s treasurer said not only are there too many forms with too much complexity, but the PDF format of the forms is cumbersome.
Friedman agreed, recalling the various filings mandated that don’t have compatible technology. She files for several different agencies and the PDFs required her team to manually enter the same data repeatedly for each submission. She’s addressed the issue by going old school, “we fill out a paper form and Xerox it,” rather than duplicating the information for each filing she must complete.
“Make it easier for people and less bureaucratic,” suggested Friedman, and focus on the problem spots – those areas that have been proven to lead to corruption. “There is a difference between corruption and an honest mistake.”
This past spring, the Political Reform Act Revision Project launched with a review and creation of a proposed draft of the PRA by law schools at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. CA Fwd and the FPPC held an informational webinar to kick off the public engagement phase in July. Additionally, the first of two public comment periods is now open.
The resulting revised and streamlined draft of the PRA will be presented to the state legislature in 2017. The Political Reform Act Revision Project is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.