Two months ago, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission called for new and stringent limits on gifts to the city's politicians, saying such niceties can undermine the public's confidence in government when they come from people doing business at City Hall.
The five-member panel sent the City Council its recommendation, part of a much larger package of rule changes, after 15 months of deliberations. But when lawmakers took up the proposal this week, they went the other direction — by seeking an increase, not a decrease, in the size of allowable gifts.
The council instructed the city's lawyers to draft an ordinance boosting the limit to $150 for each gift provided by bidders, contractors and others with a financial stake in a city decision, up from the current maximum of $100. Council President Herb Wesson, who played a pivotal role in changing the proposal, called his approach more realistic.
"Times have changed and I think the $150 [limit] is appropriate," Wesson said. "There's nothing magical about it. It's just in this day and age I can't imagine any of our members would sell their souls for $150."
Wesson said the council will have another chance to review the gift rules when City Atty. Mike Feuer presents a final ordinance in coming weeks. Still, the proposal drew complaints from George Rheault, a frequent critic of the city's handling of ethics rules. Rheault said "nothing good" can come from allowing special interests to give more expensive presents at City Hall.
"The nicer the gift someone gives, the worse it is for the public," he said.
Gifts were a major political issue for former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other elected officials in recent years. Two agencies issued $42,000 in fines to Villaraigosa after he repeatedly attended a series of concerts, athletic events, and other cultural activities without paying.
The city's laws already bar gifts to lawmakers and other high-level officials from registered lobbyists and their firms. In August, the Ethics Commission decided to go further, endorsing an outright ban on gifts from those with a financial stake in city business. That move, said Ethics Commission President Paul Turner, was designed to "promote confidence in city decisions."
"If city officials cannot accept gifts from lobbyists, then they should not be able to accept gifts from other people who are attempting to influence the city," he said in an emailed statement to The Times.
The proposal sent to the council also offered an exception for "office courtesies," such as the distribution of free coffee or bottled water at meetings between elected officials and special interests.
When the proposal reached the council on Wednesday, Councilman Paul Koretz quickly voiced concern that he would be hit with a $5,000 ethics fine if he failed to report that he had received a free coffee from a friend at Philippe's, the iconic Chinatown restaurant. Although he voted to seek the higher limit, Koretz said he is not necessarily committed to a $150 maximum.
"That wasn't my suggestion," Koretz said, adding: "I just said, 'Make it more than zero.'"
In 2012, Koretz reported to the Ethics Commission that he received two $44 tickets to attend a holiday dinner thrown by a group that represents landlords. He also received $100 worth of free tickets to a Los Angeles Kings victory celebration from Anschutz Entertainment Group, a company that recently won a contract to run the city's convention center.
With nine new elected officials taking office in July, many of the city's politicians have not yet had the opportunity to report any gifts at the local level.
In 2012, Councilman Joe Buscaino reported receiving $100 in tickets from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The year before that, Councilman Jose Huizar reported receiving tickets worth $100 to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The council voted this week on an issue of great interest to that company — a ban on the use of bullhooks to train elephants — but Huizar was absent from that meeting.
Councilman Mike Bonin, who voted for the higher limits, said he did not know the reasoning behind the $150 limit. He said the gift rules are not an issue for him since he does not accept gifts.
Councilman Bob Blumenfield offered the same message, saying the changes are not a major focus since he does not accept gifts "of real value." "If it's $100, $150, or even zero dollars, it doesn't really change my world," he said.