City Council members' decision to accept even pricier gifts stinks

Officials welcome largess of those who might be seeking business with the city; it's sad news for good-government advocates.

I'm not sure how many of you out there were planning on sending gifts to Los Angeles City Council representatives this holiday season, but if you missed the news, the council members are happy to accept even bigger presents than they have in the past.

Don't send the 10-pack cigar sampler. Send a whole box!

And don't bother with lousy balcony tickets for "The Nutcracker." Now you can put your councilman and his date so close to the stage, they'll have to wear leotards.

Last week, as my colleague David Zahniser reported, the council rejected calls by the city Ethics Commission to scale back gift-giving. As it is, public officials can't accept gifts from lobbyists, for obvious reasons. But the Ethics Commission wanted to add other people to that list. Contractors, for instance, and others who might be fishing for business with the city.

Makes sense, right?

Not to the City Council, which decided against adding contractors and others to the prohibited list. And with the holiday shopping season about to get under way, the council lifted the limit on gifts from $100 to $150.

It's not a done deal yet. The city attorney will draw up the new guidelines and send it all back for a final vote in coming weeks. But here's where Council President Herb Wesson stands on the matter:

"Times have changed and I think the $150 is appropriate," he told The Times, adding that he "can't imagine any of our members would sell their souls for $150."

Good for him. As for me, I can't imagine that gifts of any value, from anyone, are allowed or accepted, given the obvious need to avoid a pay-to-play culture or even the mere appearance of one. Is anyone naïve enough to believe that people who give gifts and make campaign donations get no advantage over non-givers when they call the council member for help with this or that?

"I was surprised to see how they handled that," Ethics Commissioner Valerie Vanaman told me. "If you truly want transparency, there should be no gifts."

This all became an issue back when then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was forced to pay a $42,000 fine for accepting thousands of dollars worth of tickets to sporting and other entertainment events without reporting the freebies. He argued that being out there in the mix was part of his ceremonial duty, and while that's a fair argument, it wasn't always clear who was paying his way or what they might expect in return.

An L.A. city councilman's salary is just under $180,000, with plenty of perks. Seems to me that if they want a gold watch, the cigars, or tickets to a ballgame or concert, they can use their own money.

Last week, during my one-day career switch with Councilman Tom LaBonge, I spent some time in council chambers. The next day, I developed a rash. I think there may be something toxic in the air at City Hall, and with my judgment temporarily impaired, I thought ever so briefly about running for council when LaBonge is termed out.

Then I came to my senses. I mean, take a look at what's happening right now in local politics.

Another Bell scoundrel is on trial in one of the great municipal scandals of all time, Sheriff Lee Baca makes weekly news for one debacle or another, five months in jail have not kept John Noguez from staying on as county assessor, and leaders of the nation's second largest school district are running a three-ring circus.

Back at City Hall, Councilman Jose Huizar was sued two weeks ago by a former staffer who accused him of retaliating against her after she rejected his request for sexual favors.

Huizar denied the accusation but admitted to an extramarital affair with the woman. He didn't have much to say when asked to explain why, in his employ, her salary skyrocketed. She started working for Huizar in 2006, making $47,000 a year. Before leaving this past April for a six-figure job in the Bureau of Sanitation, she was up to $132,000.

The aide wanted to run for community college board, and claims in the lawsuit that Huizar said if she wanted his support, she'd have to be "closer" to him.

We don't know the truth here, and what adults do in private is their business. But there's a difference between an affair, as Huizar calls it, and alleged harassment, as she calls it. Either way, Huizar's recklessness could cost taxpayers if the city has to litigate the claim against him.

Meanwhile, Wesson, who ordered up a panel to review the harassment allegations against Huizar, threw his impartiality into question last week when he heaped praise on the councilman.

This took place, by the way, at Huizar's reelection fundraiser at a downtown nightclub. Just so you've got the timing down, Huizar was sued on Oct. 17, admitted to an affair that day, and had a back-slapping fundraiser five days later. It was attended by business and union leaders, lobbyists, real estate poobahs and other players who didn't flinch at paying homage to Huizar despite his lack of good judgment.

"Mr. Huizar is like my brother, my best friend on the council," Wesson said at the soiree. "I trust him with my life, he does the same for me."

No surprise there. It's always been an old boys' network in local government.

If, after reading this, you're still searching for gift ideas, I've got a suggestion. Amazon has a lovely 30-inch beveled mirror for just under $150. You can send one to your council member along with instructions.

"Hang this up, stand in front of it, and take a good look at yourself."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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