CA Fwd partners with watchdog agency to modernize California’s landmark political ethics law

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(Photo Credit: Books – Kate Ter Haar/Flickr; Capitol Building – David Fulmer/Flickr)

California's lead political watchdog agency is embarking an ambitious review of the state’s historic ethics law to make it easier to understand, comply with and enforce – and California Forward has been asked to help with the project.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) discussed its review of the landmark Political Reform Act at its recent monthly meeting in Sacramento.

“Efforts like this are not easy,” said Erin Peth, executive director of the FPPC. “They're not done overnight. They require a considerable amount of commitment, tenacity and time. So sometimes they often don't get accomplished. And they might not be flashy. But they're important and they make for better public policy.”

Over its lifetime, the 41-year-old act has been amended dozens of times by the Legislature and ballot measures, changing the rules that govern lobbying, conflicts of interest, ethics, and campaign finance. The unintended result of these series of changes has been a law that is often “conflicting, confusing, ambiguous and inconsistent.”

The Commission, as well as civic organizations like California Forward, share a concern that the complexity discourages public service-minded citizens from running for elected offices, makes it more costly for everyone to comply, snares some candidates and incumbents trying to comply while providing cover to other political actors who can blame complexity when accused of violating the law.  The FPPC says the law affects around 800,000 elected and appointed officials at state agencies, regional and community governments.

Announced by FPPC Chair Jodi Remke, the project will be a comprehensive review of the Act to improve the clarity and consistency. Commission staff will partner with CA Fwd and the law schools at University of California Berkeley and University of California Davis, to review the law, solicit suggestions from practitioners and the public at large, and draft revisions that could be proposed for enactment by the Legislature.

“California Forward is looking forward to partnering with the FPPC,” said Jim Mayer, president and CEO of CA Fwd. “Over the last few years, California Forward has informally consulted with senior staff, gathered information and helped them to think through opportunities to improve the Political Reform Act, such as efforts to make conflict of interest information available online and in a searchable format. And we fully agree the public will benefit from making the Act easier to understand, comply with, and enforce.”

The FPPC's goals of the review are to:

●      Improve compliance and reduce technical violations; 

●      Encourage participation in the political process by reducing the burdens and costs of seeking office

●      Increase public understanding of the law to promote trust in the system

●      Strengthen accountability and enforcement efforts

The process will not change the functions of the law, but will clarify the wording to minimize legalese and instead maximize “plain English,” making it easier for officials–and those seeking office–to comply with the law and for the Commission to enforce it.

“And as anyone who's read all or part of the Act would agree, it needs to be reviewed and improved,” said Peth. “This type of project has been on Commission staff's wish list for many, many years. When there's ambiguity and uncertainty that makes our lives a lot more difficult, as well as the members of the regulated community.”

CA Fwd's will assist the project and facilitate review and comments by the public, the regulated community, advocacy groups, the Legislature and local ethics commissions.

Taking time to bring California's once cutting-edge ethics law into the 21st century aligns with CA Fwd's goal to restore public trust in government and to modernize and simplify California’s campaign finance, lobbying and conflict of interest laws to improve compliance and enforcement.

The timeline for the review calls the creation and review of a draft throughout 2016, beginning this spring. The Commission would then submit a revised Political Reform Act to the Legislature for its consideration in January of 2017.


John Guenther

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