How to Ensure LA Matching Funds Candidates Appear in Town Halls and Debates

A third-party organization should be charged with hosting the town hall meetings or debates for candidates who use the public matching funds system.

California Common Cause today continued its advocacy for a stronger public financing system in Los Angeles that will reduce the influence of wealthy special interests in local elections. Executive Director Kathay Feng appeared at the Los Angeles Ethics Commission to make recommendations on how to strengthen the debate and town hall component of the LA Matching Funds system.

The LA City Council recently adopted a package of reforms that increase the match rate to $6 to $1 and required participation in a town hall or public debate to qualify for the matching funds. However, the package did not adequately define the town hall and debate component.

Kathay’s Testimony:

“We respectfully request that the Ethics Commission work with staff to examine options and develop recommendations regarding the debate / town hall requirement associated with candidate participation in the LA City Matching Funds program. We would like to see this placed on the February 19, 2019, meeting agenda.  

We commend the Ethics Commission on recommending candidates who receive public matching funds not only to agree to participate but to actually appear at a debate or town hall meeting.  

The question that many offices of elected officials raise is what happens if there is not a third-party organization that is organizing a debate in the traditional sense (that is, an event where all candidates are invited to speak, and candidates who are attending are given equal time to respond to questions). 

The expansion of this requirement to allow L.A. city candidates to qualify for matching funds by appearing at town halls has been the current answer to that uncertainty. We agree with League of Women Voters and others that the suggested definition of town halls leads us down a potentially dangerous path. 

We would like to suggest a different approach for the Ethics Commission to consider. (Credit goes to Wayne Williams of California Clean Money Campaign for the idea.) 

Los Angeles City’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) works with almost 100 Neighborhood Councils around the city in every Council district. Each Neighborhood Council has a designated amount of city funds. We would like to suggest that DONE be charged with working with the Neighborhood Councils to host at least one official debate in each district. This official role would lift up the voices of Neighborhood Councils and would create a situation where every election for a city office would have at least one opportunity for candidates to debate. 

All candidates seeking public matching funds must be invited to such debates. The Department of Neighborhood Council could additionally create reasonable thresholds for additional candidates that would be invited to participate. DONE could also work in conjunction with Neighborhood Councils to develop reasonable rules for the debates in their respective areas to promote public attendance and information, as well as fairness to candidates.  If any candidate is affiliated with (or opposed by) a Neighborhood Council, DONE could work all NCs in the district to ensure the town halls or debates treat all candidates fairly.  

If this idea sounds interesting and potentially viable, we ask that the Ethics Commission staff research and bring findings to the Ethics Commission to be discussed at the February 19 meeting.”