Time for City’s Ethics Commission to Make LA’s Elections Work … Show Up for Debates or No Matching Funds

OPEN LETTER TO JESSICA LEVINSON, PRESIDENT OF THE LA CITY ETHICS COMMISSION---I am asking for your immediate attention to a troubling situation that involves the potential misuse of our tax dollars and the violation of good government laws overseen, administered and enforced by the City Ethics Commission.

All three candidates for Los Angeles City Council District 11 agreed in writing months ago to participate in a debate. This participation is one of the conditions the candidates had to meet in order to receive matching funds -  our tax dollars - to help underwrite the costs of their political campaigns. City records show Councilman Mike Bonin has received $100,000 in matching funds and challenger Mark Ryavec nearly $46,000; as of this date Robin Rudisill, the third candidate, has not received such matching funds.

At this late date, however, we have not had a bona fide CD11 candidate debate. Yet the candidates have our tax dollars and are undoubtedly spending them.

Recently CD11 constituents were shortchanged when Bonin did not attend a debate on Feb. 16 at the University Synagogue in Brentwood featuring his two challengers, Ryavec and Rudisill. This had all the earmarks of a bona fide debate, moderated by the highly-regarded KNX 1070 Newsradio anchor Frank Mottek. More than 125 persons attended; nearly 300 registered to attend but it is suspected that when it was determined Bonin would not participate, many disgusted voters said 'what's the point.'

Meantime, it was reported that Bonin was indisposed because he was committed to  an event on Feb. 16, in Mar Vista, sponsored by a group called Aging in Place. The minutes of the Mar Vista group establish that Bonin was not the guest speaker at their event attended by 28 persons; the evidence also indicates Bonin was invited to both the Mar Vista and Synagogue events at about the same time.

Bonin’s campaign staff also claimed their candidate was leery about attending  the Synagogue event because some of its organizers supported his rivals. However, that concern was amply mitigated by the fact that Mottek, a veteran journalist and long-time member of the board of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed to moderate the debate and call the balls and strikes, if you will.

Bonin's excuses don't pass the smell test.

Now we are hearing there MAY be a debate on Feb. 27. Despite some mixed messages about who would attend or not, the latest news (as of noon, Feb. 2) is that all three candidates will attend. Sort of. Apparently Ryavec will be a "virtual" participant, showing up via live-stream (???) and providing taped responses (???). Whatever all this means, god only knows, but it is not the same as showing up in person.

However, this information – even if true - does not diminish the value and purpose of this petition.

It remains unacceptable that one debate is being held at the tail-end of the primary election season and the time and place of the debate were dictated by the incumbent officeholder, Mike Bonin. To top it off, this debate at this time apparently will NOT be moderated by anyone who can be expected to be objective and disinterested in the outcome of the election or practiced in holding candidates’ feet to the fire. The gold standard for political debates is to have them moderated by journalists; this is a format that should be institutionalized by the City Ethics Commission.

Other reforms worth considering:

  • a requirement that there be at least three debates in the primary; ;
  • that these debates be held in different parts of the district at times and places dictated by the commission;
  • and that the candidates get a down-payment on their matching funds if they show up at a debate. No more: we give you the money and hope you engage in a debate.

Bottom-line: we help fund the campaigns of candidates running for office  with the promise that we will get debates. What’s happening in CD11 makes it clear that this system is, like so much at City Hall, unsatisfactory.

More specifically, as to the Feb. 27th debate (if it indeed comes off as now contemplated): the date is unacceptable. Many voters will have cast absentee ballots by Feb. 27; in effect the election could be decided by absentee voters who had no opportunity to witness a meaningful debate. It is no service to the public to hold a debate on Feb. 27th  - a mere eight days before the election.

It has also been reported that Bonin has demanded that this Feb. 27th “debate” shall NOT include questions about Measure S (which Bonin opposes). It is arbitrary and intolerable for any Los Angeles city candidate to dictate that their position concerning a notable municipal ballot measure, for example, not be discussed as part of a “debate.”

Bottom-line: Many residents of CD11 are deeply concerned that the candidates are acting in bad faith and willfully dodging their responsibility to engage in a meaningful public debate to help the voters make informed decisions about how to vote.

This is not just a question of reasonableness. It is a matter of law (see Los Angeles Municipal Code §§ 49.7.22 et seq). All three CD11 candidates agreed in writing to participate in at least one debate in order to receive matching funds assistance.

The City Ethics Commission should immediately demand that Bonin and Ryavec return the matching funds tax dollars they have received; and that these funds be kept in an escrow account and be released to Bonin and Ryavec only after they have participated in a bona fide public debate. I daresay that what is happening in CD11 is probably not unique and we believe that the City Ethics Commission should take steps to prevent the citywide abuse of the matching funds program.

It is particularly obnoxious when incumbent officeholders, who already have a tremendous fund-raising advantage over their challengers, are allowed to spend our tax dollars to fatten their political warchests while dodging their debate obligations.

But in the meantime, the city Ethics Commission should act immediately to prevent candidates in CD11 from spending our tax dollars until they make good on their written pledge to debate. Our tax dollars and the integrity of the city’s campaign finance reform laws must be protected. Yes, this may cause discomfort to the candidates but it is time to send a strong signal that this dysfunctional system can no longer be tolerated.

This petition is supported by a dozen or so individuals who first encountered it on Nextdoor Neighborhood. However, I did not get their permission to use their names for publication so I have not included them herein.


  • ACTION INFO—Show your support for election change, send an email to city.ethics@lacity.org with ‘I support election debate reform’ in the subject line.


(John Schwada is a former investigative reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner. He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. His consulting firm is MediaFix Associates.)