Here We Go Again: Do Campaign Donations Influence Committee Appointments?

Update 2018 – Board and Commission Appointments, Click here

LagunaBeachCHAT recently expanded on our February 2017 analysis of the campaign donations given to our current City Council by folks who were ultimately appointed to the newly created Measure LL Taxpayer Oversight Committee. That article is titled; “Measure LL Oversight Committee Appointments – Pay-to-Play”. LagunaBeachCHAT has now conducted a similar analysis of ALL appointees to city committees/commissions/boards (referred to here as simply, Committees). Readers of the aforementioned analysis of the campaign donations made by LL Candidates (and/or spouses) to Council members in their respective most recent election campaigns pointed to the worrisome appearance of favoritism based at least in part on financial contributions. The broader analysis revealed mixed results but concludes that for important City Committees such as the Planning Commission and Design Review Board, there still appears to be favoritism given (whether conscious or unconscious) to campaign donors and that therefore, a “blind” method of appointments should be adopted.

Laguna Beach has at least 14 formal, resident-populated Committees, whose appointees typically serve terms of 2 years (Measure LL member terms are 5 years), and are appointed after an application and interview process that is overseen by the City Council. As we have noted previously, the selection process is not “blind” as would be the case if candidates were vetted (usually by an independent, 3rd party) to reach a certain threshold of qualifications, after which all acceptable candidates would be selected at random. This is the methodology that organizations such as Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) use to select members for the Measure M Taxpayer Oversight Committee. We refer to this selection method as Qualified-Blind selection.

In reviewing the charter of the Committees, readers will note that most operate in a purely ‘advisory’ capacity, while others have decision-making authority. Advisory Committees are tasked with investigating certain issues and ultimately reporting back to the council on their findings. They have no actual powers and indeed, the findings that they report are not binding upon the council in any way. Other Committees have the force of California state law behind them (e.g., Planning Commission) or have been granted decision-making powers. Decisions these Committees make can stand on their own without the approval of the council, and indeed the decisions can have financial impact on city businesses or residents. Such Committees generally provide a monthly stipend to appointees and also require each member to file an annual “Statement of Economic Interest”; a Form700 (an exception to this is the View Restoration Committee, which provides no stipend but requires an annual Form700 filing). Here is how we categorize the various Committees:

  • Advisory: Emergency/Disaster Preparedness, Environmental Sustainability, HIV Advisory, Housing & Human Services, Parking, Traffic & Circulation, Personnel Board, Recreation, So Lag Water-Sewer Advisory, Measure LL Oversight (as we have already analyzed the appointment of candidates to the LL Oversight Committee, this discussion excludes it from the current analysis).
  • Decision-making: Arts Commission, Planning Commission, Design Review Board, View Restoration Committee, Heritage Committee

LagunaBeachCHAT analyzed the voting patterns of council members for Committee candidates against the political donations these candidates made in the most recent elections. When viewed against all 13 Committees under analysis, there was no clear pattern, except that a candidate-donor was never voted against for a Committee position by the recipient of the donation (see the article: “Measure LL Oversight Committee Appointments- Pay-to-Play” for the “Dicterow” exception). But the occurrence of such candidate-donations across all 13 Committees was rare enough so that no conclusion can be drawn.

However, if we focus our attention to the Decision-Making Committees, a more salient pattern emerges. LagunaBeachCHAT likes numbers, so here is our data analysis of the reportable donations that successful Committee candidates made to council members’ most recent election campaigns (donations of the candidate and/or spouse):

  • Advisory: 44 successful candidates made total reportable contributions of $6,973.00 or $158.48 per candidate.
  • Decision-Making: 31 successful candidates made total reportable contributions of $4,615 or $148.87 per candidate.

This result seems to contradict our previous assertion. It seems from the numbers above that the more ‘valuable’ Committee positions were handed out to folks who made on-average, lower reportable donations. The anomaly can largely be attributed to the inclusion of 2 ‘super-donors’ who were appointed to seats on 2 different Advisory Committees. We have written about these ‘super-donor’s elsewhere when we were questioning the outsized influence that ‘super-donors’ seem to have with the City Council. These 2 ‘super-donors’ contributed $4,548 of the $6,973 attributed to successful Advisory Committee candidates. If we remove them the data look like this:

  • Revised Advisory: 42 successful candidates made total reportable contributions of $2,425 or $57.74 per candidate.

The most interesting Committee from a donations standpoint is the Planning Commission. Let’s look more deeply into that Decision-Making Committee to see what we find.

Table 1 – Reportable donations from successful candidates

How to interpret this table? Let’s look at the example of successful candidate Roger McErlane. From each candidate’s Form460 donor files, we know that Mr. McErlane made a reportable donation to the 2014 campaign of Mr. Zur Schmiede in the amount of $360. When Mr. McErlane’s candidacy for a spot on the Planning Commission came up, Mr. Zur Schmiede (along with only Mr. Boyd and Mr. Whalen) voted “Yes” for his candidacy. He received 3 of 5 possible “Yes” votes from the council and therefore was appointed to a seat on the Commission with a term beginning on 6/30/17. But for a thorough analysis we also need to examine the fate of donating candidates who were not successful in getting an appointment to the Committee. Here are those data:

Table 2 – Reportable donations from unsuccessful candidates

Again, using Mr. Zur Schmiede as our example, we can see that he received a $360 donation from candidate Becknell-Jones whom he voted “Yes” for, and yet, he also received another $360 donation from candidate, Simon, for whom he failed to vote. If we analyze the numbers for all donating candidates, we come up with the following:

Table 3 – Matrix of Council “Yes” or failure to vote “Yes” for donors and non-donor candidates

Table 3 presents perhaps the most interesting summary of the data relevant to our test case. We worry when we see the numbers in column A be greater than those in column B or C. Generally, we didn’t see this pattern except in the case of Mr. Zur Schmiede. If appointments were being made via the Qualified-Blind selection process we advanced early in this article, you would expect an equal numeric distribution across all of the cells of a single row (since no Council member would have an individual vote):

Table 4: Distribution using the Qualified-Blind selection process

We have to underscore at this point, that of course correlation isn’t causation. If there appears to be a correlation between a Council member’s voting pattern with reportable donations, it is quite possible that other dynamics are occurring. In the case of Mr. Zur Schmiede where a stronger correlation appears to exist, we must bear in mind that he is the new guy on the block and his reportable donation list is very large (237 donors in 2014 vs. 137 for Mr. Boyd, as an example). This would mean he was more likely to encounter a donor-candidate than others (execpt for Ms. Iseman, who had 227 donors in 2014), which could influence the numbers in Table 3. Also, other political considerations go into the selection process, especially for Decision-Making Committees. In the case of unsuccessful non-donor candidate Norm Grossman; he was very much a known quantity to all Council members. He served on the Planning Commission for 26 years and was seeking re-appointment as an incumbent. Mr. Zur Schmiede served with Mr. Grossman for many years on the PC, yet did not support his re-appointment. Finally, the patterns we see can be attributable in part, to the fact that Council members are more comfortable appointing folks they know more about, versus those that are relatively unknown to them. That’s human nature and one could argue, a sound way to go about selecting appointees for important Decision-Making Committees. At the same time, this increased knowledge works both ways. The more a candidate knows about a particular Council member, the more likely they may be to support them with reportable campaign donations.

All of this brings us to our recommendation. Given our thorough analysis of the data relating to the appointment of candidates to the Planning Commission, and our acknowledgement that correlation is not  causation, we still feel strongly that to avoid the appearance of favoritism, or of Pay-to-Play, that the Qualifed-Blind selection process should be adopted. It should definitely be adopted for the Decision-Making Committees if not for all of them. If instead, Council members are unconcerned with appearances, and indeed more concerned with bodies that rubber-stamp their agendas, or view appointments as spoils to hand out to financial-supporters and boosters, they will continue their current practices.

To see the full spreadsheet of Committee Appointees / campaign donations, please click here.

{20May17 – Spreadsheet was updated to incorporate Council appointments made during the 2May17 meeting}