Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New Sheriff At FPPC

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2007 at 6:31 PM

There's an interesting article in last week's Capitol Weekly about the new chairman of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency that oversees California's money-in-politics regulations. The new guy looks pretty burly:

The FPPC, spawned by the Watergate scandals, is the state’s political watchdog (although few at the FPPC like that term) with the authority to enforce campaign finance laws. But critics have complained that its teeth have been drawn. In part, that’s because the FPPC does not conduct criminal investigations, it has strict limits on fines that are rarely painful to flush campaign accounts, it is understaffed and submerged in paperwork, and it enforces intricate and arcane rules that prove daunting to even the brightest public officials. With a staff of about 80 and an $8 million budget, the FPPC has jurisdiction over thousands of state and local officials.

But in recent months, the watchdog has been baring its fangs, at least in part because it has a new chairman: Ross Johnson, a combative, conservative Republican from Orange County who was appointed to the $127,833-a-year position in February by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "I’ve been in a lot of fights. I’ve lost most of them," Johnson noted. His critics, including political attorneys and some in the Legislature, hope he keeps losing them. So far, though, that isn’t happening.


The article lists several reforms that Johnson has undertaken, or is in the process of undertaking. Most interestingly, from Humboldt County's point of view, is that he has ordered commission staff to respond to all complaints within 14 business days. If staff needs longer than 14 days to decide whether or not it will investigate a complaint, it can take another 14 days to decide.

Sound familiar? That's just what happened with the recent complaints brought by the Humboldt Watershed Council against Fortuna Mayor John Campbell and Humboldt County Planning Commission Chair Tom Herman. The FPPC said it would investigate Herman very quickly after the Watershed Council filed its two complaints; a couple of weeks later, it said it would investigate Campbell as well.

The Johnson era sounds very heartening from the reporter's point of view, too. Used to be that you could spend an hour on the phone with an FPPC public information officer and get nothing but 500 different variations on "we can't tell you." Johnson has apparently ended this charade, putting in a policy that will for the first time to allow the PIOs to confirm or deny that an investigation is taking place.

Puts me in mind of my most favorite souvenir from my reporting career. Check it out here, if you like (.pdf). If they ever sack me, this is definitely going into the resume packet as one of my three letters of recommendation.

If you're reading this, Johanna: Love ya, babe!

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Hank Sims

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