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It’s an election year, and California’s campaign watchdogs are busy fighting among themselves

A commission charged with enforcing California’s campaign violations in an election year has spent its time publicly bickering, altering the agency’s power structure and adjusting its own pay.

After years of limiting commissioners to $200 per month, members of the California Fair Political Practices Commission moved in February to pay themselves on an hourly basis.

They’ve debated whether to loosen campaign finance restrictions on lawmakers and argued over how much power to give their chair.

As the state’s election watchdogs focus on internal issues, they are missing an opportunity to become one of the leading campaign finance agencies in the country, said Jessica Levinson, a political ethics expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“They are not only missing that opportunity, they watched it go by, they waved at it and they kept arguing about how much they were going to charge per diem,” Levinson said.

The FPPC adopted tougher regulations in recent years to rein in “shadow lobbyists” and provide more disclosure of lobbyist employer spending. But it has not made any major regulatory changes to shine more light on the activities of candidates and campaigns in 2018.

At their meeting last month, commissioners agreed to pay one member for 71 hours worth of work and travel, or $887.50.

Commissioner Brian Hatch, a retired lobbyist who joined the commission last year, said it takes him many hours to decipher the “legalese” in the cases.

“Being the only non-lawyer on the commission for almost all of my tenure, I feel that I must work harder than my fellow commissioners in order to fully grasp the nuances of the matters that will come before the commission,” said Hatch, who often requests reimbursement for twice as much time as his colleagues. Hatch said he regularly reports less time than he actually spends preparing for meetings.

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Hatch is also at the center of tensions about whether to loosen some campaign restrictions on lawmakers.

An appointee of Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Hatch last year met secretly with a lawyer working for Senate Democrats while advocating for changes to campaign finance law that would help them defend a senator from recall and maintain the party’s supermajority in the California Legislature. Hatch said he was under no obligation under the agency’s rules to disclose the meeting.

He recommended in July that the commission support a bill in the Legislature to give top lawmakers more control over bigger campaign funds. A coalition of groups that advocate for a transparent government and fair elections in California opposes the bill, saying it allows special interests to give more money to legislative leaders and weakens the state’s campaign finance law.

Commissioner Frank Cardenas, a trained lawyer and college instructor, suggested lawmakers were attempting to pass the bill as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid public scrutiny. He questioned Hatch’s motives.

“It’s not at all clear to me why the Fair Political Practices Commission needs to provide them political cover,” Cardenas said.

Hatched warned Cardenas not to “imply that I’m somehow a surrogate for the Legislature.”

The debate ended in a deadlocked 2-2 vote.

In March, at the suggestion of the California Political Attorneys Association, the commission launched an “enforcement review task force” to review the agency’s process for pursuing violations.

Cardenas suggested it was a purposeful distraction of enforcement resources during an election cycle.

“Somewhere out there, there is a dog who is enjoying this fight and speaking for myself to our staff, don’t slow down (enforcement),” Cardenas said at the time. “Someone wants you to, but the people need you to do your good work now more than ever.”

Drama at the FPPC’s headquarters on 11th and Q Streets in Sacramento came to a head days before the June primary.

Several commissioners felt that then-Chair Jodi Remke made too many decisions without their input and crafted a new governance structure that elevated their involvement and diminished the chair’s leadership role.

After months of internal disputes, Remke resigned days before the agency adopted the new bylaws and took another job. Commissioner Maria Audero, who endorsed the change, left not long after. Remke and Audero’s terms on the FPPC were set to expire early next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown in late June appointed Alice Germond, a longtime political activist and former secretary of the Democratic National Committee, to replace Remke. Germond said the commission had experienced personality conflicts, saying “the focus needs to go back to what we do and who we are.”

Germond and several of the commissioners push back on any notion that the internal turmoil is affecting the staff’s ability to enforce the Political Reform Act, a law adopted in 1974 to regulate campaign finance, conflicts of interest, lobbying and governmental ethics.

They say the case load varies from month to month, and the majority of low-level violations are dealt with quickly through a streamlined program with standard fines.

“Not only have we not frittered away any opportunities, we have worked doubly hard to assure that no other part of our business was left undone,” Hatch said.

Commissioner Allison Hayward said the public airing of differences speaks to the commission’s transparency.

“If we didn’t discuss and disagree, I would think the public might be concerned that the votes were somehow already ’baked’ in advance,” she said.

Hayward said ambiguity over compensation for commissioners led her to suggest changes to the agency’s power structure. Commissioners were capped at requesting reimbursement for $100 for each meeting and $100 for other work every month. But a written policy in the commissioner’s handbook said they would be paid $12.50 an hour.

Remke removed the $12.50 per hour statement from the policy without consulting the other commissioners, Hayward said. The decision elicited outcry from commissioners at a meeting in February, and Hayward said it inspired her to conduct a full review of the agency’s structure.

“As I looked further, I realized the chair was doing a lot of things that the commission was suppose to be involved with, without any commission input,” Hayward said. “That’s a problem not only because commissioners are not informed about what is happening at the FPPC, but matters which should be heard in open meetings are pushed underground.”

Hayward and Hatch launched an ad hoc committee earlier this year and spent dozens of hours interviewing former FPPC officials. They learned that the chair’s power grew over time, beginning long before Remke, and the agency operated more like a department than a five-member commission, Hayward said.

The commissioners developed standing committees to give themselves a more active role within the agency. Hayward said she understands why critics may question the commission’s internal focus, but the review was important and long overdue.

“I can see why people might think we are being incredibly self-indulgent, but it’s work that still needs to be done and needs to be done in a public meeting,” Hayward said. “Everyone needs to look at the ugly process of us arguing about how we govern ourselves.”

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