It’s never good when an elected official has to set up a legal defense fund. From a public relations viewpoint, it is tantamount to an admission of guilt.
But since news of the investigation and potential charges against West Hollywood City Council member John Duran for misuse of city credit cards broke, the public is still in the dark as to exact nature of the alleged financial “abuses."
Given the lack of official disclosure by either City Hall or the District Attorney’s office, much of the public is skeptical that Duran’s credit card charges even rise to the level of scandal much less criminality. If the comments posted after the are reflective of the community's mood, if you like John Duran, you are dismissive of the allegations; if you don’t, then you support the District Attorney.
The $7,000 in meals charged on the City’s dime was as excessive as to red flag Duran for scrutiny. While many of the individual credit card charges may be modest, the sheer number calls them into question.
While it is not clear the exact time frame the charges occurred, they ran over a period of three calendar years, which could be as long as 36 months or as short as 14. Only if you compare the credit card charges to the level of abuses of Bell or Vernon, they appear to be modest. But do we really want to be in the same category as those cities? The District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit found them to be excessive.
Part of Duran’s problem is that when your compare his charges with those of his City Council colleagues, they look out of whack.
Do we really feel that City Council members should be taking meals on the taxpayer dollar so they can talk business with their Council deputies? The deputies make over six figures.
My sources indicate that most of the charges occurred when Duran was meeting his deputy to discuss Council-meeting agendas. I would point out that the taxpayers provide the Council members with an office for such meetings. While I am skeptical that such conduct should be treated as criminal, I don’t feel that the use of the City’s credit card for such meals is warranted.
Part of the problem is that the City is ill served by our current City Attorney Michael Jenkins, who clearly is more interested in protecting his multi-million dollar annual contract with the City than providing the City Council with legal opinions that they might not find palatable.
Jenkins rationalizes the charges by saying that because we have a part-time City Council, our elected officials only have limited times to meet with City Staff. Therefore it is a “necessity” for the City to pay for meals so that the people’s business can be conducted. “Council member work for a living.” Jenkins told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “and it is very difficult for them to find the time to conduct city business, so they meet with city employees or their deputies over lunch.”
The only problem with Jenkins’ theory is that other City Council members also have full time jobs and have minimal meal charges. John Heilman has worked two jobs yet always knows his City Council agenda inside out. His credit card charges are always minimal.
At least one person commenting on the defended the meal charges as being something that is typically done in the private sector. But West Hollywood is not a business and public officials have a duty to meet with city bureaucrats and members of the public. When you run for office that is part of the gig. Given the recent history of abuse of public funds in other California cities, we need to be vigilant to guard against abuse of public funds.
Now I don’t want to sound unsympathetic to any one who is working full time and serving on the City Council, but it’s not like anyone forced them to run for office.
Before you feel too sorry for any of them, remember that not only do they get a $1,200 a month stipend, they get free medical coverage that would cost about $1,500 a month if you had to buy comparable insurance.
There is another problem with our City Attorney’s theory that Council members are “too busy” with their professions to actually conduct business at City Hall. During his tenure on City Council, Duran has also served on the board of directors of Equality California and the Gay Men’s Chorus. When you read Frontiers, Duran just seems to be everywhere. But given the fact that he ran for office, shouldn’t the conduct of City business come before all of his other extracurricular activities? Maybe John Duran just doesn’t have time to be an effective City Council member.
Duran supporters have pointed out that no one was groped and no nipples were harmed in the making of this scandal. They have a point. The conduct may not even rise to level of scandal. No liquor was charged, no rent boys, no suites at the San Vicente Inn. Not much of a scandal by West Hollywood standards.
There is a sense that the D.A. is being overzealous. If charges are filed, they will be felonies: misappropriation of public funds. Even though I don’t think all of Duran’s credit card charges qualify as legitimate expenses that should be paid by the taxpayers, I have a huge problem seeing this sort of conduct as a felony. A felony conviction would be all out of proportion to what appears to simply be, at worse, a lapse in judgment. Whatever Duran’s foibles, criminal prosecution is not appropriate.
A trial would simply further fray the already tattered fabric of West Hollywood’s body politic. If the D.A. files charges, every developer in town will line up to contribute to Duran’s legal defense fund, creating yet another conflict of interest. If it reaches that point, the City should simply step in to provide a legal defense.
The City has put the brakes on nearly all charges. No more $300 Mont Blanc pens or $500 Gelson’s gift certificates for retiring employees. If the City Council wants to continue to have use of City credit cards, we need stricter standards and better guidelines so that the Council and the public know the rules.
In many ways this situation arises from the sense of entitlement that comes from Council members who believe that they hold office for life. You have to ask yourself why our City Manager or City Attorney did not see any red flags as the large number of credit card charges started rolling in from Duran’s office. It appears that management was more concerned about not ruffling Council egos than they are about the erosion of public trust that comes from the abuse of City funds.
Perhaps John Duran is a victim of the culture at City Hall that fosters a sense of entitlement rather than someone who wittingly abused his credit card privileges.