Nothing like the six-figure siphoning that sucked away the livelihood of Bell, CA, Hawthorne has had its unfair share of corruption cases in the last five years. Still, there are some lessons that we can learn about the proper role of the state, the limits of accountability and integrity, and room for reform and release in the purview and prosecution of public integrity crimes.
One Hawthorne councilmember, Luis Velez, received probation for abuse of power. 18 year mayor Larry Guidi was caught on camera taking a food mixer from the Hawthorne school district. As chief executive for the city, he never should have held another public office in the first place. That created a conflict of interest from the beginning.
Then the city got involved in a revitalization scheme, providing an easy loan to Gold's Gym. Councilman Daniel Juarez suspected that the former mayor Guidi received some kickbacks for maneuvering federal dollars for the loan. After three years, the gym went bankrupt, and the city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on the bad investment.
Now the recently elected new mayor Daniel Juarez has been indicted for shaking down a local business for $2,000. The mayor claims that the charges spring from political retaliation, while the business owners who paid in cash reported the transaction to the District Attorney.
With a spat of corruption over the past five years, one has to wonder what triggers and enables this venal dysfunction in city government.
The campaign finance laws are creating more problems than they are solving. Our communities are not served as long as city officials have to sit in court for months at a time responding to bribery or corruption charges over small amounts. One has yet to calculate the hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on these trials. Public watchdogs worry that campaign contributions will turn into bribes, a fair concern considering the importance of getting one's platform out for election every two years. Still, what would happen if there were no restrictions on how much money a candidate received from prospective donors?
Reforms would complain that the highest donor could buy a councilman or a mayor and pull strings at length. The proper redress for that problem, then, is to limit the scope of government's power in the first place.
The city Hawthorne, and every other city, should not be lending out money to private firms in the first place. Part of a free-market system includes risk. If an investor believes that his investment will prosper, he weighs the risks and sets up shop. The other part of the system requires that every business investor take the shock or the reward, whether his investment pays off or not. Cities who take public monies to revitalize impoverished districts in their municipality entertain more problems in the long run. When the supported business fails, as in the case of Gold's Gym, the city takes the hit, which means that the taxpayers get hurt. Other businesses may suffer, as well, having to sit next to another empty shell of a store while waiting for business to pick up once again.
The city is responsible for allocating funds for public works, proving salaries to those employees, maintaining law and order in the city, and proving a safe venue for commerce. These responsibilities should not entail giving out loans, soliciting campaign contributions, or working in more than one office in city government.
Less city control, more private initiative would eliminate much of the corruption which plagues our city governments. Also, a more attentive citizenry plays a significant role. With the third city official in five years under indictment, perhaps more voters in Hawthorne will step up to see what's going on in City Hall.