While the recent string of corruption indictments is beyond anything the City of LA has seen in decades, it's no surprise to thousands of residents who have known for years that project approvals are for sale. For a long time community members across LA have been voicing accusations that the so-called "planning process" was actually a play-to-play game, set up to benefit developers and the politicians who serve them. Now we have proof. Before last week we had already seen four guilty pleas, including from a former Councilmember, a former member of the City Planning Commission, a former CD 14 staff member, and a development consultant. On Tuesday, June 23, Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents CD 14, was arrested by the Department of Justice (DOJ). He's charged with participating in a long-standing and widespread conspiracy that involved shaking down developers in return for project approvals. At the time of this writing, Huizar has not yet entered a plea.
There have been expressions of alarm and disgust from some Councilmembers, and after Huizar's arrest the Council voted to suspend him. But really, this is way too little, way too late. Huizar may have gone farther than his colleagues in trading project approvals for favors from developers, but he's certainly not alone. All you have to do is compare campaign contributions logged on the Ethics Commission's web site with a list of major projects that have been approved in recent years to see that there's a close correlation between the two. Also note that almost all projects receive unanimous approval by the members of the City Council, owing to the unspoken agreement that "I'll approve your project if you'll approve mine." There's rarely any discussion of a project's actual merits or flaws, and any talk of planning is limited to repeating a set of familiar sound bites that have nothing to do with reality.
The only Councilmember who has been consistently talking about reform since he was elected is David Ryu. The Councilmember's interest in reform may have been sparked in part by personal experience. When Ryu took office back in 2015, he was surprised to find that his predecessor, Tom LaBonge, had destroyed the vast majority of the records kept by the Council District 4 office, including records related to budgets, land use and community issues. We can only guess what LaBonge was trying to hide, but it seems clear that he'd been engaged in activities that he didn't want anyone outside the office to know about. Ryu put forward his first motion related to campaign finance reform the year he was elected. You probably won’t be surprised that not one of his colleagues on the Council was willing to second the motion.
But after the string of guilty pleas and Huizar's arrest, all of a sudden the members of the LA City Council are desperate to show how concerned they are about ethics. So the climate has changed, and Ryu has introduced a pair of new motions to address corruption at City Hall. Both motions were seconded by Councilmember Paul Koretz.
Ryu’s first motion would create an independent body to provide oversight of land use, development and construction processes and to investigate allegations of corruption (The Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency). The second motion would place a measure on the November ballot to remove Section 245 from the City Charter. Section 245 allows the Council to override decisions made by the City Planning Commission or Area Planning Commissions, and Ryu’s reasoning is that this gives Councilmembers too much power in land use approvals.
UN4LA strongly supports the first motion. Recent events have shown that LA desperately needs an independent office tasked with fighting corruption. The motion was approved by the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee on June 30, but the road to approval by the full Council will probably be difficult. Ryu previously pushed for an ordinance aimed at campaign finance reform, but the final version approved by the Council was seriously watered down.
UN4LA does not support the second motion. While Ryu’s take on Section 245 sounds logical, we have heard from numerous community members who see it as a valid tool to overturn problematic decisions made by the Department of City Planning (DCP). A perfect example is the current situation with the Mulholland/San Feliciano Project, in which a developer plans to construct 19 single family homes in an oak woodland adjacent to Mulholland Drive, removing 15 protected trees in the process. After approval by the DCP, a number of individuals and groups filed appeals. When the pandemic hit, the Area Planning Commission meeting at which the appeals would have been heard was cancelled, and the developer refused to grant a continuance, meaning that the appeals were “deemed denied”. The appellants were understandably grateful when Councilmember Bob Blumenfield used Section 245 to bring the matter before the Council.
Ryu’s efforts should be applauded, but we need more. It’s clear from the lack of real action that the majority of Councilmembers are quite happy with the status quo, and that they see no reason to rock the boat. Now that Huizar has been arrested we’re hearing cries of dismay, but without continued pressure for reform, you can bet that the LA City Council will slide back into its old ways. And really, at this point nothing has changed. Last year the LA Times reported that Onni Contracting (California) had given $50,000 to a campaign committee with ties to Huizar just two months before an important hearing. Onni Group had submitted an application to tear down part of the LA Times building in order to build a pair of residential towers on the site. Huizar sent an aide to the hearing, who testified that the part of the building to be demolished was not historic. The Council sided with Huizar, and rejected the designation for that part of the site. Now, in spite of the suspicious donation, and in spite of the fact that Huizar has been charged by the Feds with taking money in exchange for helping developers, the project is going before the City Planning Commission on July 9. The City Council has made no effort to investigate Onni's actions.
So what are we going to do about it? UN4LA believes that David Ryu's effort to create an independent office tasked with fighting corruption is a good start. But at the same time, the citizens of Los Angeles need to make it clear that the City Council must change its ways. We can no longer accept a project approval process that has little to do with planning and everything to do with campaign contributions.
The DOJ has four guilty pleas so far, and Huizar could make five. It's time for Angelenos to say we will not accept corruption at City Hall.