Stop ig­nor­ing pay-to-play

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

How soon they for­get. In the months lead­ing up to the March elec­tion, Los An­ge­les lead­ers were on the de­fen­sive. A slow­growth bal­lot mea­sure was pick­ing up steam, pay-to-play al­le­ga­tions were swirling around City Hall and sev­eral city coun­cil mem­bers were run­ning for re­elec­tion against chal­lengers who pledged to take no cam­paign cash from de­vel­op­ers.

Five City Coun­cil mem­bers de­cided to make a bold pro­nounce­ment: They pro­posed to ban cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from de­vel­op­ers seek­ing city ap­proval for their projects.

The pro­posal, in­tro­duced in Jan­uary, called for the city Ethics Com­mis­sion to cre­ate an or­di­nance that would pro­hibit con­tri­bu­tions from de­vel­op­ers with projects cur­rently or re­cently be­fore city de­ci­sion mak­ers. Al­ter­na­tively, the mem­bers asked for other ways to limit the op­por­tu­ni­ties for cor­rup­tion, such as re­quir­ing elected of­fi­cials to re­cuse them­selves from a land-use de­ci­sion if they’d taken do­na­tions from the de­vel­oper.

Since then, how­ever, vot­ers have re­jected the slow-growth Neigh­bor­hood In­tegrity Ini­tia­tive and re-elected coun­cil in­cum­bents, while the pro­posal to ban de­vel­oper con­tri­bu­tions has gone nowhere. In fact, the pro­posal hasn’t even had a hear­ing at City Hall.

Of course, many coun­cil mem­bers never wanted to move for­ward with such a ban any­way. Real es­tate in­ter­ests are a re­li­able source of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, and elected of­fi­cials are loath to turn away money they could also use on of­fice ex­penses and trips. Be­sides, city politi­cians in­sist, they never let cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions in­flu­ence their vote on a devel­op­ment.

Even if you be­lieve that the mayor and City Coun­cil man­age to ig­nore po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions when mak­ing de­ci­sions, the mere ex­change of money be­tween peo­ple seek­ing city ap­proval and the peo­ple grant­ing it cre­ates the per­cep­tion of a quid pro quo. That fu­els com­mu­nity dis­trust with the city’s lan­duse and devel­op­ment de­ci­sions, and makes it harder to have a rea­son­able dis­cus­sion on how and where to build more homes to ad­dress the city’s hous­ing shortage.

Faced with the threat of the dra­co­nian Neigh­bor­hood In­tegrity Ini­tia­tive, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the coun­cil com­mit­ted to re­form­ing the plan­ning and land-use sys­tem. The city is start­ing to mod­ern­ize its out­dated Gen­eral Plan, which is its vi­sion for growth. The coun­cil voted to re­quire com­mu­nity plans to be up­dated ev­ery six years, which should re­duce the need to grant de­vel­op­ers “spot zon­ing” ex­emp­tions from ex­ist­ing land-use rules. The coun­cil also voted to bar de­vel­op­ers from pick­ing their own con­sul­tants to pro­duce traf­fic stud­ies and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­ports.

Those steps are ne­c­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient. The mayor and City Coun­cil need to take pay-to-play — per­ceived or oth­er­wise — out of the city’s devel­op­ment process.

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