September 7, 2020 - From the September, 2020 issue

Tempus Opportunitatis:  Has The Moment Arrived To End Political Interference in LA City’s Land Use Decisions?

In this exclusive op-ed for TPR, Ed(ifice) Locus*— a pseudonymous nod to legendary urban planner, Ed Logue, and rooted in the Latin word for 'place'—asserts that decoupling campaign finance from land use planning is a necessary safeguard against the pay-to-play schemes that plague the city's entitlement process. Citing the LA Metro Board's example, Locus suggests the time has come for strong conflict of interest rules that prohibit council members from voting on projects for campaign donors to begin to restore public faith in City Hall. (*To protect the integrity of ongoing federal investigations into LA City Hall corruption, TPR has taken the unusual step of concealing the identity here of the LA-based land use professional who offers this modest proposal for eliminating political interference and campaign cash from LA city planning.) 


“(W)e do not need another layer of oversight, of more expert panels and procedures, to make entitlement “clean. What we do need is to simply and completely decouple land use planning from campaign finance.”—Ed(ifice) Locus

This may be the moment we have dreamed for, the “time of opportunity” when we can finally do good land use planning in Los Angeles.

Truly revolting allegations of fraud and impropriety are in the papers almost every day, allegations that draw back the curtain on pollution in the municipal “entitlement” processes for real estate development. Yet, out of the trauma of this awful fraud, there may emerge a materially improved set of procedures that could render manifest benefits for improving our lives. 

Top quality urban planners have lamented (privately while in office and publicly after they left) that this city could not truly plan its future because of political interference in land use decisions.  It was City Councilmembers who called the shots, not the professional planners we admired, names like Cal Hamilton, Jane Usher, Con Howe and Gail Goldberg. City Council interference was a given. It was pervasive and was essentially required.

And we all knew that such interference could easily be purchased - for cash.

Oh come on, who gives $50,000 to an election campaign and doesn’t expect something in return ?

True, there are reasons for consulting local officials regarding land use. Elected leaders are, theoretically, the representatives of their constituents and, in our democracy, the “voices” of the people they serve.

But they also have another agenda.  In Los Angeles it costs at least $2 million to run for City Council and maybe $5 million for a seat on the County Board of Supervisors. This money is needed for direct mail, electronic media, “get out the vote” and other costs of a political campaign.

Anyone contemplating a run for public office has three options to choose from: you can self-fund your campaign with your own fortune (you might want to ask Al Checchi and Meg Whitman before you start), or you can “sell your soul” to the labor unions for a single check, and owe them your life, or you can start to call real estate developers, one by one by one, and beg for money (and, of course, call outdoor advertisers, trash haulers, cable TV franchisees and others who seek City contracts).

That’s how it works. Just ask anyone who has ever served on a political campaign.

Two things have happened in Los Angeles since the recent scandals broke.  First, City Councilmembers have backed off on their land use interference (and, in at least two cases, gone home altogether and for good). This has allowed our genuinely competent city planners to actually do their jobs.  Call this moment “Planning Perestroika.” 

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The proposed Downtown 2040 Plan is now a fine piece of work. Is it a coincidence (given Huizar’s under indictment) that there is no sitting Councilmember for Downtown at the present time) ?   Of course not. There is no one to interfere and, as a result, our planners can exercise their own professional judgement, and not the political or financial judgements of others.

The second outcome is a groundswell that has produced multiple proposals for reform.

Mr/s. Locus here believes that we do not need another layer of oversight, of more expert panels and procedures, to make entitlement “clean.”

What we do need is to simply and completely decouple land use planning from campaign finance. 

The Metro approach may seem extreme, but if you donate more than ten dollars to a Metro Board member, that Board member cannot vote on anything you own or represent. Incidentally - and significantly - no one “runs” for a seat on the Metro Board, the members are ex officio or appointed.  But the approach is fundamentally correct. And it works.

To make these changes we will need to find some other means for financing political campaigns. We must still pay for mailers and doorbell-ringers to educate the voting public. But if we can reform campaign finance, then - and only then - can we finally remove the “taint,” the perception - proved painfully real of late - that entitlement in Los Angeles is for sale.

Finally, Locus would like to compliment our current City Planning staff.  Thank you for your patience and forbearance, for having tolerated all those years of City Council interference. Now, for a moment and maybe forever, you can actually plan.

We all look forward to the results.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.