By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In City Hall, a highly unusual power arrangement gives the 15 Los Angeles City Council members near-total “development czar” control over land use in their individual political patches, often rendering zoning laws and local land-use plans moot — and enraging residents.
But even in L.A.’s almost feudal system of development, Councilwoman Jan Perry stands out.
Exhibit 1 is her relentless pursuit of Grand Avenue, a Frank Gehry–designed, bastion-of-luxury, $3.1 billion development on choice public land owned not by developers but by city and county residents. “The Grand” is a taxpayer subsidized, for-profit project including a park that could cost $83.1 million to blow past all previous park spending records. The proposed extravaganza is within a very short walk of Perry’s luxe, chandeliered, security-guarded condo.
Grand Avenue and its “Civic Park” have been a massive effort absorbing thousands of hours of public time by public employees and politicians in a city that cannot pave its roads. It represents the kind of hyperfocus on downtown that befuddles many. “My God, Van Nuys is ripe for something like that,” notes Valley resident Penny Myer.
As L.A. Weekly recently reported, Perry and the 14 others council members are, by far, the highest-paid city council in America. They rake in $178,789, plus each enjoys a bevy of annual taxpayer-paid perks like a $100,000 slush fund — public money that each council member can spend almost any way they wish.
In the Valley, the 60-year-old Myer walks the walk to improve her own patch, without pay. She volunteers on the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council as chairwoman of its Building and Safety Community, and adheres to a mayoral request by taking three different transit lines three days a week to reach her part-time job downtown.
“[Van Nuys] tried to get a CRA project, but it wasn’t blighted enough,” she observes, enjoying the irony.
She and her husband have for 38 years owned a home in an area now grown decrepit and even dangerous, while downtown politicos spent nearly a decade lining up direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies for The Grand, totaling more than $100 million.
Each step of the way, the Grand Avenue Authority, a joint agency composed of five politicians, including Jan Perry, has approved one pricey feature after another: The world-renowned, if expensive, Gehry. The five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The most expensive public park ever built in park-poor L.A. The stunning $246,800 public salary for Grand Avenue Authority staffer Martha Welborne.
Back in Van Nuys? “We received a wonderful TNI, a Targeted Neighborhood Initiative,” says Myer brightly, “$3 million from the federal government to make improvements to Van Nuys Boulevard.”
As a member of the City Council and the Grand Avenue Authority, Perry has not one, but two, votes on spending public subsidies on The Grand. She lives within 500 feet of the project — and stands to directly financially benefit if The Grand and the Civic Park are erected, dramatically enhancing the value of her own home.
“Our neighborhood council has a rule,” says Len Shaffer, president of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council. If a citizen on the neighborhood council lives within 500 feet of a proposed project, “You’re not supposed to participate in the discussion and the vote. You’ve got to recuse yourself entirely.”
Yet the question of Perry’s possible conflict of interest involving The Grand, according to minutes of the Grand Avenue Authority from May 24, 2004, was raised not by a concerned Jan Perry but “by a city attorney” working for Rocky Delgadillo.
Perry’s spokeswoman Eva Kandarpa Behrend insists via e-mail that, “The Councilmember and her legal counsel reviewed the matter with the City Attorney’s office and the City Attorney determined that no conflict of interest existed.”
Perry’s position puzzles Myer: “I understand,” that Perry might not technically be in conflict, “but it’s still a monetary gain for her.”
Perry is utilizing the intricate and nuanced world of California Fair Political Practices Commission regulations. “There are legal conflicts of interest and there are ethical-conflict interests,” explains Bob Stern, who co-authored the state’s 1974 Political Reform Act. “The law deals with ‘objective conflict’ of interest. . It doesn’t deal with how you feel about it.”
California elected officials are allowed to receive “material” or monetary gain through their votes — as long as an obscure math formula shows that the same level of benefit goes to other property owners in the area. Kandarpa Behrend writes that Perry has no conflict because The Grand “will not affect the Councilmember any differently than it will affect other property owners in the area.”
But the obscure math formula used by Delgadillo to tell Perry she won’t benefit more than anyone else in her downtown patch has been hidden from public view.
Perry’s private attorney “worked with the City Attorney’s Office,” according to public records. A press deputy for Delgadillo said his office cannot divulge why Delgadillo believes that Perry is qualified to vote on The Grand or the Civic Park, citing attorney-client privilege between Perry and Delgadillo.