City Attorney Mike Feuer announced this week that his office would no longer use his own lawyers to represent the city in lawsuits against private developments. Instead, his office will hire outside counsel – and send the bill over to the developers.
"The city attorney will hire and manage the outside legal counsel," says city attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox. "We will charge the cost to developers and we will save taxpayer dollars. The city attorney will continue to make all decisions regarding litigation."
So why is the crowd of neighborhood and environmental activists who fight high-density development hopping mad?
"It’s another form of the city trying to effectively cover up their misconduct by doubling down," says attorney Robert P. Silverstein, every developer's worst nightmare, with typical umbrage. "Rather than just following the law in the first place, [they're] digging in deeper and trying to defend their back room deals with their developer buddies."
When activists – derisively referred to as NIMBYs (for Not in My Back Yard) – want to either stop a giant new housing development, hotel or office building from going up, or simply force the city to follow existing zoning laws, they hire an attorney like Silverstein to sue the developer under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The city, which approved the project, is also named in these lawsuits.
Los Angeles, by law, was supposed to get the developers to pay back the city for its lawyers' time – but this hasn't been happening.
"It was never done," says Wilcox.
Why not? "I can’t speak for past city attorneys," he says.
Silverstein is dismayed that the city hasn't been billing the developers until now.
"How many millions of dollars has the city wasted by subsidizing developers in fights against the very public that our officials were elected to represent?" he says. "I think there should be an investigation into why, for all these years, City Hall and the City Council and the mayor were giving developers a free pass."
Silverstein has fought countless high density projects in Hollywood, including an aspiring Target in Hollywood, a 22-story apartment building on Sunset and Gordon, and perhaps most famously, the Millennium Hollywood tower, which is still on course to be built even though state geologists found that the property sits atop an earthquake fault.
John Schwada, spokesman for Stop the Millennium Hollywood, had this to say about the news that the city would be bringing in the big guns to defend new developments: "Apparently they don’t feel their in-house lawyers are competent enough to handle Silverstein. They’ve lost so many times."
Now that the economy is picking up, so is development – by both the city, with projects like the L.A. River revitalization, and by private developers. Housing, in particular, is a need, since housing prices are at a historic high. And so the city expects there to be more and more legal work surrounding new buildings.
"I’m sure that the city attorney feels they don’t have enough staff to do this bullshit work," says Mott Smith, a developer who specializes in mid-level, middle income buildings. He isn't exactly thrilled that he and his ilk will have to pick up the tab for these outside lawyers.
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"Unless you’re doing luxury projects, you can’t afford the risk of a CEQA lawsuit," says Smith. "[The new policy] makes it even worse. It shuts out the mid-level, small guys. We’re just increasing the cost, to developers, of doing business in the city of L.A."
It's not every day that a new policy is able to piss off Robert P. Silverstein and developers. Maybe that means the City Attorney is on to something?
David Ewing, a Venice activist, has mixed feelings about the plan.
"On one level, it's a good thing," says Ewing. "It protects taxpayers from at least one aspect of city’s follies. On other hand, whenever you deal with outside counsel, it’s a place where conflicts of interest tend to arrive. It’s a place where back-scratching goes on. It’s a way to give their friends work."