NEIGHBORHOOD ACTIVIST JOE BARRETT sounded a little gloomy this week as he discussed the ultrahot political battle being waged in his Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood — a bitterly contested plan for a new Home Depot on Foothill Boulevard. Barrett, who works in the film business, has spent two years fighting the home-improvement giant, convincing his neighbors and his local representative, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, to oppose it.
Barrett even persuaded Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take part in impromptu anti–Home Depot pep rallies. Yet despite all that support, Barrett doubts that the city will acquiesce to his demand for a full environmental review of the do-it-yourself megastore.
“The mayor is ignoring us. We’ve tried to contact him many times, and they claim that they’re working on it, but they don’t respond to our calls,” Barrett said. “He came up to our community twice and led the community in a cheer of ‘No Home Depot, No Home Depot.’ But one of the problems is, the lobbyist [for Home Depot] is a big contributor to the mayor.”
With such a bleak view of city politics, Barrett would seem like the ideal person to vote for Proposition R, a November 7 measure being billed as a way to give City Hall a vigorous ethics scrubbing. In campaign materials mailed to voters over the past two weeks, consultants for the Prop. R campaign have repeatedly promised that their measure will keep lobbyists and their many clients far, far away from municipal decision making.
“Special interests and their paid lobbyists have too much power and influence in city government,” declares one recent Prop. R campaign mailer, which shows a nightclub bouncer, alongside a velvet rope, trying to keep unsavory elements from reaching City Hall. “Prop. R will change all that.”
Such arguments would be more convincing if lobbyists and their clients weren’t amassing such big checks on behalf of the ballot measure. But then, Prop. R is marginally about clean government and much more about term limits — that is, giving each council member a shot at a third four-year term. That might just explain why so many special interests — from real estate developers to labor unions — are lining up behind a measure that purports to crack down on, um, special interests.
“Clearly the purpose of Measure R is term limits, not to clean up City Hall,” said Robert Stern, who heads the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies, a campaign-finance watchdog. “And it’s definitely a superficial cleaning — once over lightly.”
And wouldn’t you know it: One of the big contributors that ponied up $25,000 on behalf of Prop. R this week is Home Depot, a company waging development fights not just in the Sunland-Tujunga area, but also in Glassell Park, where Council President Eric Garcetti is fighting another Home Depot project.
Home Depot wrote its check just two days after its high-powered City Hall lobbying firm — okay, one of its high-powered lobbying firms — wrote a pitch letter asking business leaders to kick in $1,000 or more for Proposition R. “Please join our firm in supporting this important reform measure,” wrote Steve Weston, an attorney with the firm Weston Benshoof, which has no fewer than 15 City Hall clients.
Some of those clients have projects that have vexed Garcetti, Greuel and Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the same elected officials who are — you guessed it — raising money for Proposition R. Weston represents Browning-Ferris Industries, operator of a much-debated landfill in Granada Hills. The firm is also paid to represent Las Lomas Land Co., which wants to build a 5,800-home subdivision on an undeveloped hillside in and around Santa Clarita.
Garcetti contended that Prop. R is indeed tough on lobbyists, banning them from giving gifts to elected officials and permanently keeping them off city commissions. He and Greuel said they will have no trouble resisting future entreaties by Home Depot, despite their recent contribution.
The problem is, those reassurances have been undermined by the hack work of the Prop. R campaign, which has relentlessly portrayed city government as a cesspool, slapping phrases on its mailers like “Lobbyists Indicted!” on top of an image of City Hall. (In reality, no registered lobbyist has been charged with any crime, even in the recent “pay to play” probe. Perhaps more appalling, Kaiser Permanente government-relations official Leland Wong — the city commissioner charged in a conflict-of-interest scandal — never even bothered to register as a lobbyist.)
Weston, the man who wrote the Prop. R pitch letter, said lobbyists do not give council members free cars, despite what you may have seen in the campaign mailers for the measure. He argued that lobbyists carry out a noble profession and don’t need the new restrictions contained in Prop. R.
But Weston argued that he is willing to make the tradeoff, accepting new restrictions in exchange for a weakening of term limits. Furthermore, he agreed that contributions do give businesses some form of entry to City Hall. “Do I anticipate my clients will get a better result because of (campaign contributions)? No. Do they have better access? Possibly. Possibly they do.”
Garcetti said he was unaware of Weston Benshoof’s pitch letter for Prop. R. But he too sounded unimpressed with campaign mailers sent out so far by John Shallman, a Prop. R consultant who has also worked for Greuel. “I’m not running the campaign. I’ll leave it at that,” Garcetti declared.
Greuel, on the other hand, defended the Prop. R mailers, which show such images as a lobbyist being led away in handcuffs. “This is a campaign,” she said. “I was talking to Dick Riordan on Saturday, and we chatted about it,” the councilwoman added. “And he said, ‘Listen, this is a campaign. That’s what you do. Sometimes you exaggerate, sometimes you embellish, or whatever.’?”
WHAT MAKES THE PROPOSITION R campaign such a mystery is that its backers never made the most compelling argument for a third term — that council members frequently need 12 years to carry out their most complex policy initiatives. Councilman Ed Reyes, who under current rules will be termed out in 2009, has been trying to “green” the concrete-lined Los Angeles River. Garcetti, who would be pushed out the same year, is trying to address the affordable-housing crisis. And Hahn, facing a possible 2009 exit herself, is trying to build an eight-mile waterfront promenade in San Pedro, one that would convert some heavy industrial properties into public space.
In fact, some of Weston Benshoof’s clients have projects that would undermine Hahn’s long-term goals, such as her 6-year-old promise to clean up industrial blight in Wilmington. Mann Trucking, for example, hired Weston Benshoof last year to help it obtain a variance that would allow it to operate a storage yard in Wilmington. Mann Trucking has been cited twice for operating an illegal storage yard, violating a ban on such facilities that was authored by Hahn.
Hahn also promised during her first two terms to move fuel terminals away from the San Pedro side of the main channel. But now she faces a request for a new petroleum terminal on Pier 400, a massive structure once earmarked as a safe place where all of San Pedro’s existing fuel terminals could be moved. Need it be pointed out that Pacific Energy Partners is also a client of Weston Benshoof?
Hahn insisted that the contributions to Prop. R, including $5,000 from Pacific Energy Partners, won’t influence her effort to hold industrial businesses accountable in San Pedro and Wilmington. “My strategy is the same as it was when I got elected. I want to get these companies into compliance with current law, and for far too long, they have gotten breaks that were detrimental to the people who live in Wilmington.”
Still, Weston has already contacted Villaraigosa’s business team, which voiced initial interest in helping Mann Trucking circumvent the ban in Wilmington. “Sounds like a tiny business that could use a break,” wrote Adriana Martinez, director of Villaraigosa’s L.A. Business Team, in an April e-mail to the Community Redevelopment Agency.
Villaraigosa’s office had no comment on Home Depot. But his business team has been in talks with the company, reviewing the details of the project in Sunland-Tujunga. Home Depot originally ran into political trouble by proposing to tear down an old Kmart building and replace it with a brand-new structure on Foothill Boulevard.
By promising to do only “tenant improvements” — repairs on the inside, not on the outside — the company managed to bypass the city’s extensive, unpredictable environmental-review process. Villaraigosa’s business team discussed that strategy, which was being presented by Home Depot’s other lobbyist, Cindy Starrett, throughout the spring.
“As we discussed, Cindy’s last e-mail stated that things were under control,” wrote policy analyst Perry Singerman, who then suggested that Starrett draft language for the planning department and Building and Safety. “I believe that in [Greuel’s district], HD should not have a problem,” he added.