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.
Bizarrely, then, only Perry can reveal why she is not mired in conflict, “if she so decides.”
Not commenting on Perry specifically, Jack Humphreville, a seasoned neighborhood council member, says politicians should “not only make [all potential conflicts] available but they should actively disclose it.”
Some wonder, if Perry has nothing to hide, why she is clinging to secrecy. If it’s a matter of protecting her condominium address, “they shouldn’t pretend that the public has never heard of ‘white-out.’. It should pretty easy to redact it,” observes UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff wryly.
Nor is Grand Avenue the only venue in which Perry has made luxury, money, and those who can produce them, her priority. She breakfasts with Tim Leiweke, president of billionaire Philip Anschutz’s AEG, which owns Staples Center and L.A. Live. She frequently meets with Carol Schatz, CEO of the developer-friendly Central City Association. In January, at a City Council meeting, Perry warmly greeted Steve Kim, a lobbyist with GSD Partners — a firm that obtains the inevitable “exceptions” to city zoning and planning rules.
Those who challenge Perry discover a less congenial individual. Damien Goodmon, an activist involved in the Expo Line, recalls that after a public meeting at which he disagreed with Perry, “She yelled ‘Is that a threat?’ ” He believes she was attempting to bully him by involving a city bailiff. Yet Goodmon says he was neither verbally or physically intimidating her — he simply disputed the imperious Perry.
Even a power broker like attorney Madeline Janis, vice chairwoman of the CRA board of directors, appointed to that influential city commission by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, says, “I have felt fearful about bringing things up, about asking for more community benefits and asking for more good and accountability in council member Perry’s district.”
And Janis isn’t some anti-downtown type. She has supported The Grand and contends that the city redevelopment agency has spent more on the NoHo arts district in the Valley— “Hundreds of millions. It’s eight to 10 projects,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a case of one part of the city being favored over another.”
However, Janis has also lived within 500 feet of a project proposed for public subsidies. “I recuse myself from every decision that comes within 500 feet,” she says, “regardless of what the argument might be” that the state’s math formula might let her vote. “We should err on the side of caution, and I’ve done that.”
Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council activist Steve Twining has a more cynical view of Perry: Even if Perry recuses herself, “I don’t think it really makes a difference one way or another. [Perry’s political colleagues] are going to know what her attitude is” — and will vote how Perry wants, preserving the controversial practice in which each council member is a land-use czar, and none challenges the actions of the other in their 15 individual patches.
Twining’s words were prescient. Via e-mail, the Weekly asked several city council members if they would vote for a project within 500 feet of property they owned, and whether Jan Perry should publicly disclose why she has been exempted.
In a humorous faux pas, Dennis Zine’s office forwarded the Weekly query about Perry’s behavior to Pamela Snowden, Perry’s “economic-development deputy,” one of two dozen members of Perry’s huge staff — and Snowden accidentally sent her dismissive views of the newspaper’s query to the Weekly itself, complaining that the Weekly reporter “has no clue” as to “what the facts are.” Yet another example of the City Council at its most transparent.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.