In Los Angeles, developers who donate big money to City Council members have been known to get their projects approved, even when those projects are in neighborhoods that aren't zoned for such massive structures. Yesterday a trio of City Council members, David Ryu, Paul Krekorian and Joe Buscaino, proposed outlawing campaign contributions from developers who have projects before the body. The question is, given the flood of campaign-related cash sparked by the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United and other high court decisions, is it even legal to say a certain class of donor can't express their political speech through check writing?
Ian Thompson, communications director for Krekorian, says the proposal asks for help from the ethics commission and the city attorney to determine if this could fly. It also leaves open the idea of having council members recuse themselves from votes involving developers who have given their campaigns money. And it would increase public matching funds (for candidates who opt for them instead of outside contributions), tighten scrutiny of a donor's identity and increase ethics enforcement.
“The goal is to find a way to eliminate any real or perceived conflicts when the council is required to vote on discretionary development issues,” Thompson says, “and make the process more transparent and fair.”
The city already bans political contributions from anyone who holds a city contract or is registered as a lobbyist. Experts say such prohibitions are legal.
But UCLA School of Law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on campaign contributions, says any rules singling out developers for donations would have to be deftly written to pass legal muster.
“People or entities who were directly affected by decisions related to them and their businesses — there might be an ability to restrict their campaign contributions,” Winkler says. “But it's difficult to do.”
A campaign to stop the council's case-by-case zoning (which also could cap much of the city's major development for two years) is attempting to draw attention to politicians approving projects by developers with whom they have cash-based relationships. The folks behind the initiative, Measure S, say it would help put an end to the alleged pay-to-play system at City Hall while ensuring that L.A. doesn't get too dense or too tall. Measure S will be on the March ballot.
“What is being proposed [by the trio of councilmen] may be unconstitutional,” attorney Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and a supporter of Measure S, said during a teleconference yesterday. “To me it's an admission that City Hall is for sale, and it will hopefully start a discussion with the conclusion that Measure S is the only way the public can regain trust in City Hall.”
But there's a drawback: Measure S would stifle development at a time when the city needs perhaps hundreds of thousands of new housing units to keep up with demand and quell skyrocketing prices that have made L.A. rents among the least affordable in America.