When Los Angeles rewrote its City Charter in the '90s, the City Council was dealt a political trump card intended to keep decisions by a wide array of citizen commissions in check.
Using authority granted them to review and overturn decisions made by panels overseeing city agencies, lawmakers have second-guessed spending at the airport, blocked increased rates at the Department of Water and Power and reexamined when police should be able to speed through traffic with sirens blaring.
But a string of recent decisions have renewed debate over that power. Some architects and neighborhood groups argue that council members are abusing their veto authority and serving the narrow interests of individuals and developers, some of whom are political backers, rather than the broader community.
In recent years, critics have complained about override votes, dubbed "245" actions, for the charter section that enables them — that allowed a privacy wall in Sherman Oaks, homes in Bel-Air that exceed city height limits and a controversial pedestrian bridge at a downtown apartment complex.
"A retaining wall? A pedestrian bridge? These things are really small potatoes," said Will Wright, director of public affairs for the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles. "They're using something they should reserve for things with substantial, citywide impact."
When and where the council should wield its veto power can be in the eye of the aggrieved party, with some Angelenos welcoming its use to resolve local development disputes. Residents of Lake View Terrace recently rallied against a planned solar installation in their area, prompting Councilman Felipe Fuentes to warn that he would push to override the project if a local planning commission approved it. The commission turned it down.
"It's a way for the council to hold commissioners accountable," said former City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. "It has value. Can it be misused? Of course."
The veto process was created in response to past power struggles between city commissions — whose members are typically selected by the mayor — and the 15-member City Council, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. The City Council crafted a ballot measure, ultimately approved by voters in 1991, that allowed them to take full control of decisions by city commissions.
When the city subsequently rewrote its charter, revised rules were included to strike a compromise and limit the council's powers. Now, many commission decisions can be vetoed, but not entirely rewritten, and two-thirds of the council members have to agree. One key exception was made: planning decisions can still be completely reworked when the required share of lawmakers agree.
Requiring a two-thirds vote was intended to be a high hurdle, making the veto "a pretty extraordinary act of council," said George Kieffer, who led an appointed city commission charged with rewriting the charter.
A Times search of city records found the council used its authority to overturn or alter commission decisions at least 22 times in the last five years. In additional cases, the council has invoked the rule but ultimately left decisions unchanged.
Critics say the tool is too readily used to interfere in neighborhood decisions, and the two-thirds vote requirement hasn't checked its use. "If one city councilman wants something, all the others go along no matter what," said Marian Dodge, president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns.
Council members give each other considerable leeway on development matters in their districts — with good reason, said Councilman Jose Huizar. Because they're most familiar with their neighborhoods, council representatives are often "the best people to make some of those decisions," he said.
In Sherman Oaks three years ago, Councilman Paul Koretz used the override process to legalize a privacy wall that was more than 6 feet tall, roughly twice the normally allowed height. The homeowner who built the wall said it was needed to deter paparazzi from snapping photos of his neighbor, actor Shia LaBeouf. A city zoning official opposed the wall, as did the South Valley Area Planning Commission, which noted some neighbors considered it "an eyesore."
On Koretz's motions, the council ultimately overturned the commission's decision and approved the wall, citing "numerous instances of paparazzi entering the premises." Koretz argued that there were many other over-height fences in the area, and residents arbitrarily singled out one wall.
"Deciding whether someone can have a few feet higher fence or not is hardly a power grab," Koretz said of his decision.
But the council intervention infuriated some neighborhood groups. "This was such a blatant disregard of rules and regulations that are in place for a purpose," said Elke Heitmeyer, a member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. board. "We're not talking about a hospital or something in the community — it's a stupid little privacy wall that's over height."
Earlier this year, Koretz butted heads with homeowner groups opposed to allowing two homes to exceed height restrictions in Bel-Air. The councilman said adjustments were needed because a creek cutting through the adjacent parcels complicated calculations of what could be built on the sites.
This month, Huizar secured an override vote to permit a pedestrian bridge connecting two parts of a downtown apartment development. The Central Area Planning Commission had rejected the request for the bridge, saying it conflicted with city policies intended to encourage activity on public sidewalks.
Huizar said he is careful about seeking vetoes of commission decisions and argued the proposed bridge wasn't near pedestrian destinations. "The reasoning behind why we shouldn't put in a bridge just didn't apply here," the councilman said.
Critics contend that such vetoes can become end-runs around building restrictions for those with political pull. Some, though not all, of the homeowners and developers who have benefited from council overrides have been political donors.
For example, Arman Gabay, a partner at developer M & A Gabaee, which requested the taller Bel-Air homes, has given more than $12,000 of campaign donations to city candidates and officeholders since 2006, city records show. His wife gave more than $18,000 in that time, including a $500 donation to Koretz. M & A Gabaee gave an additional $1,000 to officeholders and candidates during the same period. Developer Geoffrey Palmer and his company, which sought the controversial pedestrian bridge, have donated more than $14,000 to city candidates and officeholders since 2004, including $1,000 donated to Huizar's campaigns.
"It's undemocratic," said attorney Victor Marmon, who represents a Bel-Air homeowner suing over one of the vetoes that allowed a taller home. "If something was done incorrectly by a planning commission, then someone who's not politically connected can go to court. But politically connected parties can call upon a council member."
Both Koretz and Huizar said they made their decisions based on the facts. Koretz said his overrides have also benefited people whose names he can't remember — and that politically, he probably would have been better off letting commission decisions stand. Stacey Brenner, a spokeswoman for M & A Gabaee, said that the taller Bel-Air homes were allowed "purely on merit," and the decision had nothing to do with politics.
"I wouldn't say that my client has political influence," Brenner said. Palmer did not respond to requests for comment.
Council vetoes of commission decisions have led to lawsuits, some of which the city has lost. In Woodland Hills, a neighborhood group sued over an elder care facility that was larger than would ordinarily be allowed under zoning rules — an idea championed by then-City Councilman Dennis Zine — and ultimately won in Superior Court, forcing the city to reverse its decision. In another such case, the city was forced to rescind an override action, initiated by Koretz, that legalized a back unit at a duplex near Olympic and Crescent Heights boulevards.
Koretz said the extra unit wasn't visible from the street and targeting such "bootlegged" units would wipe out much of the city's affordable housing.
Attorney Noel Weiss, who represented neighbors who sued over the council's approval of the unit, said it was a misuse of council power to single out one residence for special treatment. "If you're really concerned about affordable housing," Weiss said, "why don't we start a debate about the affordable housing policy of the city?"