Editorial

Take the pay-to-play out of L.A.'s development process

How soon they forget. In the months leading up to the March election, Los Angeles leaders were on the defensive. A slow-growth ballot measure was picking up steam, pay-to-play allegations were swirling around City Hall and several city council members were running for re-election against challengers who pledged to take no campaign cash from developers.

Five City Council members decided to make a bold pronouncement: They proposed to ban campaign contributions from developers seeking city approval for their projects.

The proposal, introduced in January, called for the city Ethics Commission to create an ordinance that would prohibit contributions from developers with projects currently or recently before city decision makers. If that wasn’t possible because of free-speech protections, the council members asked for other ways to limit the opportunities for corruption, such as requiring elected officials to recuse themselves from a land-use decision if they have accepted donations from the developer.

"The best way to restore trust in government is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict," Councilman David Ryu said at the time. Ryu already rejects developer contributions voluntarily.

Since then, however, voters have rejected the slow-growth Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and re-elected council incumbents, while the proposal to ban developer contributions has gone nowhere. In fact, the proposal hasn’t even had a single hearing at City Hall, the Times reported. Council President Herb Wesson might schedule a first discussion in his committee by the end of the year. Maybe.

Of course, many council members never wanted to move forward with such a ban anyway. Real estate interests are a reliable source of campaign contributions, and elected officials are loath to turn away money they could use not just on their re-election bids, but also on office expenses and trips. Besides, city politicians insist, they never let campaign contributions influence their vote on a development.

Even if you believe that the mayor and City Council manage to ignore political contributions when making decisions, the mere exchange of money between people seeking city approval and the people granting it creates the perception of a quid pro quo. That fuels community distrust with the entire land-use and development-approval process, and makes it harder to have a reasonable discussion on how and where to build more homes to address the city’s housing shortage.

Faced with the threat of the draconian Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which would have imposed a two-year moratorium on certain development projects, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the council committed to reforming the planning and land-use system. The city is starting to modernize its outdated General Plan, which is its vision for growth. The council voted to require community plans to be updated every six years, which should reduce the need to grant developers “spot zoning” exemptions from existing land-use rules. The council also voted to bar developers from picking their own consultants to produce traffic studies and environmental impact reports.

Those steps are necessary but not sufficient. The mayor and City Council need to take pay-to-play — perceived or otherwise — out of the city’s development process.

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