At a Torrance social gathering last December, then-Mayor James Armstrong remarked that after 20 years in city government and 32 years as a high school government teacher, he was interested in doing something different.
Few of the guests took him seriously, except Charles Martinez and Donald Barkley, who knew Armstrong well. As chairman and president, respectively, of Torrance-based Real Property Resources Inc., they had had numerous dealings with the mayor. Among other projects, their real estate development firm had built the Airport Plaza and Village del Amo office and retail shopping centers in Torrance.
"Over the years, we had come to greatly admire Jim's obvious skills at working with people and government," Barkley said.
On Monday, Armstrong did embark on a new career path. He is now Real Property Resources' "government liaison" to Torrance and other cities where the firm does business.
Armstrong has switched from mayor to lobbyist.
He is among a small but growing number of former South Bay elected officials being sought out and hired by private concerns seeking to exploit their talent, experience and connections to help guide proposed building, zoning or other matters through the presumably familiar red tape of local government.
Explained Kenneth Miller, Armstrong's predecessor as Torrance mayor and now a part-time lobbyist: "Guys like Jim and myself can be very valuable to a company--not in the sense that we can sway cities against their basic beliefs, but in that we can expedite certain matters because we know the system and how it works."
But some officials in other cities say that the practice of officials becoming lobbyists could give a company an unfair advantage with city government, or at least create such an impression.
The Santa Monica City Council recently approved an ordinance that sets a six-month waiting period before a former official can appear before the council or other city panels as a paid lobbyist. In the South Bay, Hawthorne and Inglewood have discussed the issue without taking any action.
The federal government, the state of California and some other states long have had rules prohibiting certain officials from lobbying on behalf of private firms with whom they had conducted business while in the government's employ.
But in the South Bay, the practice of hiring former officials as lobbyists is relatively new. It is especially evident in high-growth areas such as Torrance, where in recent years a former city councilman and a former city manager as well as the two ex-mayors have been hired as lobbyists.
In Redondo Beach, former Mayor David Hayward, who was ousted after a bitter election campaign five years ago, now does work in the city as a self-described "governmental affairs consultant."
Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert said she feels no undue pressure when her former colleagues return before the council representing private firms. "I suppose there is a natural entree," she said. "And though I am good friends with many of them, I haven't always sided with projects they have represented."
Geissert said Torrance has no policy restricting former city officials from appearing before the council or other city boards. (Former Councilman George Brewster and former City Manager Ed Ferraro also have appeared before the Torrance council representing private firms. Neither returned telephone calls seeking comment.) Their main advantage, she said, "is that they know how the system works. The benefit, I suppose, works both ways."
Santa Monica Mayor Christine E. Reed disagreed.
"It never struck me as a good idea for people to walk away from the council and into the arms of developers or other special-interest groups," said Reed, who pushed for adoption of the Santa Monica ordinance. She said it became apparent that such an ordinance was needed after developers and others increasingly were employing "hired intermediaries" in an effort to skirt a rigid building moratorium adopted by the city several years ago.
"It heightens the cynicism citizens already have about government," Reed said. "I just didn't want people to make those types of jokes about Santa Monica, that access can be bought.
"Personally, it appalls me to think that people feel they need a hired gun to get an appointment to see me," she said. "Being accessible is the whole point of our being here."
The ordinance, adopted in December, prevents City Council members and department managers from acting as paid representatives for private groups or individuals on city issues for six months after leaving office. They are, however, allowed to lobby the city if they are not paid for their work. Other city employees are not allowed to lobby for outside groups on city matters on either a paid or volunteer basis for two years after leaving their jobs.
Reed said the more lenient restrictions on top officials were adopted in part because one councilman is an architect whose livelihood might be affected if he could not appear before the city's architectural review board.
Hawthorne and Inglewood city councils in recent years have briefly considered the issue, but have stopped short of adopting an ordinance. "It simply doesn't occur that frequently in Hawthorne," City Manager Kenneth Jue said.
Of course, the hiring of former elected officials as lobbyists by corporations and others is not new. Generations of former congressmen and state legislators over the years have eased their path to retirement on the payroll of companies and other groups who hire them for their connections.
"Some actually leave office to become lobbyists because often they can make three to four times the money they were being paid in government," said Walter Zellman, executive director of the California chapter of Common Cause. For example, a well-connected state legislator, Zellman notes, can make $70,000 to $80,000 as a lobbyist. "Their ability to get to the decision-makers, let alone persuade them, is highly valued by businesses."
(The word lobbyist stems from the relationships struck between congressmen and favor-seekers in the lobbies of the Capitol and nearby Washington hotels.)
Former officials who now serve as lobbyists bristle at suggestions that what they do is somehow underhanded.
"There is so much distortion," said former Redondo Beach Mayor Hayward as he declined to discuss his public relations and government consulting business. "And I would prefer not to get involved. People will misconstrue."
In the eight years since former Mayor Miller left the Torrance council, he has, by his count, lobbied on behalf of seven firms that do business in Torrance. A real estate broker in the city for 34 years, Miller, 63, has mostly represented real estate developers and cable television concerns. He insists that the local government system has too many checks and balances for any lobbyist to have any profound effect on a council's final decision. "Most councils are strong enough to rise above that," he said.
He added: "You won't find a council member who will say that I asked how they were going to vote."
William Christian, general manager of Del Amo Financial Center, which has employed Miller on a number of occasions, said hiring former city officials as consultants and lobbyists gives the Torrance-based real estate development and management concern the benefit of firmly understanding the workings of city government and avoiding errors that could prove extremely costly.
Knows City Hall
"Ken keeps us from doing silly things," Christian said. "Essentially, we feel that with his knowledge of City Hall and his credibility with the business and political communities in Torrance that it is very much to our benefit to hire him."
Just how effective a former official is at lobbying often depends on the working relationship that existed with the former colleagues, city council members say. "I don't think you would find very many council members bending over backwards to do favors for someone they never got along with on the council," said Gardena City Councilman Paul Tsukahara.
"But when you boil it all down," he added, "it really is all a matter of personal integrity. If you aren't swayed by their argument, you have to do what's in the best interests of the city, even if that means turning down a good friend."
Former Torrance Mayor Armstrong is taking a one-year leave of absence from his government teaching job at Torrance High School to accept the Real Property Resources post. Barkley said Armstrong's duties for the company have not been clearly defined, but will probably involve working with redevelopment agencies in various cities and other government offices. Armstrong and Barkley would not disclose the former mayor's salary.