Proponents of a $2-billion commercial and residential complex in Chatsworth have donated $410,000 in campaign funds to Los Angeles City Council members and Mayor Tom Bradley since 1982, according to a review of campaign records by The Times.
By far the biggest recipient on the council was Hal Bernson, whose district includes the proposed development site in the hilly Porter Ranch area north of the Simi Valley Freeway. Twenty companies and individuals involved in the project, including Porter Ranch Development Co., its consultants and lobbyists, have contributed about $50,000 to Bernson since 1982, campaign records show.
The 1,300-acre project would be among the largest in the city’s history. Bernson will play a crucial role in City Council deliberations on the proposal, both as chairman of the council’s Planning and Environment Committee and as representative of the area. Council members customarily defer to a colleague on a project in his or her district.
The proposal has drawn strong criticism, mainly because of its size, and some opponents have questioned whether Bernson should accept campaign funds from its promoters while approval is pending.
Bernson said he will not be swayed by campaign money. “Hopefully, I’ve never let that influence me as far as a decision is concerned,” he said in an interview.
“We’re accountable to all of our constituents,” he added, “and there are a lot more of them out there who are voters than are developers.”
Real estate interests traditionally are the biggest contributors to city election campaigns. They accounted for 25% of all donations to council members and the mayor from 1983 through mid-1988, far more than any other category, the analysis by The Times showed.
“Developers are investors,” said Walter Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause, a political watchdog group. “They invest in property, they develop property, then they try to make a profit from it.
“The world of campaign finance is not that much different,” Zelman said. “You invest large amounts of money in candidates, mostly incumbents. . . . And my impression is that, many times, you get that money back many times over.”
Porter Ranch Development is a partnership of Liberty Building Co. and Shapell Industries, headed by Nathan Shapell, a millionaire Beverly Hills developer and survivor of a Nazi death camp. Shapell is politically well-connected. A heavy contributor to city and county election campaigns, he also is active in various charities and chairs the Commission on State Government Organization and Economy, the watchdog panel better known as the Little Hoover Commission.
2,995 Homes Planned
Over the next 20 to 30 years, Porter Ranch Development wants to build 2,995 homes and condominiums, a regional shopping mall the size of the nearby Northridge Fashion Center, and an office complex of about 5 million square feet with buildings up to 15 stories high.
That is considerably more development than is reflected in the existing community plan. That guideline permits up to 2,430 residences and 1.3 million square feet of neighborhood-oriented commercial development in the project area. The plan is being revised because growth in the northwest San Fernando Valley has outstripped projections.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled April 13 before the city Planning Commission, whose former chairman, Daniel P. Garcia, signed on as attorney for Porter Ranch Development following his recent departure from the city post.
The Planning Commission’s decision on the project will be reviewed by the council, which could make a final decision before the end of the year.
Porter Ranch Development has owned the 1,300-acre project site for about a decade, and even critics concede that some development there is a foregone conclusion. But with strains on roads, sewers and other services, the scale of the project is at issue. About 500 people turned out last month at a hearing held by the city Planning Department. Many assailed the proposal as simply too large.
The Planning Department is supporting the proposal, which emerged from more than a year of discussions between Porter Ranch Development and a citizens committee appointed by Bernson in 1987.
The contribution total--$409,949 since 1982--may understate donations from firms associated with the Porter Ranch project. The figure includes money from companies and individuals that The Times determined were involved through public records and interviews. Others may have been overlooked.
Of the total, $245,437--or 60%--came from Porter Ranch partners Shapell Industries and Liberty Building, affiliated companies and company officials, employees and family members.
The remaining $164,512 came from project lobbyists and consultants and their employees, most of whom work on development projects throughout the city.
Leading this group was Engineering Technology of Sherman Oaks, a lobbying and technical consulting firm that is perennially one of the largest campaign givers to city officials. The company, which prepared the draft environmental impact report for the project, was the single biggest contributor to 1983 city election campaigns, according to Common Cause.
Other contributors included consultants who analyzed traffic, soils, air quality and wildlife impacts. They also included former City Councilman Robert Wilkinson, a lobbyist for Porter Ranch Development, and Paul Clarke, who has served both as a public relations consultant to Porter Ranch Development and as a paid political adviser to Bernson.
Of the $409,949, $68,650 went to Bradley’s mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.
Along with $50,380 in contributions, Bernson received $100 worth of wine from Porter Ranch Development and Shapell Industries in 1987, according to his campaign reports. Since 1982, Bernson raised $1.3 million from all contributors.
After Bernson, council members who received the next largest amounts were Robert Farrell, with $28,100, and Joan Milke Flores, $27,800.
Bernson said he was unaware that he received the most money. He said the donations probably reflect contributors’ views “that we’re doing a good job.” It’s better “to look at how the individual has conducted themselves, rather than to make innuendoes that they can’t be objective because they’ve accepted political contributions,” Bernson said.
But critics say heavy campaign giving by developers and others gives them undue influence.
Robert Birch of Northridge, who has organized opposition to the Porter Ranch proposal, said Bernson should “refuse campaign funds from any source associated with development” in his district.
John Kelly of Northridge, former president of the Chatsworth Chamber of Commerce and an opponent of the proposal, said: “I don’t think it’s an advisable thing to do to be taking money from an organization when part of your job is to control what they develop.”
Times researcher Cecilia Rasmussen and librarian Dennis Clontz contributed to this story.
PORTER RANCH PROPOSAL
* 1,300 acres
* 2,195 single-family houses
* 800 condominiums
* 7.5 million square feet of commercial space, including a 1.5 million-square-foot regional shopping mall and about 5 million square feet of office space.
* Commercial area could include buildings with heights of 10, 12 and 15 stories.
* 9,325 new residents
* 26,590 workers
* Existing Chatsworth-Porter Ranch District Plan, adopted in 1974, allows up to 2,362 single-family houses, 68 condominiums and 1.3 million square feet of neighborhood-oriented commercial space.
Source: Draft environmental impact report prepared for developers and city planners by Engineering Technology and other consultants.
Money received by City Council members and Mayor Bradley since 1982 from developers, consultants and lobbyists involved in the $2-billion development proposal for Porter Ranch:
Richard Alatorre $10,350 Ernani Bernardi $13,100 Hal Bernson $50,380 Marvin Braude $10,000 Robert Farrell $28,100 John Ferraro* $24,150 Joan Milke Flores $27,800 Ruth Galanter $3,000 Nate Holden* $24,000 Gilbert Lindsay $10,750 Gloria Molina $1,000 Joy Picus $7,250 Joel Wachs $15,700 Michael Woo $9,200 Zev Yaroslavsky $15,072 Mayor Tom Bradley** $68,650 David Cunningham $24,000 (resigned 1986) Howard Finn (died 1986) $11,250 Pat Russell (defeated 1987) $23,550 Art Snyder (resigned 1985) $16,000 Peggy Stevenson $16,647 (defeated 1985) Total contributions: $409,949
*includes contributions for mayoral race.
**includes contributions for mayoral and gubernatorial races.