Did developers recently win city approval for a Century City skyscraper because they hired a virtual army of political lobbyists, lawyers and experts on traffic, the environment and urban planning? Or, perhaps, was it just a really good project?
Either way, cynics called it the “full employment act” for Los Angeles lobbyists, and it has become the way of doing business in City Hall.
Lobbyists are hardly new to City Hall, but in recent months--boosted by a healthy economy that has led to a rebound in large-scale development projects and contracts, as well as by complex rules that make it hard for laypeople to represent their own interests--their influence has grown by leaps and bounds.
Developers and company executives who must rely on city approval for large projects or big contracts are hiring teams of lobbyists to win over reluctant city staff, nervous and litigious residents, a fractious City Council, even the traditionally skeptical press.
Voting Blocs Gone
But it’s not only that those developments and contracts are larger today than they were during the recession, lobbyists say, it has also become necessary to hire teams because the City Council has become more unpredictable, its members more inclined to challenge each other.
Gone, they say, are the days of the eight- or nine-member council voting blocs.
Declining--if not gone--are the days of deference: Once lawmakers could sway colleagues’ votes based plainly and simply on the fact that they represent the district; today, council members increasingly are willing to challenge one another for leadership on issues no matter where they arise.
On the increase: sophisticated homeowner groups that hire attorneys and land-use experts, complex environmental review requirements, and complicated land-use codes and restrictions. An environmental impact report 10 to 15 years ago could top a couple hundred pages; today, those reports can reach 2,000 pages.
The result: a booming multimillion-dollar lobbying industry that shows no signs of weakening. Clients are told they will need attorneys as well as land use, environmental and even traffic consultants and political strategists. Some are hired to lobby specific council members, others to satisfy editorial writers and community groups.
Strict Ethics Laws
Under the city’s ethics laws, considered among the strictest in the nation, anyone who is paid $4,000 during a quarter to attempt to influence decisions in the city must register as a lobbyist. Because the homeowner groups rarely have paid positions, their leaders do not register. Currently, 154 lobbyists are registered with the city.
Although it may have appeared that way, not all of them were involved in the $250-million Century City office building. Still, that project, which was heavily opposed by the councilman representing the area along with--initially--four homeowner groups, involved representatives from at least half of the top 10 lobbying firms in the city. Others were brought on for their various areas of expertise.
The team led by the attorneys-cum-lobbyists at Latham & Watkins believed that they faced formidable opposition. They also believed that the project met the building plan for Century City, that traffic concerns could be eased by a city staff-endorsed traffic system and, finally, that relationships count.
Some lobbyists, in fact, were brought on right before the council vote on the project: They were hired specifically for their close ties to certain council members.
“Certain people were assigned to certain council people,” said one of the lobbyists on the team who declined to be identified. “That’s the way it works.”
In this case, Steve Afriat, who has served as a political advisor to Councilman Mike Hernandez, was hired to lobby him and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a longtime friend since their days as council aides. Rick Taylor, who served as Miscikowski’s campaign consultant, was hired to lobby her as well. Former mayoral aide Mike Keeley was hired at the eleventh hour to lobby other council members.
Some lobbyists find the practice of targeted, last-minute hires somewhat distasteful.
“The question is should someone hire Steve Afriat, Mark Armbruster or Rick Taylor because they’re really close to somebody?” asked Afriat, a successful and regular figure around City Hall. “I think that’s silly. Most lobbyists have good relationships with most council members. If they’re not smart enough to do that, you probably don’t want them on your team.”
Others suggest that anyone with close ties to council members is considered crucial to the success of the project.
Some are hired specifically because other team members don’t get along with a council member. Afriat said he has hired other lobbyists to work with City Councilman Mike Feuer after several instances in which Afriat opposed projects in the councilman’s district.
“I think with the fragmentation of the City Council, more and more there’s a tendency to hire people for specific purposes or who have specific relationships,” said Joan Kradin, who works for Marathon Communications and who says she does more community relations work than actual lobbying of elected officials. “It used to be that you could count votes. None of that is true anymore.”
It’s hard to know exactly why the culture of the council has changed. The group lacks the binding agent of party affiliations. And without strong ideological differences among many of the members, who are lumped around the moderately liberal area of the political spectrum, that too provides for unpredictable debates.
In addition, some observers say, while certain council members such as council President John Ferraro remain well respected, others are attempting to make their mark, fueling council rivalries. Many political analysts believe that the council’s lack of cohesion will only grow more pronounced in the future, as term limits guarantee that members enjoy relatively similar seniority and as council members jostle for other political positions.
Armbruster, who has lobbied at City Hall for more than 20 years, says coalitions of eight or nine council members existed at one time. Today, he says, lawmakers are “much more individualistic.”
“A coalition today can change from issue to issue,” Armbruster said.
Ken Spiker Jr., another regular at City Hall, went further: “This is chaos. It’s extremely difficult to put together a coalition at the City Council. It just isn’t there anymore.”
Ironically, at a time when the council can’t coalesce, the lobbyists can. Once rivals for business, they have become an almost collegial bunch, willing to share profits for successful council votes.
In the Century City case, the team approach did not come cheap.
“It took many millions of dollars,” said Howard Sunkin, another--highly successful--fixture in council chambers and meeting rooms. “Was it essential to put together a team? No. Are you able to do more and be more thorough with a team? Of course. You always are.”
Some council members, however, say they find the approach offensive.
“In some ways, it’s belittling to the council members,” said Miscikowski, who serves on the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee and whose husband is a former City Hall lobbyist.
“They really are brought in very often at the last moment and very often with a very superficial knowledge of the issue,” she added. “They really couldn’t have a substantive discussion. They attempt to oversimplify it . . . that’s kind of destructive and in some ways, belittling.”
Other council members said they too find the practice unsettling but added that they have developed trusted relationships with these lobbyists, some of whom serve in dual roles as political advisors as well.
“Lobbyists are not necessarily a bad thing,” said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who, like Miscikowski, chairs an important council committee overseeing the airport, among other things. “They save everyone a lot of time. There’s a small circle of them you see all the time around here.”
But give out misinformation and you’re through. On that, council members and the lobbyists agree. As the adage goes: You only get one lie in politics.
“The key to working in City Hall is to be honest and to be credible,” Sunkin said. “I like to think of myself as someone who tells the truth. Will there be a bias? Of course.”
Voting on Merits
So if clients are willing to spend more on lobbying, are they getting what they pay for?
In the case of the Century City project, the initial vote was a split: 6 to 6.
A gasp from the well-heeled audience was audible from the back of the room to the front rows of the council chamber.
But then, after another round of arm-twisting and political maneuvering, a second vote was taken. This time, council members approved the project on a 9-3 vote. Feuer, Jackie Goldberg and Miscikowski dissented.
So with all that attention on Miscikowski, why did she vote against the project?
“I voted on the merits of the case,” she said. “I don’t think they [the paid lobbyists] really dealt with some of the issues that were raised.”
Feuer said he anticipated a full-court press on the Century City development.
“Because we had so thoroughly studied this . . . they felt it was necessary to counteract the basic information I was disseminating,” Feuer said.
Members of the homeowner groups, whose opposition ranks were reduced from four to one by the time of the council vote, say the number of lobbyists and the access they received was astounding.
“After this experience,” said Dick Harmetz, president of the Tract No. 7260 Assn., which has filed a lawsuit to block the development, “I can understand why people in the Valley are thinking about secession.”
According to Harmetz, he and his homeowner colleagues were outgunned from the start. While the lobbyists got audiences with key council members, the homeowner representatives managed just two sessions with council deputies.
“Money gets you everything,” Harmetz said.