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CRA chairman urges media filter for L.A. redevelopment commissioners

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s most outspoken group of city commissioners could soon find themselves with less freedom to speak their minds.

Bruce Ackerman, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, advised his colleagues last month that they should refuse to talk to the news media unless coached by the agency’s public relations staff.

In a six-page memo, Ackerman said his colleagues should “decline immediate comment” when contacted by reporters and instead refer calls to the agency’s press office. That office can then provide them with “talking points,” information that adheres to the agency’s official message, he said.

“The public information office staff is able to suggest language for the commissioner to employ both to assure accurate representation of official … positions and to assist commissioners in expressing their own thoughts when appropriate or called for,” he wrote.

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The proposed policy is unusual because the seven-member redevelopment board is known as one of the few city commissions chosen by the mayor with members who regularly disagree, sometimes passionately, and are willing to reject proposals that are submitted to them. These commissioners have been equally bold in articulating their views when talking to reporters.

One City Hall activist voiced fears that Ackerman was trying to rein in opposing views and make the panel less independent. If Ackerman succeeds in getting his policy approved by his colleagues, the board probably will behave more like other Villaraigosa-appointed boards, said Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an advocacy group for low-income residents that regularly appears before the redevelopment board.

“In reality, a lot of these commissions are just rubber stamps for [city] staff,” she said.

In recent years, redevelopment agency commissioner Alejandro Ortiz has made no secret of his dislike of billboards and criticized one of the city’s most prominent developers, CIM Group, over unpermitted supergraphics. Commissioner Madeline Janis spoke to the media about her opposition to giving financial help to a sewing factory in South Los Angeles — on the grounds that the project would not create enough decent-paying jobs.

Commissioner Joan Ling criticized the Orsini III, a proposed apartment complex on Cesar Chavez Avenue that was the subject of a series of 3-3 votes before it was approved. And Villaraigosa’s cousin, Assembly Speaker John Pérez, spoke to reporters on an array of subjects before he left the commission in 2008.

Some of the disagreements have left the board deadlocked on proposals — a situation that has caused delay until the tie can be broken. Still, Ackerman said he had no interest in diminishing any of the aggressive give-and-take.

Ackerman said he simply prepared a set of “common-sense guidelines” that spell out each commissioner’s duties and responsibilities. “If anything, I want to set the ground rules so that healthy dissent and healthy interplay and discussion can occur,” he said.

The policy goes beyond interactions with the press. In his memo, Ackerman also told his colleagues that they “should generally not communicate” with employees of the redevelopment agency by phone, in person or via e-mail — except in limited circumstances, such as when attending ribbon-cuttings and offering questions through the board chairman.

That provision would free up the agency’s staff in a time of cutbacks, he said.

Ackerman tried on July 1 to put his policy to a vote, only to see Ling and Ortiz block it. Ortiz questioned whether a vote could legally take place under the provisions of the state open meeting law, since Ackerman’s proposal was not listed on the board’s agenda.

With two commissioners in favor and two against, the vote was postponed. Ackerman said he would try to win approval again at a meeting next month, when more members will be present.

Ackerman said the policy was not created to address commissioners’ comments to the news media. Nevertheless, he said in his memo that the agency’s public information office is “best equipped to provide an accurate and timely response.”

The Los Angeles Times called that office last month to get the agency’s views on a letter it received from the federal government about safety at the Angels Flight Railway. After four days, the agency failed to provide a comment.

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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