Hoping to head off ballot fight, Garcetti vows to bar private developer meetings
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says he plans to put a stop to private meetings between planning commissioners and real estate developers or other outside parties, part of a bigger attempt to fend off a hotly contested ballot measure that would restrict development.
The move comes as Garcetti and other city officials are beginning to mobilize against a planned March ballot measure that would temporarily halt major building projects that require changes in city rules — an initiative that has spurred furious debate over how L.A. should grow and evolve.
The campaign has pitted the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and a coalition of activists who say out-of-scale development is ruining neighborhoods and ejecting poor tenants against politicians, labor and business groups who argue that imposing such sharp restrictions on development would drive up rents and kill jobs.
Backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative have also argued that city decisions are systematically tilted in favor of real estate developers. Critics have grown increasingly vocal over the last year about private meetings conducted between real estate developers and planning commissioners appointed by Garcetti.
Aiming to blunt some of that criticism, Garcetti wrote in a letter this week that he plans to issue an executive directive prohibiting ex parte communications with planning commissioners, to “ensure that all dialogue with private stakeholders is on the record.”
Raising similar concerns, City Councilman David Ryu submitted a motion Wednesday seeking to revive an old proposal to reexamine and ban such private communications, calling it “a glaring structural problem” that saps trust in city decisions.
Private meetings have “consistently been one of the lightning rods for public criticism and legal action in our development process,” Ryu wrote.
Backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative had urged Garcetti to prohibit private meetings between real estate developers and city decision makers, including his appointed planning commissioners.
“These private meetings happen months and months before residents or businesses in the area have any idea that a meeting has happened and a deal has already been cut,” campaign director Jill Stewart said.
Last month, the group had dangled the possibility that it might stop pursuing its ballot measure if Garcetti swiftly agreed to halt such meetings and make other changes. Since then, however, the group has turned in signatures to put its plan on the ballot next March.
Garcetti made his pledge in a letter this week to AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein, whose group has championed the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. The mayor said he would seek to bar ex parte meetings with members of the City Planning Commission and the area planning commissions that vet development plans in different parts of the city.
Garcetti also promised to make other changes, such as accelerating updates to community plans. He said he wants to make sure that the city, rather than developers, chooses the consultants who assess the environmental effects of planned projects. And he suggested that the city could reduce the incidence of “spot zoning” — altering zoning rules site by site — by assessing all proposed changes in each geographic area to consider their cumulative effect.
In the letter, the mayor argued that those changes would accomplish their shared goals, urging Weinstein to drop “a costly and potentially divisive ballot measure campaign.”
Opponents of the measure said they backed “any alternative” that would quash it. “We support getting this off the ballot and getting back to the work of figuring out how to end homelessness and create jobs,” said Josh Kamensky, spokesman for the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs.
Stewart said Wednesday that her group welcomed the proposals from Garcetti and Ryu. But she gave no indication that the group was backing off its campaign.
“I think it’s more likely that the mayor would endorse us than we would withdraw the measure,” Stewart said.
Neither Ryu nor Garcetti are seeking to bar developers or other representatives from meeting privately with elected officials, as the initiative backers had sought. City lawyers say that L.A. cannot legally prohibit residents from communicating with their elected officials, Garcetti wrote Stewart said her group isn’t convinced that was the case.
In their report nearly a decade ago, city attorneys recommended that L.A. elected officials consider publicly disclosing such communications. (Ryu currently posts meetings with developers on his website, a practice he agreed to follow in a campaign pledge.) Lawyers also recommended barring private communications in “quasi-judicial” matters — those in which a decision is made after a required hearing evaluating how the law applies to the facts.
But that plan languished and was ultimately shelved. Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor said that under his revived proposal, potential restrictions could apply to planning commissions, the animal services commission and the airport commission, among others.
Garcetti appointee David Ambroz, president of the City Planning Commission, said that any effort to maximize transparency should consider where the volunteer commissioners fit into the entire planning process.
By the time a project makes its way to the commission, “almost all the details have been hammered out between the builder, the council office and interested community,” Ambroz said in a brief written statement. “We are at the tail end of the process.”
Several other city boards already have some restrictions on private communications: Members of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, for instance, are prohibited from engaging in ex parte communications with companies or their representatives after they have responded to a city invitation for a bid or proposal.
Beyond the city of Los Angeles, ex parte meetings have also become controversial at the California Coastal Commission, where commissioners are required — but have sometimes failed — to publicly and promptly disclose them. A state bill that would have banned such contact was recently defeated.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.
Follow me on Twitter at @LATimesEmily
3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background.
This article was originally published at 8 p.m. on Sept. 7
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