Here’s another reason so many voters are cynical about money in politics.
In January 2017, five Los Angeles City Council members proposed banning campaign contributions from developers seeking city approval for their projects. It was a radical move to counter the perception that elected officials approve bad proposals because they receive campaign contributions from the developers, and to defuse one of the main arguments behind the slow-growth Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. It was a sign that City Hall was serious about reforming the development process and eliminating the appearance of pay-to-play that undermines public trust in decision makers.
Now, more than a year and a half later, there is still no ban on developer contributions. The Ethics Commission, which was asked to develop the new ordinance, decided last week to postpone a vote on the proposed ban. When fund-raising starts next month for the 2020 city elections, which includes seven open City Council seats, there will be no prohibitions or hindrances on developers contributing to the council members and candidates who will ultimately vote on their projects.
The commission is also considering requiring elected officials to recuse themselves from decisions on a project if they had received a donation from the developer. But that proposal is still a work in progress, too.
So much for prompt and timely reform.
Commissioners said the details of the proposed ban — such as who, exactly, should be banned from contributing — still needed work. Development applications can be submitted by architects, lawyers or other professionals who are not the primary financial interests behind the project. Sure, that complicates matters, but it can be addressed. A law firm hired by Councilman David Ryu, who has refused to accept contributions from developers since he ran for office, came up with a good suggestion: Require development applicants to disclose the names of the principals behind their projects.
Ethics commissioners said they were skeptical of the proposed ban, questioning whether it would be legal (courts have equated political contributions with speech), effective or even necessary. Commission President Serena Oberstein said that she wanted to see “concrete proof, not just perception, that developer money leads to corruption.”
The problem is that perception matters in politics. The exchange of money between the people seeking city approval and the people granting it creates the appearance of a quid pro quo. It fuels suspicion that the system is rigged. The ban on developer contributions takes the question of impropriety off the table, and — ideally — allows for a more reasonable discussion of how and where to build more homes to address the city’s housing crisis.