Editorial: When the public’s business is done in private


Last week, proponents of a controversial local ballot measure dubbed the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative gave Mayor Eric Garcetti an ultimatum: Unless he commits to implementing four reforms to the city’s broken planning and land-use system, they will continue their drive to impose a harmful two-year moratorium on major developments. Los Angeles is in a housing and homelessness crisis; the city needs to build more homes, not halt construction.

Of course, Garcetti shouldn’t give in to ultimatums. As it happens, three of the four demands are reasonable reforms that are already underway in City Hall in response to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, although the changes may not be as aggressive as advocates would like. Those consist of updating the General Plan, which is the city’s blueprint for development but which hasn’t been refreshed in 20 years; limiting “spot zoning,” the practice of granting exceptions for projects that are bigger than otherwise permitted or for uses that were never intended; and curtailing developers’ ability to pick whatever consultant they want to write their projects’ environmental impact reports.

The fourth demand, however, was a curveball: The initiative’s proponents want the city to ban private, or ex parte, communication between developers and the city planning commissioners and elected officials who will vote on the developers’ projects. Their proposal was inspired by a bill in the state Legislature that would eliminate private meetings and communication, such as texts and email, between members of the Coastal Commission and people trying to influence the decisions on beachside development. That bill is a laudable attempt to restore public trust after coastal commissioners fired the agency’s executive director, a decision that some suspected was prompted by private lobbying by advocates of coastal development.


Unlike the Coastal Commission bill, which would prohibit ex parte communication by all interested parties — including developers, neighbors and environmentalists — the Neighborhood Integrity group’s proposal would bar private meetings and communication only with developers. Homeowners associations, labor groups, even competing businesses could still meet one-on-one with commissioners and elected officials to press their case. That doesn’t make sense. Why are some backroom deals not OK, but others are?

The Neighborhood Integrity group uses blunt instruments to prod city leaders — a ballot initiative, the threat of a construction moratorium and now an ultimatum seeking a ban on ex parte communication; none of these leave room for nuanced and thoughtful public policy. Nevertheless, the advocates have, again, highlighted a major flaw in the city’s development process. There is a real lack of transparency in how development deals get done. City leaders could bring much-needed sunshine into a dark corner of L.A. politics by setting broad limits on ex parte communications and requiring disclosure when they happen.

Rather than making decisions based on (often outdated) community plans, city officials frequently consider projects on a case-by-case basis and negotiate agreements behind the scenes, with council members dictating what’s appropriate on particular sites based on the conflicting desires of developers, many of whom are influential campaign donors, and neighborhood groups, many of whom are wary of change. This approach leaves the public completely in the dark about how development decisions are made and who’s influencing them.

Good government groups have recommended that decision makers avoid ex parte communication in land-use and other quasi-judicial cases to prevent accusations of bias. So have the City Ethics Commission, which supported a ban on ex parte communication with city commissioners in 2010, and the city attorney’s office, which issued an opinion along the same lines in 2007. Citing constituents’ rights to petition their elected representatives, the city attorney recommended a more permissive approach for the mayor and council members, calling on them simply to minimize and publicly disclose any ex parte communications.

So what happened? Not much. The city never adopted a comprehensive policy on ex parte communication. Rather than adopting a ban, some city commissions — including the Planning Commission — require commissioners just to disclose their private conversations with interested parties. Others do not. The City Council doesn’t limit or publicly disclose private communications. It’s business as usual in the backrooms of City Hall. And that’s not the way development should be done.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook