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Opinion

Editorial: A top L.A. planner illegally lobbying for developers? No wonder people don’t trust City Hall

Los Angeles City Hall
The $281,250 fine approved Tuesday for former Los Angeles planning chief Michael LoGrande is the largest ever imposed by the City Ethics Commission.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

How’s this for chutzpah: When Los Angeles Planning Director Michael LoGrande stepped down from his job in January 2016, he accepted an $18,000-a-month consulting contract from his former agency to provide “strategic advice” — at the same time he was illegally lobbying the agency on behalf of real estate developers.

There’s so much wrong with this story from an ethical and good government standpoint, the Ethics Commission practically had no choice but to fine LoGrande $281,250 for his violations. That’s the largest fine the commission has ever imposed on a former city employee for violating the lobbying ban. Such shady behavior only worsens the perception that land-use decisions in Los Angeles City Hall are made on the basis of money, influence and connections.

LoGrande’s tenure in the Planning Department, which reviews real estate development projects across the city, stretched across 16 years and multiple administrations. He was appointed Director of Planning by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and held that position for five years.

Within three months of leaving the job, however, LoGrande began contacting his former employees to sway decisions on behalf of his new real estate development clients. He lobbied staff not to require two clients (a hotel and a private club) to obtain zoning changes, with mixed results. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince staff to reduce transportation fees for an apartment development.

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According to the commission, those actions amounted to deliberate, repeated violations of the city’s “revolving door” law, which bars high-level bureaucrats from lobbying elected officials, managers and other decision-makers for the first 12 months after leaving city employment. The law is intended to prevent former city employees from immediately using their insider information and relationships to influence government decisions on behalf of special interests.

Ethics Commission officials said the Planning Department took no improper action. The investigation into LoGrande began after a whistleblower complaint, which apparently came after his successor as planning director sent a memo to employees reminding them of the revolving door rule and providing the ethics complaint hotline.

To add insult to injury, three of the four violations took place in early 2016, while LoGrande was still under contract to consult with the department. Mayor Eric Garcetti said LoGrande was supposed to help the department “think through good planning and zoning.” A Garcetti aide said no one in the mayor’s office knew that LoGrande was being paid to lobby city planners while he was also getting paid to advise them.

While’s LoGrande’s transgressions are his own, his ethical lapses play into the larger perception that land-use and development in Los Angeles is a corrupt, insider’s game. That perception fuels the distrust and anti-development fervor that ultimately make it harder to build the housing and commercial projects needed for the city’s long-term prosperity.

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The problem is that, historically, Los Angeles elected officials have been unwilling to reform the land-use and development system. The city’s land-use plans were allowed to become woefully out of date. That left development proposals to be considered on a case-by-case basis, with council members dictating what’s appropriate on particular sites in response to the ambitions of developers.

The whole process is cumbersome and opaque. Lobbyists and lawyers know how to manipulate the city’s Byzantine rules and approval process to their clients’ advantage, leaving everyone on the outside confused and suspicious.

That’s supposed to be changing. The City Council voted in 2017 to require that community plans be updated every six years, and that work has begun. Ultimately, however, Los Angeles has to fundamentally change how real estate developments are approved and land-use decisions are made. The city needs clear rules to go with its updated plans, so projects can be evaluated objectively on their merits with less need (or opportunity) for lobbyists to try to sway decisions.

Ironically, improving the planning process was exactly what LoGrande was supposed to be doing when he was under contract with the city.


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