In Los Angeles, enacting meaningful campaign finance reform is about as easy as pulling a tooth from an ogre. Last December, the City Council approved an ordinance to prohibit campaign donations from real estate developers with a project before the city, but that came more than four years after Councilman David Ryu first proposed sweeping overhauls. Even the plan that was green-lit had gaping cavities—the law was a shadow of what Ryu initially proffered, and will only go into effect after the March 2022 city elections, meaning current officeholders can still cash in for upcoming races.
The momentum for the December 2019 legislation materialized after the 2018 FBI raids of Councilman José Huizar’s home and offices. Now that the situation has mushroomed, so has Ryu’s focus. A few days after a third person pleaded guilty as part of an ongoing FBI/Department of Justice investigation into public corruption, Ryu unveiled a pair of proposals intended to enhance accountability and rein in hinky real estate decisions by council members.
On Tuesday, May 18, Ryu authored a motion to create a city Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency, which comes with the nifty acronym LA ACT and seeks to create an independent body that would function as an inspector general. His second motion aims to plug a loophole that gives council members tremendous influence on proposed real estate projects by allowing the office holders to intervene and rewrite development decisions made by the City Planning Commission.
It’s become abundantly clear that we need more oversight and reform to stop corruption in City Hall. Ethics reform has been my focus since day one on @LACityCouncil – and we must go further. Read more ⬇️ https://t.co/ibwnFi10cy
— David E. Ryu (@davideryu) May 19, 2020
The overarching problem, Ryu told Los Angeles, is that the city has a 1920s charter that gives too much leeway over land-use decisions to individual council members, enabling them to act as mini-mayors of 15 distinct fiefdoms. Although most large projects require approval from the full council, members historically follow the wishes of the person who represents the district where the project will rise.
“The system puts too much power in the hands of too few people, and we need to spread out that power,” Ryu said in an interview. “We need to have more checks and balances.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, including the timing. Ryu supporters put the effort in line with reforms he has been pushing since he was elected in 2015. They cheer him as an advocate to clean up a City Hall now tarnished by the federal investigation into a pay-to-play atmosphere.
The effort comes as Ryu is caught in a tough re-election battle against reform-minded Nithya Raman. In the March ballot Ryu barely outpolled her, 45 percent to 41 percent, even though he raised a shattering $1.04 million to her $268,000. The two will meet again in a November runoff.
The bigger play is LA ACT. City Hall is reeling from the FBI/DOJ investigation, and public documents describe a vast criminal enterprise, allegedly presided over by a city council member, engaged in bribery, extortion and fraud. Former Councilman Mitch Englander has agreed to plead guilty to scheming to falsify material facts, while estate players Justin Kim and George Chiang have accepted plea deals related to charges involving bribing city officials. Public documents present sordid stories of money passed in paper bags, a secret car conversation with the music turned up to drown out listening devices, and a businessman sending an escort to Englander’s room after a night of partying in Las Vegas.
Councilman Huizar has not been named in the documents, but biographical and other details have led people to believe he is a target of the investigation. Although he has not been arrested or charged with a crime, Ryu and other elected officials have called on him to resign.
The LA ACT motion takes aim at the potential influence of developers pushing big-budget projects. “Pay-to-play politics is made possible when power is exploited for personal or financial gain,” the motion states. “In Los Angeles, that power rests predominantly in land use.”
In Ryu’s vision, the Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency would have the power to inspect documents, issue subpoenas, and compel the testimony of city employees and elected officials. It would focus initially on land-use matters, with the potential to expand to other sectors.
Ryu says there is precedent for such an office, pointing to inspector general positions in local bureaucracies such as the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the L.A. County Office of Inspector General. There are similar offices in Philadelphia and in famously corrupt Chicago.
One question is how the office would gain true independence and teeth—after all, it would be policing the very people who approve its formation. Ryu says that it would need an ample budget.
“There is no guarantee to say this or any other law we do is going to actually solve all the problems, but just because it can’t doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t,” he said.
“The system puts too much power in the hands of too few people, and we need to spread out that power. We need to have more checks and balances.”
Ryu’s second ask gets into the mud of real estate machinations. Currently, council members can use an element of the City Charter known as Section 245 (e) to seize control of the approval process for proposed developments. Ryu believes this is too tempting considering the large sums at stake. According to the motion, “While this authority is rarely used and actions taken using 245 (e) are made publicly, behind closed doors the option is too vulnerable to misuse.”
Ryu hopes to remove the clause from the city charter. That requires voter approval, and Ryu wants to see an item placed on the November ballot.
The two motions now get kicked over to the Council’s Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, but it is uncertain if and when that panel will take them up. The council is not known for swift and decisive action to monitor itself—when Ryu first proposed campaign finance reform in 2015, he could not even get another council member to second his motion. The painful four-year-plus gestation period followed.
That’s not the only reform effort that got buried. Various proposals from the City Ethics Commissions have been rebuffed, and in 2014, a panel of civic leaders known as the 2020 Commission—its co-chair was Austin Beutner, now the LAUSD Superintendent—authored a pair of reports on ways to improve government. Ideas included creating a City Office of Transparency and Accountability, though the focus was on providing a clear view of financial matters. It got lip service and nothing else from elected officials. Most of its reforms were ignored.
Ryu recognizes that getting these new motions approved will be difficult. Still, he thinks an environment where FBI agents stormed City Hall, and shocking bribery charges are flying, make this the right time to act.
“For me its about effectiveness. It’s not about saber rattling or getting the headlines. It’s about results,” he says. “And if you look at my track record, I am persistent, I am tenacious, and I get the shit done.”
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