Ethics commission delays vote on banning developer contributions to LA politicians

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Candidates for Los Angeles office will very likely be able to continue accepting checks from developers in the lead-up to the 2020 elections—despite the attempts of some local officials to bar these types of campaign contributions.

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission declined to vote Tuesday on a recommendation from Councilmember David Ryu to ban developers of major projects within LA from donating to local officials and candidates.

Because the campaign financing window for the next citywide election—in 2020—opens September 3, any future limits on developer spending probably wouldn’t take effect until the next election cycle.

“I get the intent of a developer ban,” said Commission President Serena Oberstein. “I am concerned that we’re not all the way there yet.”

Individual donations to councilmembers are already capped at $800 per year.

Ryu, along with councilmembers Paul Krekorian, Joe Buscaino, Paul Koretz, and Mike Bonin proposed a total ban on developer contributions in 2017, shortly before voters weighed in on Measure S, a ballot initiative that would have put a two-year freeze on most major developments.

Supporters of the measure railed against developer influence in city politics, and prior to the defeat of the initiative, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to bar private meetings between developers and members of the city’s Planning Commission.

Blocking campaign donations from developers “seeking city approvals on their potentially-lucrative projects” would further boost public trust in LA’s political system, councilmembers who proposed the ban said.

But members of the ethics commission said Tuesday that key details of the proposal still needed to be worked out—namely, how such a policy would be enforced.

A report presented to the commission notes that the identities of developers aren’t always disclosed on applications seeking city approval for projects. These applications can be submitted by attorneys, lobbyists, engineers, or architects working with or on behalf of developers.

With no consistent way to determine the individuals or corporations financing these projects, it would be extremely difficult for campaign finance officials to detect violations of the developer ban.

Oberstein also questioned the necessity for such a policy.

“I’d like to see concrete proof that developer money leads to corruption,” she said, adding that, right now “we just have that perception.”

A 2016 Los Angeles Times investigation found that associates of the developer behind a controversial apartment project opposed by the city’s Planning Commission had contributed more than $40,000 to local officials leading up to the project’s approval.

But recipients of those donations, including Garcetti and several members of the City Council, vehemently deny that the money in any way affected their decisions when considering the project.

Multiple members of the ethics commission suggested that a requirement that city officials recuse themselves when considering development projects proposed by a campaign donor would be more effective than a ban.

Commissioner Shedrick Davis suggested that a recusal rule similar to the one that regulates the votes of Metro board members could be an “intermediate step” while city staffers further evaluate the feasibility of an outright ban.

“There’s obviously some appetite for taking this on, and I don’t want to be accused of shirking that duty,” he said.

Members of the commission also tabled that proposal, deciding instead to revisit the matter at its next meeting in October.

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