Ban on developer campaign contributions moves forward at L.A. committee hearing

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Los Angeles officials took one more step towards serious restrictions on campaign contributions from real estate developers. The proposal, approved by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, would ban developers from contributing to local elections if they have pending projects in need of city approval.

Now, the City Council can order the City Attorney’s Office to draft an ordinance enforcing the recommended policy, approve that ordinance and have Mayor Eric Garcetti sign it. If this is done, Los Angeles would become the first jurisdiction in the United States to have any ban on developer donations.

“Concern that developers exert undue influence undoubtedly exists, as evidenced in recent media reports focused on City Hall and extensive public comment received by the Ethics Commission,” a report from the Ethics Commission said. “There is no question that the widespread perception is that there is a pay-to-play culture at Los Angeles City Hall, in which developers give money to elected officials and their favorite organizations in an attempt to influence decisions about development projects and public policy.”

Although Los Angeles residents have long-taken to social media and public comment alike to air objections to developer donations to political campaigns, the City Council has never acted to curb contributions before, save for one introduced motion in 2017. That motion failed to gain traction at City Hall.

However, concern about real estate developer influence on local politics came to the fore in November with the Federal Bureau of Investigation search of Councilman Jose Huizar’s home and offices. Although he was not charged with any crime, Huizar was later found to have cast votes favorable to Onni Contracting (California) Inc., a developer trying to build residential towers on the site of the former Los Angeles Times headquarters.

Before the vote, Omni made $50,000 donation to Families for a Better Los Angeles, which held two fundraisers for Huizar last year. Additionally, Families for a Better Los Angeles took in $2,500 from William Delvac, the attorney representing Onni before City Council. Huizar would go on to argue that Los Angeles desperately needed the housing Omni would provide.

It’s not the first time this committee accepted money from donors connected to Huizar-backed projects. Kevin and Minny Chen, who were listed as executives with a company seeking to build a 12-story hotel and condominium complex at 5th and Alameda streets in Huizar’s district, gave Families for a Better Los Angeles $12,500 last year, just a week before the search of Huizar’s home and offices.

City Councilman David Ryu said that adopting the policies recommended by the Ethics Commission would be the first step in restoring trust among Los Angeles voters.

“By limiting the outsized influence of developers in our local elections and embracing clean campaign finance laws, the commission has made clear that the status quo is not working for Los Angeles voters, and is failing Los Angeles democracy,” Ryu said after the Ethics Commission vote. “I am grateful to the ethics commissioners and the commission staff for taking bold action today to reform our campaign finance laws.”

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