One of the best ways to cover city hall is to get out of city hall. Instead, wander through the many fund raising dinners where the real clout is on display.
I thought of this recently when a couple of well-connected friends told me about a gold plated dinner at the Beverly Hilton.
It was the annual roast for the American Diabetes Association, put together by two of city hall's influential lobbyists, Arnie Berghoff and Harvey Englander. Berghoff's daughter has diabetes, and his conception and promotion of the event have done much to finance research on the disease and to raise childhood diabetes higher in the public consciousness. I think it's a great cause and actually served as master of ceremonies for the first two roast dinners.
But like all these fundraisers--either for charity or for political campaigns--this one has a purpose beyond raising money. The events give lobbyists and their corporate employers a chance to connect with the mayor, city council members, their staffs and various important department heads and city commissioners.
My friends told me that the hot spot at the diabetes dinner was the special pre-dinner VIP reception, where only the most generous sponsors and their guests were admitted. One friend didn't make it inside and had to buy a drink at the hotel bar. The other was more fortunate.
They told me that the biggest sponsors were the corporate developers of two huge development projects. One was the firm behind the 5,553-home Las Lomas project just north of the intersection of the Golden State Freeway and the 14 Freeway. The other was NBC Universal, which has proposed $3 billion worth of homes--2,900 of them-- along with new production facilities, restaurants, stores, a hotel, an entertainment center and other features at Universal City.
At the VIP event, I was told, representatives of the two firms socialized in pleasant, comparatively intimate surroundings with the elected officials and others who will decide the fate of their projects. So did other business chiefs, assorted big shots and lobbyists.
This kind of gathering is common practice and there is nothing illegal about it. Nor should there be. We already have too many laws.
But as I finish the last four months of my City Ethics Commission term, such events fill me with a sense of futility. We work like mad to make sure that city politics are played on a level field. The world of fund raising dinners and high-powered developers and lobbyists guarantees the field will never really be level.