An irony of Los Angeles politics is the way homeowner groups on the Westside—that bastion of open government advocates—sign confidential agreements with developers to support controversial projects in exchange for large amounts of money. Because of the confidentiality, there’s no public accountability required of how the money is used.
These payments, although long a dubious part of the developer-homeowner association relationship, are legal. Nobody is alleging wrongdoing. But they have become an issue in a fight over JMB Realty’s proposed 37-story Century City office building at Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. Attorney Benjamin Reznik, who represents rival Century City property owner J.P. Morgan and the Beverlywood Homeowners Association, complained to the City Planning Commission of the conduct of four other homeowner groups who support the high rise.
He’s unhappy with JMB paying, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, $7.25 million to an organization, Friends of West L.A. for distribution to local civic institutions. Friends of West L.A. is composed of the Tract 7260 organization, California Country Club Homes Assn. Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn. and Westwood Homeowners Assn. The associations have dropped their opposition to the project, angering homeowner groups that still oppose it.
Reznik said “it appears that the public process of planning has been hijacked by shadow planning process” in which the Friends of West L.A association have made a private deal with the developer, the details of which are confidential. “They have taken it upon themselves to secure their own benefits to the detriment of the remaining surrounding communities,” Reznik told the planning commission.
I’m not especially concerned about another big building in the Century City high-rise heaven. What struck me was the $7.25 million reported in the Times. That’s a lot of money. I asked Mike Eveloff, spokesman for Friends of West L.A., for the details.
He said they were “confidential.” He said the $7.25 million figure was inaccurate. Noting the story had been published in 2008, I wondered why it hadn’t been corrected. He was vague on that point. He said let’s call it an “x” amount of money. Fine, I said, you call it “x” and I’ll call it $7.25 million. Now, let’s talk about what happens to the money. We talked on the phone for well over an hour.
It’s paid in increments, he said. The Friends will get a portion when the City Council planning committee approves the project. More will come when the council approves and the rest of the money, Eveloff said, when Mayor Eric Garcetti signs the ordinance authorizing the building.
Where does the money go? In a bank account, Eveloff said, supervised by the Friends board. There, it is invested in stocks, bonds and other investments by a money manager. The interest is used to give financial assistance to various civic organizations in amounts listed on the Friends of West L.A. web site. They are: Fairburn and Overland elementary schools; Westwood Charter; Rancho Park, Palms Park and Westwood recreation centers; the West L.A. police station and four firehouses, plus projects such as tree maintenance on Pico Boulevard. As an example, Fairburn used its recent $37,975 gift for technical supplies, hiring a library assistant and substitute teachers and for teaching material.
Eveloff defends the deal as a way of gaining concessions from JMB without engaging in a lengthy and possibly losing court fight. But Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association, which opposes the JMB high rise, said the project would violate traffic restrictions that are part of Century City planning rules and the whole matter should be subject to public debate.
However, Broide said her homeowner group had entered into confidential agreements with two other Century City developers, and she couldn’t tell me how much money was involved. Confidential, she said. It would be used for hiring engineers, other technical experts and attorneys, all needed with fights with the city over traffic and planning issues.
Recently, attorney Reznik’s client, the Beverlywood association, reached an agreement with JMB over the high rise. It wasn’t confidential, Reznik told me. JMB agreed to provide $1.75 million for traffic improvements helping the Beverlywood neighborhood.
I guess this is a way for neighborhood groups to get around a hide-bound, slow-moving city bureaucracy and win needed concessions from developers. But giving them the money to spend on their choice of institutions and projects—without being held accountable to the public—reminds me of the backroom deals that were supposed to end with all the talk of transparency in government.