I'm always amused by the nickname of the Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, known for short as the PLUM committee. PLUM is perfectly descriptive. Serving on it is a plum job for council members seeking campaign contributions.
Its members approve all the big office buildings, hotels, condos, apartments and other major projects in the city. That is what makes their job such an excellent post. Property owners, builders, architects, engineers and others involved in the construction of these projects are among the leading contributors to council campaigns. PLUM committee members are high on their lists. The donors' names come up frequently in the City Ethics Commission's listing of campaign contributors. In 2017, the anti-developer Coalition To Preserve L.A., whose executive director is former journalist Jill Stewart, reported on the contributors and the meetings they had with council members. The report was entitled "Play To Pay In The City of L.A."
The PLUM committee has been in the news recently. The chairman, Councilman Jose Huizar, was removed after the FBI raided his office and home. The FBI hasn't said why. One of the boxes taken away was labeled "fund raising." And the committee is likely to continue in the spotlight. Pressure is increasing for city hall to allow more development to reduce housing costs in a city afflicted with high homelessness. The PLUM committee will hear the proposals.
City Councilman David Ryu wants to do something about this kind of thing. He proposed an ordinance that would restrict campaign contributions "from applicants for large development projects that require city approval.
"When applicants for large development projects, and others who have business before the city of Los Angeles contribute widely to political campaigns, and in some cases flout campaign finance rules entirely, we lose public trust," Ryu said in a letter to the ethics commission in June. "Unlike the city's restriction on campaign contributions from companies seeking city contracts, no such restriction currently exists for applicants for large development projects seeking city approvals on potentially lucrative projects." He said his proposal "would increase trust in government and reduce the appearance and risk of quid pro quo behavior."
Predictably, the commission tabled Ryu's proposal. Los Angeles Times reporters Emily Alpert Reyes and David Zahniser, who have uncovered much about the developer-contributor-council connection, wrote: "Commissioners did not vote down the proposal but deferred a decision on it, saying they wanted to look more closely at who would be covered by such restrictions. For example, commission staff cautioned that a person who seeks council approval for a new development might not be the one whose financial interests are at stake." Of course, anyone seeking council approval for a big project is enough of a big shot in the proposal to have a financial interest at stake.
I'm not surprised. When I was on the ethics commission several years ago, it was very difficult to toughen the campaign laws and when we tried, a city council committee usually killed our proposals.
I hope this ethics commission gets tough and approves Ryu's proposal. From there, it should be passed by the city council and signed by the mayor. Perhaps then, membership on the Planning and Land Use Management Committee won't be such a PLUM.