Last Thursday, September 8, a group called Save Valley Village filed a petition with the LA County Superior Court (hat tip to Scott Zwartz at Zwartz Talk for breaking the story) alleging that the members of the Los Angeles City Council are violating not only their oaths of office, but a State law, when they pay one another “deference” by never voting against anything that any of them propose within their districts.
The whole thing is worth reading and will be totally convincing to anyone who has ever watched our Council in action. The fact that there is some covert agreement among the Councilmembers is transparently clear. Here’s how SVV’s complaint describes it:
The Councilmembers of the Los Angeles City Council operate according to an agreement, i.e. The Vote Trading Pact, not to Vote No on any Council Project in another council district and said agreement by its very terms requires reciprocality, also called mutuality, whereby the agreement not to Vote No by one Councilmember is given in exchange for the other Councilmember’s not to vote No on a Council Project in his/her council district. Some have described the Vote Trading Pact as an agreement to Vote Yes for all Council Projects, and it has been described as taking the format of, “If you scratch my back on my Council Projects, I will scratch your back on your Council Projects.” Others refer to the agreement as one of deferring or respecting the decision of the Councilmember in whose district the Council Project is located. All the phrases describe the same Vote Trading Pact.
Councilmember David Ryu has described the Vote Trading Pact as one of “respect” for other Councilmember’s Council Projects and in return he expects the same “respect” for his Council Projects.
“For someone to come in at the tail end and to disagree with my recommendation after meetings with the community on dozens of occasions and with other city departments and after I have involved stakeholders,” doesn’t make sense, he said. “I might make a decision…and my colleagues respect it. Even if they might disagree with my decision, they abide by it because they were not there during those community meetings.” Los Feliz Ledger September 1, 2016
Ryu is admitting that the illegal agreement exists, and also he explains the mechanism by which the agreement functions even as explicit discussion of votes outside the Council Chambers would be illegal. No discussion is necessary, because every Councilmember understands what the rules require. If this kind of tacit but universally adhered-to agreement isn’t outlawed by the statutes, they actually would have no force at all as long as the conspirators didn’t discuss their conspiracy out loud. In a case like this, though, where they have such a patently obvious commonality of interest, there’s no need for discussion to make the dirty deal function.
And even though what Ryu is describing is not only bad but illegal, the situation is actually much worse than he makes it out to be. He paints a picture of his office taking extensive input and discussion from “the community” and synthesizing it into the best decision possible. If that’s what his colleagues were agreeing to the process would be illegal and immoral, but possibly not completely ruinous for the City of Los Angeles. However, that’s certainly not how these things actually happen.
The complaint is specifically about construction projects, but, as it notes, the problem is more widespread. If you follow this blog or BIDs in general, you’re well aware of the absolutely disproportionate influence that small groups of paid advocates have on the choices and projects of their Councilmembers. For instance, here in Hollywood, the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance, which doesn’t represent any part of the Hollywood “community,” can get Mitch O’Farrell to introduce pretty much whatever motion they want, and then his colleagues defer to his support. This process, which is typical, has nothing to do with the kind of “meetings with the community on dozens of occasions” described by Ryu. It has everything to do with the weirdo whims of a few BID employees and their ability to organize and direct a substantial amount of campaign contribution money.
And if you have any doubts at all that the City Council routinely violates the Brown Act by negotiating and agreeing about issues before they’re heard in public, just watch this discussion from August 23, 2016. It’s about CF 15-0002-S203 on taxi regulation. See various Councilmembers engage in what can only be a scripted discussion of an amendment, obviously agreed-to in advance. See them act like they disagree with one another until an amendment is pulled fully formed out of nowhere. See them not understand that they have to vote on the amendment before they vote on the motion, because they never ever amend anything so they don’t know how to do it. See the pseudo-acrimoniously-expressed disagreements evaporate once the pre-agreed amendment is approved, and amazingly, see yet again another unanimous approval. If you have ever, ever participated in any kind of meeting, you’ll see immediately that this is a scripted performance. I can understand how the Council could follow a vote swapping agreement as alleged in Save Valley Village’s lawsuit without illegal covert communication, but it’s not possible that that happened in this instance. It makes me hopeful that more concrete evidence than this lawsuit’s probabalistic arguments might turn up. In any case, that’s what’s going on with that.
Image of Valley Village is via Wikimedia on the usual terms.