Revealed: Why The City Always Votes Yes on BID Formation. Also Some Speculation On The Shady Reasons Why The City Prefers Property-Based BIDs Over Merchant-Based BIDs Despite The Fact That They Instantiate Peak White Supremacy

Holly Wolcott explaining why she votes.
Holly Wolcott explaining why she votes.
You may recall that last month I raised the question of where the City Clerk gets the authority to vote all of the City’s property in favor of establishing BIDs. That the Clerk does this is undisputed. It’s so reliable that BID proponents are famous for gerrymandering in as much City property as possible to improve their chances of hitting the 50.1% approval needed to start the BID formation process.

Well, of course, I filed a CPRA request on the matter and Miranda Paster, however conflicted her interests may be when it comes to her darling baby BIDs, is by far one of the most reliable and honest City officials with whom I deal with respect to public records, yesterday pointed me to the now twenty year old Council File 96-1972. This file is too old to have documents online1 but there are some summary notes on what went on. In particular, the ordinance passed includes an instruction2 to:

REQUIRE the City Clerk to sign off on Proposition 2183 ballots and support petitions for property-based BIDs, unless the Council directs otherwise.

So I was right. There had to be a law, and there is a law. It’s pleasant to speculate on the possibility of exploiting this to add some democratic sauce to the BID formation process. For instance, as I’ve suggested before, it would be much more fair to let residents of the BID area vote on BID formation and apportion the City’s ballots proportionally to the wishes of the residents. This wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be far, far more fair that what’s done now. Of course given the degree to which our Council worships BIDs, and given the wildly disproportionate influence that BIDs have on City policy, this is not likely to happen except through the courts. As I said, though, it’s nice to think about.

Irrespective of that, though, this discovery sheds some light on why there are almost exclusively property-based BIDs in Los Angeles. Recall that State law authorizing BID formation allows for three types of BIDs: property-based,4 merchant-based, and tourism, this last of which is not important for our purposes. The distinction is that for property-based BIDs, the owners of the real property in the district are assessed and get to run the BID. In merchant-based BIDs it’s business owners rather than property owners who pay assessments and make the decisions.

Well, of course, the City owns tons of real property, although the exact amount seems to be hard to discover.5 But the City doesn’t own any businesses. So the City has absolutely no power to influence the formation of a merchant-based BID. If such a BID is formed, it’s formed because the businesses in the area actually want it, rather than because the City is in cahoots with a few zillionaires. By the way, the disparity is huge. According to the Clerk’s list of BIDs in LA, there are 42 of them. One of these is a tourism BID. Five of them (Chatsworth, Little Tokyo, Los Feliz Village, Wilmington, and Wilshire Center) are merchant-based,6 and the other 36 are property-based.

Given the zeal with which the City pushes BID formation, from the mid 90s dawn of the BID program, pushed by then CD13 rep Jackie Goldberg and her ideological compatriots around the City right through to the unseemly overinvolvement of CD11 staff in the pending formation of the Venice Beach BID, it would be completely unthinkable for them to give up the control that City-owned property gives them over the process. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the City prefers property-based BIDs to merchant-based BIDs to a great extent because the law gives them a huge amount of control over the one and none over the other.

Now, in some technical sense, it’s true that the City doesn’t support BIDs on autopilot. The law requiring the Clerk to vote the City’s property in favor of BID formation does have the proviso that this is done “…unless the Council directs otherwise.”7 First of all, though, it’s not realistic that the Council would ever direct otherwise. Even though they deny it at every possible level, Council Districts are intrinsically involved in every stage of the BID formation process. If the Councilmember for a proposed BID’s district didn’t want the BID, the BID’s not even going to get to the balloting stage. Also, if the Councilmember for the BID’s district wants the BID there’s no way the rest of the Council won’t vote for it. The Council is not only famous for never voting against any intra-district project, they are even being sued for this very practice.

Also, it’s interesting to see that even though the City denies at every level that they’re involved in the BID formation process, the fact that the City Council has the power to direct the Clerk not to vote the City’s property in favor of BID formation shows that this claim is completely false in a hitherto unsuspected way. If the BID could not be approved without the City’s votes, then the Council’s decision not to so direct the Clerk is actually a positive action allowing the BID’s formation. If they choose not to prevent the ballots from being voted in favor, they are actively choosing to form the BID. Which makes their consistent denials that they’re involved seem that much more hollow.

Finally, recall that one of the major effects of property-based BIDs is that they promote and preserve white supremacy in Los Angeles politics. The argument in short is that historical race-based restrictions on commercial property are reflected in present-day massively disproportionate white ownership of these parcels. Thus basing BID membership on property ownership rather than on the much more racially diverse category of business ownership has the effect of giving white people much more control over City matters in their districts, even when the actual residents of these districts are not mainly or even mostly white.

Now, I’ve seen no evidence that the City had this effect in mind when they started the BID program. However, even if they did recognize that this would happen, and even if they saw it as a positive effect, they would hardly be likely to say so on the record. I do recognize that the idea that they consciously intended their property-based BID program to promote white supremacy is a few steps across the border of tin-foil-hat-landia.8

Maybe it’s more likely that at the time the BID program was being put together the City didn’t realize that they were promoting white supremacy. Or maybe white supremacist interests are so tied in with zillionaire interests that the City Council, which relies on and seeks to please zillionaires to an extent that is beyond rational comprehension, wasn’t even able to perceive that they were promoting white supremacy because seeing so might have interfered with the flow of campaign contributions. Or maybe no one thought of it at the time, but now that it’s working to promote white supremacy in such a covert way that no one will ever be exposed in the press, it’s too useful for the Council to forgo. The fact remains, though, that in its zeal to promote BIDs, the City at best tolerates white supremacy and at worst consciously promotes it. And by continuing to vote the City’s property in favor of property-based BIDs is actively supporting it.

Image of Holly Wolcott is a public record and I got it from Dean Logan’s Twitter feed.

  1. I will be making a trip over to Ramirez Street to make copies of everything as soon as I can work out my schedule. Given the weird ephemera that gets placed into these old council files, this one promises to be fairly rich.
  2. This is translated from the weird Council shorthand of the day. The literal text reads: REQ the City Clerk to sign off on Proposition 218 ballots and support petitions for property-based BIDS, unless the Ccl directs otherwise.
  3. Note that Proposition 218 radically changed the process of new taxation in California in ways that I’m not competent to explain. It’s a crucial issue for BID formation because it requires new taxes to be approved by a two thirds vote. This is why there has been and will continue to be so much hysterical fretting over whether or not BID assessments are taxes. Common sense and plain English suggests that they are, but the law, at least for now, suggests that they are not. Thus they can be imposed by weird pseudo-democratic processes. This is likely a weak point in the State’s BID formation process, but, as I said, it’s beyond my understanding to either explain or to speculate on how to exploit.
  4. These are authorized by Streets and Highways Code section 36000 et seq.
  5. High-quality plausible estimates range between two and four thousand metric shit-tons. I don’t know how to convert that into the linear frontage on which BID assessments are primarily based.
  6. You can pick out the merchant-based BIDs from that list because State law doesn’t require a management district plan for their establishment, so that entry is blank if and only if a BID is merchant-based.
  7. It seems plausible that something like this clause is necessary to make the whole scheme legal. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were illegal for the Council to pass laws binding the actions of future City officials without giving future Councils say in how those actions are carried out.
  8. Which doesn’t mean it’s not accurate.

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