The Magazine

They're No Angels

Los Angeles's pay-to-play politics.

Jun 7, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 37 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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WITH 3.8 MILLION RESIDENTS, Los Angeles has a larger population than 25 states. The area it covers is so extensive that St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Manhattan all could nestle within the city limits and have room to spare. Centrifugal forces in a city of this size are enormous. Civic leaders know that boroughs would provide better government than what L.A. has now--a mayor and 15 city councilmen. The 15-member city council system was setup in 1876 when Los Angeles had 9,000 residents. Today, each council member represents more than 230,000 residents. But change would decentralize power and jeopardize the grip that unions, property developers, and political contributors have on the existing power structure.

The seeds of the current morass were sown in the depths of L.A.'s worst nightmare. In 2002, after years of fruitless lobbying, neighborhood activists in the San Fernando Valley finally succeeded in placing a proposition on the ballot that would have allowed the Valley to secede from L.A. and form an independent city if a majority of voters approved. Used as a cash cow for decades, the Valley is home to 35 percent of the city's population and encompasses roughly 50 percent of its geographic area. Yet the Valley receives less services for its tax dollars than any other part of the city. There are fewer libraries, police stations, and museums in the Valley. The L.A. Basin has the beginnings of three subway lines, but despite paying $1.3 billion into a mass transit fund, the Valley has only clogged freeways. A new Valley municipality, secessionists claimed, would rank as the safest city among the nation's top ten and the sixth largest city overall. The main effect of dividing Los Angeles, they argued, would be the creation of two smaller, more efficient, and representative city governments.

There was little chance of the measure passing given that people throughout Los Angeles were allowed to vote on it. But City Hall took no chances, especially since Hollywood was trying to secede along with the Valley. Even San Pedro, the community where James Hahn lives, wanted to jump ship. If the Valley and Hollywood left, why couldn't affluent Brentwood, West Los Angeles, and Pacific Palisades? Troublemakers on the Westside already had a plan to create a city called Rancho San Vicente if the Valley managed to break free. Was it L.A.'s destiny to consist of Watts, the eastern barrios, and a civic center only Ridley Scott could love?

For Hahn and his minions at City Hall there could be no compromise in the fight to save Los Angeles. City contractors were urged to contribute to the L.A. Unified campaign by the commissioners overseeing their contracts. Commissioners favoring Valley cityhood, even those who tried to remain neutral, were pressured to resign. Supervisors solicited donations from city employees; unions with city contracts asked their members for money. In the end, Mayor Hahn collected $6.2 million that he used to finance a massive disinformation campaign. A majority of voters in the San Fernando Valley did elect to form their own city, but they were far outnumbered by No votes from people in the rest of the city.

Backroom deals made in the rush to defeat secession are being investigated. St. Louis-based public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, for example, was awarded a two-year $560,000 contract to "develop key messages" for the Port of Los Angeles after its executives paid $10,000 to dine with the mayor at an anti-secession fundraiser. Until last month, when the company cut all ties with Los Angeles, Fleishman-Hillard had contracts worth nearly $3 million with city agencies. The relationship has been profitable for both sides. Since 1998, Fleishman and its executives have contributed more than $135,000 to candidates and their political committees. Over the same period of time, the Department of Water and Power alone awarded Fleishman-Hillard $20 million worth of business.

Law firms that host political fundraisers for Hahn and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo are remarkably successful at obtaining city contracts. Last year, Los Angeles paid $18.9 million for outside legal assistance, much of it going to firms whose partners contribute heavily to city campaigns and are registered as lobbyists for clients doing business with the city. According to research conducted by Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Patrick McGreevy, lucrative contracts for outside work that could have been done by some of the 820 lawyers on the city attorney's staff were approved or expanded within weeks of political fundraisers' being held.