At a Torrance social gathering last December, then-Mayor James Armstrong remarked that after 20 years in city government and 32 years as a high school government teacher, he was interested in doing something different.
Few of the guests took him seriously, except Charles Martinez and Donald Barkley, who knew Armstrong well. As chairman and president, respectively, of Torrance-based Real Property Resources Inc., they had had numerous dealings with the mayor. Among other projects, their real estate development firm had built the Airport Plaza and Village del Amo office and retail shopping centers in Torrance.
"Over the years, we had come to greatly admire Jim's obvious skills at working with people and government," Barkley said.
On Monday, Armstrong did embark on a new career path. He is now Real Property Resources' "government liaison" to Torrance and other cities where the firm does business.
Armstrong has switched from mayor to lobbyist.
He is among a small but growing number of former South Bay elected officials being sought out and hired by private concerns seeking to exploit their talent, experience and connections to help guide proposed building, zoning or other matters through the presumably familiar red tape of local government.
Explained Kenneth Miller, Armstrong's predecessor as Torrance mayor and now a part-time lobbyist: "Guys like Jim and myself can be very valuable to a company--not in the sense that we can sway cities against their basic beliefs, but in that we can expedite certain matters because we know the system and how it works."
But some officials in other cities say that the practice of officials becoming lobbyists could give a company an unfair advantage with city government, or at least create such an impression.
The Santa Monica City Council recently approved an ordinance that sets a six-month waiting period before a former official can appear before the council or other city panels as a paid lobbyist. In the South Bay, Hawthorne and Inglewood have discussed the issue without taking any action.
The federal government, the state of California and some other states long have had rules prohibiting certain officials from lobbying on behalf of private firms with whom they had conducted business while in the government's employ.
But in the South Bay, the practice of hiring former officials as lobbyists is relatively new. It is especially evident in high-growth areas such as Torrance, where in recent years a former city councilman and a former city manager as well as the two ex-mayors have been hired as lobbyists.
In Redondo Beach, former Mayor David Hayward, who was ousted after a bitter election campaign five years ago, now does work in the city as a self-described "governmental affairs consultant."
Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert said she feels no undue pressure when her former colleagues return before the council representing private firms. "I suppose there is a natural entree," she said. "And though I am good friends with many of them, I haven't always sided with projects they have represented."
Geissert said Torrance has no policy restricting former city officials from appearing before the council or other city boards. (Former Councilman George Brewster and former City Manager Ed Ferraro also have appeared before the Torrance council representing private firms. Neither returned telephone calls seeking comment.) Their main advantage, she said, "is that they know how the system works. The benefit, I suppose, works both ways."
Santa Monica Mayor Christine E. Reed disagreed.
"It never struck me as a good idea for people to walk away from the council and into the arms of developers or other special-interest groups," said Reed, who pushed for adoption of the Santa Monica ordinance. She said it became apparent that such an ordinance was needed after developers and others increasingly were employing "hired intermediaries" in an effort to skirt a rigid building moratorium adopted by the city several years ago.
"It heightens the cynicism citizens already have about government," Reed said. "I just didn't want people to make those types of jokes about Santa Monica, that access can be bought.
"Personally, it appalls me to think that people feel they need a hired gun to get an appointment to see me," she said. "Being accessible is the whole point of our being here."
The ordinance, adopted in December, prevents City Council members and department managers from acting as paid representatives for private groups or individuals on city issues for six months after leaving office. They are, however, allowed to lobby the city if they are not paid for their work. Other city employees are not allowed to lobby for outside groups on city matters on either a paid or volunteer basis for two years after leaving their jobs.