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Ganging Up on City Hall

Lobbyists are becoming even more of a factor in trying to win over the council. But they are finding their job tougher because the lawmakers are more fractured and unpredictable.

July 31, 1998|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Did developers recently win city approval for a Century City skyscraper because they hired a virtual army of political lobbyists, lawyers and experts on traffic, the environment and urban planning? Or, perhaps, was it just a really good project?

Either way, cynics called it the "full employment act" for Los Angeles lobbyists, and it has become the way of doing business in City Hall.

Lobbyists are hardly new to City Hall, but in recent months--boosted by a healthy economy that has led to a rebound in large-scale development projects and contracts, as well as by complex rules that make it hard for laypeople to represent their own interests--their influence has grown by leaps and bounds.

Developers and company executives who must rely on city approval for large projects or big contracts are hiring teams of lobbyists to win over reluctant city staff, nervous and litigious residents, a fractious City Council, even the traditionally skeptical press.

Voting Blocs Gone

But it's not only that those developments and contracts are larger today than they were during the recession, lobbyists say, it has also become necessary to hire teams because the City Council has become more unpredictable, its members more inclined to challenge each other.

Gone, they say, are the days of the eight- or nine-member council voting blocs.

Declining--if not gone--are the days of deference: Once lawmakers could sway colleagues' votes based plainly and simply on the fact that they represent the district; today, council members increasingly are willing to challenge one another for leadership on issues no matter where they arise.

On the increase: sophisticated homeowner groups that hire attorneys and land-use experts, complex environmental review requirements, and complicated land-use codes and restrictions. An environmental impact report 10 to 15 years ago could top a couple hundred pages; today, those reports can reach 2,000 pages.

The result: a booming multimillion-dollar lobbying industry that shows no signs of weakening. Clients are told they will need attorneys as well as land use, environmental and even traffic consultants and political strategists. Some are hired to lobby specific council members, others to satisfy editorial writers and community groups.

Strict Ethics Laws

Under the city's ethics laws, considered among the strictest in the nation, anyone who is paid $4,000 during a quarter to attempt to influence decisions in the city must register as a lobbyist. Because the homeowner groups rarely have paid positions, their leaders do not register. Currently, 154 lobbyists are registered with the city.

Although it may have appeared that way, not all of them were involved in the $250-million Century City office building. Still, that project, which was heavily opposed by the councilman representing the area along with--initially--four homeowner groups, involved representatives from at least half of the top 10 lobbying firms in the city. Others were brought on for their various areas of expertise.

The team led by the attorneys-cum-lobbyists at Latham & Watkins believed that they faced formidable opposition. They also believed that the project met the building plan for Century City, that traffic concerns could be eased by a city staff-endorsed traffic system and, finally, that relationships count.

Some lobbyists, in fact, were brought on right before the council vote on the project: They were hired specifically for their close ties to certain council members.

"Certain people were assigned to certain council people," said one of the lobbyists on the team who declined to be identified. "That's the way it works."

In this case, Steve Afriat, who has served as a political advisor to Councilman Mike Hernandez, was hired to lobby him and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a longtime friend since their days as council aides. Rick Taylor, who served as Miscikowski's campaign consultant, was hired to lobby her as well. Former mayoral aide Mike Keeley was hired at the eleventh hour to lobby other council members.

Some lobbyists find the practice of targeted, last-minute hires somewhat distasteful.

"The question is should someone hire Steve Afriat, Mark Armbruster or Rick Taylor because they're really close to somebody?" asked Afriat, a successful and regular figure around City Hall. "I think that's silly. Most lobbyists have good relationships with most council members. If they're not smart enough to do that, you probably don't want them on your team."

Others suggest that anyone with close ties to council members is considered crucial to the success of the project.

Some are hired specifically because other team members don't get along with a council member. Afriat said he has hired other lobbyists to work with City Councilman Mike Feuer after several instances in which Afriat opposed projects in the councilman's district.

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