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Quick Building Permits Under Review

L.A. officials are drafting standards to clamp down on a practice of expediting approvals for the politically connected.

September 20, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Facing criticism that city building permit officials gave special treatment to politically connected applicants, the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department announced Tuesday that it is drafting new standards to ensure that all members of the public are treated the same.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa requested the action in response to a Times report that dozens of construction projects sought by political insiders had been assigned to a little-known "case management unit." The unit is designed to speed the permit process, saving applicants time, bureaucratic frustration and money.

Department head Andrew Adelman told the five-member Building and Safety Commission -- including two who are among those who have received special treatment -- that Villaraigosa also ordered that the unit be widely publicized and that building officials send his office weekly reports on all new construction projects accepted by the special unit.

In addition, Villaraigosa has asked the city administrative officer to review cases given top priority by the unit and report the results to the mayor and City Council.

Commissioners said they look forward to considering the new guidelines at their next meeting.

"I'm in support of the Department of Building and Safety making whatever changes we need to ensure that everyone knows what services we offer so we make sure the city is safe," said Commissioner Elenore A. Williams.

"I think it's important that, for any program we have at the department, the public should know about it."

The Times last month reported that the department had given special treatment to projects sought over the last year by dozens of insiders, including nine current and former city commissioners and donors to the mayor and City Council.

The unit was set up years ago to help expedite complex projects deemed to provide extraordinary benefit to the city.

But without set standards, the unit's case management officers were also being assigned to help city commissioners with more routine projects, including legalization of a single apartment unit or permitting for a church expansion, records show.

Building and Safety officials have repeatedly denied that department decisions are influenced by whether an applicant is a city commissioner or political donor. And at Tuesday's commission meeting, Adelman emphasized that he was acting only because of the mayor's request.

In a letter given to Building and Safety commissioners Tuesday, Villaraigosa said he supported the original concept of the special unit.

"However, as we move forward, it is imperative that we ensure that the ... unit is governed by the highest standards of ethics, fairness, transparency and customer service," the mayor wrote.

The Times report also raised concerns among City Hall watchdog groups.

Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said it is not fair that the average resident has to navigate red tape to get a permit, while the politically connected are assigned a case manager who calls a meeting of representatives from all involved departments to expedite approval of projects.

Adelman told the commission that his staff has completed its work on a report incorporating the mayor's recommendations.

The new standards will generally require that before a construction project is referred to the case management unit, the work must be found to "improve the local economy, enhance communities or address public safety."

Such projects would include new schools, affordable housing and large commercial developments expected to boost the local economy.

In addition, the mayor asked that the department identify the person who referred the project to case management and spell out the rationale for the referral. Previous records have sometimes not included the identity of the referring person or the reason why the project was given special treatment.

Adelman said a more detailed report on the guidelines is being finalized and would be submitted to the commission at one of the next two meetings.

The report would also include "a plan for widely advertising the availability" of the unit's services, according to documents provided by Adelman to the commission.

The Times found that the department did not publicize the existence of the case management unit, giving an advantage to political insiders.

Robert Steinbach, a department spokesman, said details of the advertising campaign are still being worked out but they would address Villaraigosa's concerns.

"We are just following the direction of the mayor's office," he said.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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