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Money for something

Allowing unlimited donations to projects or causes favored by the mayor is a slippery slope.

December 24, 2007

Richard and Melanie Lundquist's donation of $50 million to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools was all the more generous because they have no projects pending before Los Angeles land-use boards and they show no interest in bidding on city contracts. The Lundquists had nothing to gain but a shot at a better education for thousands of children. Their contribution expressed faith in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school reform effort and was clean of any ulterior motive, a fact Villaraigosa's office emphasized.

If it's praiseworthy that those donors had nothing to gain, then what should the people of Los Angeles make of the many other wealthy individuals and companies that give to special Villaraigosa funds but do want city contracts or sign off on development projects?

Times staff writer David Zahniser reported last week that in Villaraigosa's first two years in office, he raised $19.6 million for a drive to plant a million trees, to pay for the campaign to elect mayor-friendly candidates to the school board, to hold a reception for Vicente Fox (who was then the president of Mexico) and to underwrite a host of other special funds for purposes from the unassailable to the questionable. Unlike campaign donations, which city law caps at $1,000 in order to prevent any contributor from buying inordinate clout, donors to Villaraigosa's projects can give as much as their wallets can bear.

Some of these donors may be as sincere as the Lundquists in their desire for a better city. But many of them more than likely believe that their donations also will help keep their building permit applications and zoning variances from getting "lost" at City Hall. Nor can they be blamed for believing that. The mayor or his allies go back to the well again and again, asking for money from donors who want at least access and often much more. Put that together with stories like the one about the Planning Department employee who left a message for a developer -- before the final hearing -- that his project would be approved "no matter what," and it's easy to believe that business gets done on some basis other than the merits.

City residents -- including, for the sake of argument, those who oppose the projects the big-money donors want to build -- can't compete for the same kind of attention from the mayor or the commissioners he appoints and removes. Neighborhood councils were supposed to have the clout to play with the heavy hitters, but if money talks, local councils can only murmur.

We wanted a big-city mayor -- one with the stature and charisma to coax badly needed money for city projects not just from Washington and Sacramento but from the private sector as well. On that score, Villaraigosa is delivering.

But his success is also troubling. The Lundquist donation shows that it's possible for the mayor to get meaningful investment in the city from people who have nothing to gain in return. Los Angeles would be well served by that model's becoming the norm rather than the exception.

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