Money and politics: when it’s okay and when it’s not for the twain to meet

Tomorrow night City Council will deliberate Hines’ plan to redevelop the Paper Mate factory site and the development agreement that would allow it to happen. In December, after the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote to approve the project (with significant conditions) I wrote a blog about what I thought should happen, namely a final negotiation at the council level to reduce the amount of offices and increase the amount of housing. Since then nothing I’ve heard or read has changed my views (although I acknowledge that there are many levels of detail I haven’t addressed, but then that’s what’s great about being a blogger).

In the meantime another issue has arisen: the demands of some, made several times during last week’s public hearing, that Mayor Pam O’Connor recuse herself from the Paper Mate vote because seven years ago she accepted campaign contributions from Hines executives to help retire the debt leftover from her 2006 reelection campaign.

Contributing to the passions aroused by the contributions is that everyone predicts that O’Connor will vote in favor of the project in some form or another; if she recused herself, that, in effect, would be a “no” vote. Opponents of the project would like this; they also want to embarrass O’Connor, as they consider her too friendly to development. Supporters of the project and the kind of transit-oriented development it reflects, feel the opposite and have come to O’Connor’s defense.

The prediction that O’Connor will support the project is based on evidence both general and specific.

The general evidence comes from O’Connor’s consistent record over 20 years, not only on the council but also in regional positions such as the boards of Metro and as service as President of the Southern California Association of Governments, of supporting urban in-fill development projects, particularly those, like the Paper Mate project, that are near transit and promote walkability.

More specific evidence that O’Connor is likely to support the project comes from votes and public comments directly relating to Paper Mate. These came not only when, in 2011, the project had its float-up hearings at the council (when Hines dropped from its proposal about 200,000 square feet of office development), but also in connection with the years of planning and votes that went into the updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan (the LUCE), which the council approved in 2010, and more recently into the Bergamot Area Plan (BAP), which the council passed last fall.

Both the LUCE and the BAP were developed with the Paper Mate site in mind: the 310,000 square-foot property, sitting directly across Olympic Boulevard from the future Bergamot Expo station, is the crucial site for connecting the old industrial properties north of Olympic to the station. More generally, the fundamental bargain in the LUCE was to channel future development away from existing neighborhoods and into Santa Monica’s former industrial zones. O’Connor voted in favor of both the LUCE and the BAP—not surprising, since they represent the urban principles she has supported.

Also not surprisingly, the Hines plans for Paper Mate more or less follow the LUCE and the BAP.

The Paper Mate plant back in the day. (Photo credit: Santa Monica Public Library Image Archive_

The Paper Mate plant back in the day. (Photo credit: Santa Monica Public Library Image Archive)

So what does this have to do with the contributions from Hines executives to pay off O’Connor’s 2006 campaign debts? There’s a fine line in American politics—the whole system depends on candidates being able to raise money to run campaigns (otherwise only rich people could run for office) and naturally candidates will collect more money from contributors who believe that the candidate, once in office, will make decisions that benefit the contributor (either indirectly or directly). Think about it—on a national basis, businesses give money to Republicans, and unions give money to Democrats, and both sides believe that the other side’s contributors consequently have undue influence.

So where’s the fine line? Well, it’s okay for a candidate to collect money from contributors who agree with the candidate in general and expect good things from the candidate’s election, but it’s not okay to collect contributions in return for the promise of a specific benefit.

The question is, then, what’s more likely: did the Hines executives make their contributions to O’Connor’s campaign in return for a promise to vote for their Paper Mate proposal (which, although talked about previously, wasn’t submitted to the planning department until May 2010), or because they believed that O’Connor already held principles about how to develop the industrial areas of Santa Monica that would allow for redevelopment of the site?

It’s worth keeping mind that Hines in 2006 was not a newcomer to Santa Monica—it had already developed its Lantana entertainment office complex on Olympic Boulevard, which had had its development agreement approved just a few years before.

I suspect you can tell where my own answer is heading—it’s unlikely to me that the Hines executives made their contributions for a quid pro quo on the specific Paper Mate project, but highly likely that they did so knowing that O’Connor believed in policies for redevelopment that meant she wouldn’t want to see the old factory stay there.

In any case, since the council voted 7-0 in favor of the LUCE, which itself emerged from a long public process (and was quite popular when it passed), and 6-1 in favor of the BAP, is it plausible to tie O’Connor’s support for the redevelopment of the Paper Mate site along the lines proposed in the LUCE the BAP to undue influence from the developer? She didn’t vote any different from the other council members who supported the plans.

Aye, and there’s the rub, because, to inject a bit of substance into this post about politics, the LUCE and the BAP are flawed in that they call for too much office development in the area. The City’s planners and consultants believed in good faith that adding more offices near the Bergamot Expo station would both increase transit ridership and aid the city’s economy, and the council members took their advice, but given the morning inbound and afternoon outbound traffic problems, it was predictable that adding any more commuter traffic would fail any traffic analysis.

I don’t know if it would require an amendment to the LUCE, but the final negotiations, from the dais tomorrow night if need be, should be to reduce the amount of office development in the project to no more than the existing square footage of the Paper Mate factory, and increase housing, which does not add to the morning and afternoon gridlock.

Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Money and politics: when it’s okay and when it’s not for the twain to meet

  1. Not everyone thinks O’Connor will vote yes, actually. Some people in the community are predicting that O’Connor will vote no on the BTV because she is frightened by the opposition and does not want to risk losing the upcoming re-election bid. A no vote would make it much more difficult to vilify her to the electorate as pro-rampant-development.

    But’s pretty clear Pam is a genuine believer in the value of mass transit and TOD, as Frank documents. I like to fancy she would choose to fall on her sword by voting her conscience on the BTV, even if she saw herself as facing the prospect of losing office because of it.

    • David — don’t forget that despite the meme that’s going around, it’s not a yes-or-no vote. Expect negotiating.

      • Good point.

        (Although: I don’t know if re-election is really what’s on the Councilpersons’ minds in the BTV, and am not saying it should be or that it’s clear how BTV would play in. But the negotiating of changes that would *improve* the project, by, for example, achieving a better use mix, may have limited symbolic value for the general public at election time. The changes would result in a more justifiable ‘yes’ vote, but a ‘yes’ all the same.)

  2. Note to possible posters of comments: I don’t accept anonymous comments on my blog. When I receive an anonymous comment, I try to contact the sender if there is a working email attached to the comment to let the sender know that he or she can resubmit with a name, but sometimes the emails attached don’t work, as happened today with someone who used they name “Santa Monica Resident.”

  3. Yeah, Frank, I agree.  But if we were firmly against this (or, say, an issue with more impact), would we not want her to recuse herself?  This is in essence the paradox of politics; there can be no “moral” positions in such situations where a tainted vote might carry the day, only personal agendas.  And there is the rub.   I hope she doesn’t recuse herself if only to make things more hardball and ugly, i.e., to allow the lines to be drawn so they are more visible.  Then the clouds fade away, the sun shines, and everything gets hot and spicey.

    Doug

    • Doug, if you or anyone are to demand that someone recuse themselves from a vote on the basis of some ethical conflict of interest, then you must make the case that there is something improper afoot on ethical = moral grounds, whatever your personal amoral political philosophy may be.

      If you are so committed to your cause that you feel nonsensical demands are fair play, then you should be publicly exposed as an irrationalist by observers such as Frank.

      David

      • David — you can count on my friend Doug to hope that even greater cataclysms will occur.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s