Arrogance of Power in City Council Now Costing LA Millions in Courts

MAILANDER’S LA - Just seven weeks ago, City Council President Herb Wesson and Councilmember Paul Krekorian were yucking it up in an LA City Council meeting, before an audience of 200 people and broadcast for all, at the expense of a harmless, disempowered, persistent City Hall critic, Arnold Sachs.

Now the City faces a twenty million dollar lawsuit from a developer who has dared to wonder some of the same things that the disempowered Sachs’ was wondering.

And the City just last week also lost part of a motion filed in a Federal court on behalf of Zuma Dogg, Matt Dowd and others in which the presiding judge has found that the City of Los Angeles “cannot sacrifice political speech to a formula of civility.”

This suit has already cost the City of LA hundreds of thousands to defend, and may leave it exposed to even more expense.

Sachs’s offense in Krekorian’s eyes involved the bizarre rush-to-judgment that attended the forming of an historic site on property owned by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course.  Sachs was not directly involved in the dispute, but as a civic watchdog he had dared to think it unusual that Council was suddenly rushing to pass a motion on a preservation issue—going against the recommendation of the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission and even changing it on the fly—just as the motion’s key political drivers, Councilmembers Richard Alarcon and Ed Reyes were leaving office.
“Keep in mind, eleven years, fifty-one weeks that some of these Councilmembers have been in office.  Eleven years, fifty-one weeks to come up with this recognition for this property.”

This is pretty much all Sachs was entitled to say in his minute of public comment—the buzzer went off and he promptly and politely sat down.  He had also praised Council for finally coming around to recognizing the site as historic, and said not much more.

But Krekorian, who had previously represented the site as Alarcon had, chose to wag an angry finger at Sachs.  He responded with an indignant impromptu tubthumper full of truthiness while short on truth.  Pandering to the pro-monumentizing forces in Chamber, who had taken a charter bus to the meeting, he called Sachs “silly” twice, a royal dressing-down that Wesson only seemed too eager to promote.

And after he tried to sit down, President Wesson wouldn’t let the moment go.

“Mr. Krekorian please, I have a question.  I don’t remember if I heard you say what Mr. Sach’s statements were.  What were they?”

“I’m not gonna …” Krekorian stammered.

“Were they ‘silly’?” Wesson pressed, to the mirth of most in Chamber.

“I just want to make sure I heard it right,” Wesson persisted.

“Did I only say that twice?” Krekorian asked lamely.

“So you did say it twice that they were ‘silly’,” Wesson concluded.  Krekorian continued to laugh, Wesson lit a smug smile, and chuckles could be heard on the video as they were throughout the Chamber.

What is not so silly now is a $20 million dollar lawsuit that the developer affected by the hasty Council decision brought against the City last week—a lawsuit that in part makes some of the same contentions that the mocked Citizen Sachs made.

“Councilman Alarcon’s ‘rush’ to designate the property as a Historic-Cultural Monument resulted in an illegal designation,” petitioner Snowball West Investments, L.P. thundered in a filing in a Los Angeles County Superior Court on August 7.

“The Defendants’ conduct regarding the Historic-Cultural Monument designation bears no rational relationship to any legitimate state interest and was irrational and wholly arbitrary,” the lawsuit filed on behalf of Snowball says.  “In so acting, Defendants acted either with intent to deprive Snowball of its rights or in reckless disregard for Snowball’s rights.”

The filing also alleges that Alarcon introduced a motion to make part of the golf course an historic-cultural monument just twenty-five days before his own failed election attempt to the State’s Assembly as a way to woo voters, and that Alarcon further refused to talk about the matter with the developer as a final vote by Council loomed, a scant six days before Alarcon left office.

Some at the City were surprised by the lawsuit. “I and others around the table at the working group meeting felt that we had a positive resolution to recognize and interpret the site’s history while not impeding the developer’s ability to seek entitlements for development of the rest of the property,” principal City Planner and manager of the Office of Historic Resources Ken Bernstein, who presided over many of the memorializing committee’s meetings, told me on Monday.

Bernstein had not seen a copy of the lawsuit.  He was careful to note, as the City has been since the matter’s first hearing before the Cultural Heritage Commission, that the developer’s ability to seek entitlements to develop the site would not be impeded by the historic-cultural designation.

In the Villaraigosa years, LA politicians learned an arrogance of power that is coming home to roost only now that the former Mayor is out of office. Council members looked to the way Villaraigosa looked up rather than down and shut out truly inquisitive media and watchdogs to the point that even highly-compensated folks in media had to offer up puff pieces for mere once-a-year access.

Further, a spate of elected officials such as Wesson, Alarcon, Krekorian and Koretz, arriving to City Council from the far more insulated State Assembly, have become increasingly dismissive of civic criticism—often at the City’s expense.

These Councilmembers show little regard for what their insolence might cost the City in legal fees and payouts.

The arrogance of the Councilmembers when dealing with ordinary civic concerns is not limited to torts.  In an Order that ran longer than many Supreme Court rulings, a Federal Court judge ruled last week on matters involving Zuma Dogg, his friend Matt Dowd and some others on the legality of a City Ordinance regulating vendors on the Venice Boardwalk and also whether or not Dogg et al. should have been granted wider berth when practicing their variety of free speech at City Council meetings.

The judge held up the City’s ordinance, but also found that discipline of Dogg et al. during City Council appearances “involves an unconstitutional application of the Rules of Decorum.  The fact that these incidents represented a fraction of Dowd and Dogg’s appearances at City Council Meetings does not mitigate the constitutional violations.”

Dogg et al. have yet to determine if they will attempt to pursue damages.  But God knows how much the City of Los Angeles has already spent defending itself in United States District Court against a two-pronged cross-motion that generated an Order citing a couple dozen cases in itself, running longer than the Supreme Court’s strikedown of the Defense of Marriage Act.  My guess is likely enough to buy Venice boardwalk’s Dogg a Century City penthouse.

The judge also found, in a slap at Alarcon—whose praises were sung by Krekorian when dressing down Sachs—that “discussion of a councilman’s alleged criminal activities is also relevant to a discussion of funding that the City intends to give to that councilman’s district.”

The Order even went on to say that “this incident is exemplary of why it is unconstitutional to restrict speakers from making personal attacks in City Council meetings; it chills speech critical of elected officials, which is speech at the heart of the First Amendment.”

Other recent debacles of City Council and City Government insolence and political posturing that have resulted in costly-to-fight legal battles include Carmen Trutanich’s now settled headlines-grabbing suit against Deutsche Bank as a slum lord (in which the foreign bank was financially exonerated, within a month of Trutanich’s exit from public office) and pending litigation involving the Hollywood Millennium twin skyscraper project, in which the plaintiffs note a similar insolence from electeds.

It has been evident since the first year of the Villaraigosa administration that LA’s City Council has not much valued its meekest voices—the very people who ironically watch its proceedings with the greatest intensity and who so often rail against what they see.


But, as victims of arrogance, rich and poor find avenues of legal redress, even as they are driving lower and lower turnout to polls on election day, City Council’s insolence has not only proven costly to the City, but increasingly so to political careers as well.


Especially at the hands of the voters who retain an understanding of who serves at the pleasure of whom.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)   






Vol 11 Issue 65

Pub: Aug 16, 2013