Little Need for WikiLeaks to Reveal City Hall’s Skulduggery

MEASURE S … A PLANNER’S ANALYSIS--In the past few days the foreign media, like the Guardian, and even most of the U.S. media, have blasted out the story of the 9,000 CIA hacking documents that WikiLeaks made public after redacting critical information. 

Based on press reports, these documents reveal a long list of cyber tools that invade computers, cell phones, and smart TVs. The release’s long-term impact is hard to know, but before WikiLeaks went public with this information, one scholar already concluded that World War III would likely be a cyber-war. 

In the words of the University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy, a WW III conflict between the United States and China will end with an electronic whimper, not a bang: 

As the Chinese virus spreads uncontrollably through the F-6 satellite architecture, while those second-rate U.S. supercomputers fail to crack the malware’s devilishly complex code, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of U.S. ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised. Carrier fleets begin steaming in circles in the mid-Pacific. Fighter squadrons are grounded. Reaper drones fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing when their fuel is exhausted. Suddenly, the United States loses what the U.S. Air Force has long called “the ultimate high ground”: space. Within hours, the military power that had dominated the globe for nearly a century has been defeated in World War III without a single human casualty.  

But, without WikiLeaks and Professor McCoy, in Los Angeles we can figure out the city’s deep politics and players without a City Hall deep throat. Even though Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, lost in the March 7 election, it allowed us to learn the following about the inner workings of LA’s urban growth machine:  

  • Based on the extensive research of the Los Angeles Times and Patrick McDonald for Measure S, real estate developers and City Hall’s elected officials engage in extensive pay-to-play. We now know who exactly make the payments, who receives the payments, and what goes on between them: money buys discretionary planning and zoning approvals. 
  • We also have a better idea of what these many land use entitlements are worth to property owners and investors, although more research would be helpful for the certain planning-related fights to come. 
  • We also know who financed the no on S campaign to ensure that the cozy and lucrative status quo continues. The big funders were 10 large real estate companies, who openly contributed $8 to $10 million. Furthermore, their accomplice was Rusty Hicks, the well-paid director of the LA County Federation of Labor, who ponied up more than a $1 million of his members’ dues. According to the LA Times, Hicks is also close to Parke Skelton whose SG&A firm lead the campaign against Measure S. 
  • We also know that the no on S campaign strategy focused on LA’s housing crisis, an approach SG&A gleaned from focus groups. 
  • For that matter, reading between the lines, we also know the “economic” theory that the no on S funders wear as a fig leaf to justify their private greed. It is neo-liberalism, especially its belief in trickle-down economics. Its other principles are deregulation of land use and elimination of Federal and CRA urban programs, except for policing. Even though City Hall’s elected officials are nearly all corporate Democrats, they are fully onboard with this once Republican approach to municipal governance. 
  • For that matter, without WikiLeaks the no on S campaign also revealed another supporting player for their “urban growth machine.” These are the non-profits that the SG&A campaign operatives drew into their top-down “coalition.” 
  • We also learned about the contentious role of the non-profits. They maintain the status quo by (inadvertently) putting balm on the wounds created by their affluent funders and board members, especially those who maximize profits through real estate speculation. 

While the supporters and staff of the non-profits usually have the best of intentions, they rarely examine the cause of the problems they address, such as real estate speculation. Likewise, because of their close relationship to their funders, they have incrementally absorbed their trickle-down theories. As result, the non-profits no longer call for the restoration of slashed urban programs or local laws regulating land use. Even though it is still too early to know which non-profits experienced direct economic pressure to oppose Measure S, the broad outline is already visible. Most of them are ideologically lined up with the large real estate companies and City Hall politicians who ardently campaigned against Measure S. 

How should we now use all of this information? 

One of the most useful long-term lessons from this campaign was, “There are no permanent defeats, and no permanent victories.” I interpret this to mean several things: 

First, the election results are obvious; the status quo prevailed, so the no on S boosters now need to put up or shut up. Based on what we have learned, my crystal ball tells me to expect the following, all of which conflicts with their often-vituperative no on S message. 

  • City Hall's soft corruption will hardly miss a beat. 
  • Despite a glut of luxury housing, home prices and rents will continue to rise until the next great recession hits and/or rampant foreign speculative investments in local real estate dries up. 
  • As for LA’s housing crisis, the city’s inclusionary zoning programs, existing and proposed, will not keep up with the loss of affordable housing through demolitions, displacement, and gentrification. 
  • Ditto for Measure JJJ since its loopholes will prevail over it promises. 
  • Measure HHH will also prove to be a disappointment. Cronies will get fat contracts through insider deals, followed by relaxed scrutiny. 
  • Traffic congestion will worsen because nearly all new projects, both by-right and spot-zoned mega-projects, are automobile-centric. 
  • Bicyclists will still face dangerous roads with serious accidents because LA is not following the example of cities, like NYC, where the City builds separated bicycle lanes. 

Second, the resurgent status quo creates enormous opportunities for the organization, energy, and knowledge that the Yes of S campaign mobilized to morph into a permanent organization, such as United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles. Even without a City Hall WikiLeaks, we know more than enough to take on many important tasks, such as: 

  • Strategic support for the many future local campaigns against City Council approved but un-planned mega-projects. 
  • Networking these local ad hoc organizations together into a permanent, citywide organization focused on good city planning, especially through the (promised) updates of the General Plan’s different elements. 
  • Strengthening CityWatch and other alternative news and information outlets so they can engage in relentless exposes of City Hall’s continued skullduggery, including pay-to-play and the exceedingly poor planning outcomes it inflicts on Los Angeles neighborhoods and residents. 
  • Developing a progressive planning agenda based on three principles: sustainability, equity, and community-based planning. In future columns I will attempt to flesh-out this agenda, such as a focus on public improvements in lieu of private real estate deals. 

Your help is greatly appreciated in all of these efforts.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. Comments and corrections invited at  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.