Lobbying firms with an array of clients needing help from Los Angeles City Hall are vying for a consulting contract on a matter near to City Council members' hearts: redrawing the political boundaries that can affect their power — and their reelection chances.
The council's 21-member Redistricting Commission is slated to vote Tuesday to pay a public relations consultant up to $100,000 to inform residents of the plan to draw new borders for the council's 15 districts.
The top three finalists are registered as lobbyists at City Hall, representing such interests as shopping malls, renewable energy developers and at least one billboard company. That has led some to question whether the tangle of interests between consultants and lawmakers will create a perception problem.
"I don't think this will be viewed as a positive development," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who alleged earlier this month that new maps were being drawn out of public view.
Andrew Westall, the commission's executive director, said nothing legally bars the panel from hiring lobbyists to perform public outreach. Still, redistricting Commissioner Helen Kim said she wished she had known about the lobbying connections before she and her colleagues put forward their recommendations on the consultants Monday.
"It would have been nice if someone raised that issue," she said.
The redistricting panel is looking for someone to craft a media strategy and get the word out — in multiple languages — to scores of neighborhoods. The panel is charged with redrawing council districts to account for population changes reported in the 2010 census.
How the lines are shifted can help or hurt council members, depending on whether they gain or lose supportive constituencies capable of generating votes and campaign cash. Eleven public hearings are scheduled over the next month.
On Monday, three members of the commission's search committee backed Cerrell Associates, a firm with 22 lobbying clients, ranging from concessions at Los Angeles International Airport to billboard company Van Wagner. The other three backed Dakota Communications, whose clients include Westfield, a shopping mall company that is seeking council approval of a 31-acre hotel, retail and office complex in Woodland Hills.
A third company, Diverse Strategies for Organizing, was not recommended. Three commissioners said they felt company representatives had not been forthcoming about a company affiliate's financial ties to redistricting Commissioner Michael Trujillo.
Trujillo is a consultant to California Strategies, a subcontractor of Diverse Strategies. He said he would have recused himself had the proposal come up for a vote. Michael Bustamante, a principal with California Strategies, said he was surprised that Trujillo's work was an issue for the commissioners.
"If I thought it would be, it would have been very easy to disclose. I was surprised that they even asked the question," he said.
Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a watchdog group, doubted the contract would create a conflict of interest for the lobbying firms. But their involvement shows the redistricting process at City Hall is an insider's game, he said. "I guess the question is, aren't there any other PR firms that aren't registered lobbyists?" he added. "It is a big city."
Rick Taylor, a partner with Dakota, said his firm devotes no more than 10% of its time to lobbying. Lisa Gritzner, president of Cerrell, said she sees no connection between her firm's lobbying work and the public relations contract. "There's no agenda other than making sure that folks in Los Angeles have access to the redistricting conversation," she said.
As part of its lobbying work, Cerrell recently bused backers of a Fresh and Easy grocery store in South Los Angeles to City Hall to testify. Dakota shuttled supporters of a proposed Home Depot in Sunland-Tujunga to the council chambers.
Joe Barrett, co-director of the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance, a group that fought the Home Depot proposal, said he would be unhappy to see Dakota representing the redistricting process. "Dakota has a horrible reputation with our community," he said.
Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, an advocacy group that represents tenants, voiced dismay that one of Cerrell's clients is the L.A. chapter of the California Apartment Assn., which has opposed new limits on rent hikes by landlords.
"A firm that represents landlords and has been fighting against rent control…is going to have difficulty winning the trust of renters, who make up more than 60% of L.A. residents," he said.