Webb of Connections.
Gerald addresses Councilmember Steve Webb’s response to Gerald’s last column.
I still believe that Councilmembers Steve Webb and Linda Briskman should recuse themselves from voting on the Montage hotel proposal. It appears to me that it is not appropriate to ask the public to trust either of them to be impartial, because they owe significant political debts to Judie Fenton.
As loyal readers will remember, Judie Fenton heads a company called “FTA”, which is being paid by the developer for public relations to get the project approved. She is also married to our City Treasurer, Frank Fenton, who appears to be making little or no effort to analyze and comment on the economic risk to the City.
In my last column (“Helping David Fight Goliath”, Issue #239), I argued that Councilmembers Webb and Briskman should recuse themselves from voting on the Montage proposal, because they “previously paid FTA to run their election campaigns, and will probably hire FTA when they run for re-election…”
In response to my last column, the editor of this newspaper was informed that Judie and FTA were not paid for their services rendered to the election campaigns of Councilmembers Webb and Briskman. Last week I was out of town (in East Montageville, otherwise known as Las Vegas), so I had no time to write a column. However, the Weekly published a prominent and appropriate correction in my absence.
First, I want to explain the genesis of my mistake. I am not paid to write this column; however, I am a perfectionist. I hate it when there is a typographical error, and am forlorn on those rare occasions where there is a factual mistake.
When I was doing my research, I reviewed FTA’s website, which listed the Webb and Briskman city council campaigns under the heading of “Clientele.” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “clientele” as a “body of clients”. The same dictionary defines “client” as “a person who engages the professional advice or services of another” and also includes the word “customer” as a synonym. I should have considered the possibility of clients who do not pay, known in the legal profession as “pro-bono” clients.
I also relied on the following statement on FTA’s website: “FTA creatively establishes campaign formats, platforms and strategies to effectively promote the election of the candidate. Both financial and technical support is a part of each plan.” See www.ftaevents.com/profile.htm. To me, this sounded a lot like what a for-profit company would do, but I did not consider the possibility that something else might be going on, as I will discuss below.
At first glance, it sounds good that Judie Fenton was not paid for engineering the successful election campaigns of Councilmembers Webb and Briskman. However, if you think about it, you will realize that this provides additional grounds for them to recuse themselves from voting on the Montage project.
I believe that if someone “gives” you services that would normally cost thousands of dollars, then to some extent you “owe” them. As stated in my last column, on the night that he took office, Councilmember Webb thanked his family then thanked Judie Fenton for “a flawless campaign.” This strongly suggests that Judie Fenton was very important to Councilmember Webb’s victory and that he continues to owe her a huge political debt.
Some people have told me that they think that the reason that Judie Fenton runs so many campaigns “without charge” is that she ultimately gets paid a lot more from her developer clients due to her powerful influence over the politicians who owe her. I don’t know if this is true. It is at least theoretically possible that FTA donates thousands of dollars worth of free services purely to help elect candidates who Judie believes will do a good job, and that no favors are ever expected or given. However, I don’t believe that the public should be expected to take comfort in this idealistic but arguably naive theory.
Anyone who understands human nature can understand the difficulty of being impartial when asked to judge a dispute where a close friend or ally represents one side. When faced with such a situation, some people would bend over backwards to be impartial by aggressively questioning the position of the friend. However, this has not happened here, and Councilmembers Webb and Briskman have not publicly raised any concerns that might be reasons to stop the project.
Furthermore, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, it makes sense to have a code of ethics that addresses situations like this, and that errs on the side of protecting the public’s interest in assuring impartial decision making by our elected officials.
Councilmember Webb’s campaign website lists a platform that includes a promise to “[g]enerate a “Code of Ethics for current and retiring Council members”. See www.electwebb.com/positivevision.html.
I believe that Section One of such code should say that if someone who was a key player (if not THE key player) in getting you elected is representing a developer, you should recuse yourself. The public deserves decisions that are impartial, and we should not have to trust that you are bending over backwards to be impartial, especially as to a project that will involve more than $50 million of dollars of taxpayer assets benefiting a private developer. In fact, this situation is especially disturbing, because a majority of the City Council appears to be anxiously bending over for the Montage project, but not backwards.
In his letter to the editor last week, Councilmember Webb’s main argument was that even before the Montage came along, the City was already “considering the building of a plaza with subterranean parking and a “liner” building at the city’s own cost.” I have no doubt that this is true, but I would be surprised if such plan ignored the potential future development of the adjoining parcels that are now controlled by the Montage developer.
However, even you to buy this argument, there is still the problem of scale. If your family debates about a pet and decides on a Labrador retriever, is it appropriate for your wife and kid to come back from the pet store with a 140 pound St. Bernard who is going to bark all night and create huge amounts of unpleasant by-products?
If you have a large enough yard, then a St. Bernard might make sense. However, the Montage project, including the City’s 6/14ths of the land, is only approximately 2.5 acres. That’s a very small parcel to hold a 228 room luxury hotel, banquet space for at least 571 people, two restaurants, retail space, 33 luxury condominiums and at least 1,000 parking spaces.
The Montage is a St. Bernard that needs to go back to the pet store, because the yard is clearly too small for this traffic generating behemoth. I believe that most people would be happy to live with something that is in scale with the site and that would generate a reasonable amount of traffic, something more like a 60 pound Labrador retriever (assuming that three stories equals 60 pounds, then 7 stories equals 140 pounds).
Councilmember Webb’s letter to the editor also contained a revealing admission in his explanation as to why the plan for a Labrador retriever was dropped. Mr. Webb stated that “[s]ubsequently, the City Council believed that a hotel project would be of greater benefit for the City. At some point thereafter, the City commenced its discussions with [the developer].”
Implicit in Councilmember Webb’s statement is the fact that without public debate, the City Council decided that it wanted a hotel to be built on the adjacent property, which has lead to a huge investment of time, money and resources by the City and the developer. In my opinion, the City Council made up its collective mind a long time ago, and it would be very difficult for any member of the Council to reverse course at this late date and be impartial.
As before, I believe that a referendum or initiative needs to occur, so that the people of Beverly Hills can decide their own fate. Even if this costs $70,000 in election administration expenses, it will represent a tiny fraction of the more than $50 million of City assets that are being offered up to the Montage with a similar level of acumen as when the Indians sold Manhattan.
Next week, the plot will thicken. Can you guess which member of the City Council previously recused himself/herself under very similar circumstances? Next week I will provide the answer.