Cone-y Island: Will Hollywood Enforce Tough Ethics Law?
Last week, the Hollywood Commission considered a measure that would have broadened the "cone of silence" rule for city officials. They rock the cone in Miami -- click here and scroll down for a definition. Basically, when the city puts a project out for bid, the contenders and their supporters (e.g. lobbyists) are forbidden from meeting in private with city officials or discussing the proposal over the phone, as these are interactions create no record, meaning they're more vulnerable to corruption. With the cone, special interests must communicate in writing or at public meetings. This way it all happens in the open.
As I understand it (I heard slightly different versions of this, so an edit may be necessary), Hollywood already has a cone that starts with the opening of the bidding. But last week the Hollywood Commission was considering a modification that would require city officials break off contact even before the bid was put out -- starting with the letter of intent.
As pointed out by Sara Case and Laurie Schecter, editors of Hollywood's muckraking website, The Balance Sheet, the measure failed by the slimmest of margins, 4-3. Commissioner Beam Furr responded with a feeble defense for his vote against the cone. Surely, one of the other anti-cone commissioners could offer a better case?
So I got Commissioner Linda Sherwood on the phone. She's still sore about this post from March. But after we talked it through, I asked her about the cone. She said:
"I personally have no problem with the cone of silence -- at a certain point of time -- but you need to be able to talk to a person to get their viewpoint, and to give them your own. Or to move them toward what Planning and Zoning want. I want them to do what I think is right and what the people want them to do."
But all of those things could be done by email, right? No, Sherwood told me, the cone would forbid her and other city officials to have any contact -- email, letter, or otherwise -- with people seeking to influence city plans on a pending competitive bid.
Umm, I'm still waiting to hear back from Hollywood City Hall on this, but I'm almost positive Sherwood's mistaken. I asked her whether having unfettered email communication with bidders would make her change her mind about the cone of silence.
It would. "If we were able to email back and forth, then I would be fine with it," said Sherwood, speaking of the bigger cone.
So there you have it. Assuming I'm right with my definition of the cone, that email and snail mail is allowed, the measure can be brought at the next meeting. With Sherwood's vote, it will pass.
Voila! Ethics reform.
Another anti-cone voter, Commissioner Patty Asseff, was much harder to convince. "I do have a problem with not being able to solicit," she says, speaking of developers. She also seemed surprised that she would be allowed to do so by email. But then an email might be less effective, and Asseff suggested city reps need every advantage they can get when it comes to luring developers. "Considering the economics of the area, it's not like they're knocking the doors down," she says.
Frankly, though, it's hard to talk seriously about any "cone of silence" when one hears reports about lobbyists making visits to City Hall in defiance of the cone. Making the rule even tougher to enforce is Hollywood's habit of adjusting it according to the project. Seems it would be simpler to have one clear, over-arching policy.
But Sherwood claims a clear conscience on that score. She railed against the Balance Sheet post, which she believed to contain implications that the commissioners who voted against the cone were less ethical.
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"When I meet with a developer, my office door is never closed," says Sherwood. "I personally have an extremely high code of morals, and all I'm looking for is to get information. I'm not looking at who is giving to my campaign."
She mentioned that most conspicuous of campaign contributors, Attorney Alan Koslow, who owns a virtual monopoly on contracts to lobby the commission for developers."I say 'Hello' and 'Goodbye' to Alan Koslow and that's it," says Sherwood. "I have no personal relationship with him whatsoever. They (Koslow and his developer clients, she means) helped my campaign, which I'm grateful for, because they know my character and my view of the city."
This discussion gave me an idea. In the spirit of an open City Hall, I asked Sherwood whether she would let me join her the next time she has a meeting with Koslow (who, incidentally, has not returned calls from this newspaper for years). "Absolutely," she said. I was ecstatic.
Now, I realize that Koslow himself is unlikely to go along with this. And even if he does, I don't expect this future meeting to be nearly as interesting as the ones witnessed by a more literal fly on the wall. All the same, the mere possibility of such access to the corridors of Hollywood power is thrilling. And it didn't cost me a dime in campaign contributions!
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