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The Farmers Field Saga: Hide and CEQA

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Last month I went to a special meeting of the Independent Cities Association, a group of LA County cities working together on any number of issues, including promoting the important policy of local control. The special meeting was held at a Downtown LA restaurant and a presentation was made by AEG representatives to promote their Farmers Field football stadium project. After the presentation, the AEG reps answered questions and dinner was served.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that it turns out the dinner was paid for by AEG. I didn't know about it in advance and there's nothing illegal about it, especially as all the elected officials, myself included, will have to disclose it on their "Statement of Economic Interest" 700 forms. After the discussion and dinner, the ICA executive board, of which I'm not a member, went into closed session and voted unanimously to support the Farmers Field project.

Nothing wrong with showing support for the project as the ICA did, but the state Assembly went one step further by passing special legislation this week to expedite the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process for Farmers Field.

This was a mistake.

Don't get me wrong: the mistake isn't the project itself nor AEG. The mistake is advocating special legislation to benefit one specific project. That's just not fair, and while those familiar with the undue influence of lobbyists in getting favors throughout all levels of government might roll their eyes and think "Get real, son," I happen to believe that fairness is a highly underestimated commodity and undeservedly so. Fairness unfairly has a bad rap. Our parents may have told us "Life's not fair," but they should have added the corollary: "So we need to work extra hard in our daily lives to make sure that it's as fair as possible. And that includes the government."

First to the project: the dual-use stadium/convention center hall seems very attractive and it could, indeed, be a boon for the downtown area and for the region in general. It's certainly worth looking at, and, likely much more than that. Ultimately, it's in LA so it's LA's decision, and in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) the LA City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the project. This decision should be respected.

The problem is not AEG. AEG is an amazing company with talented professionals, incredible business skills, first-rate operational expertise -- and on top of that, I understand that many of their executives are great dancers. Their political connections are legendary and to say they are smooth operators would be an understatement. They've been a good corporate citizen, and even though they've cut some great deals with LA, they have also tried to give back to the community.

But the question at hand is not whether the Farmers Field project is good or whether AEG is a good corporate citizen, the question is much simpler: should we be granting CEQA exceptions or mitigations for individual projects?

There is no doubt that CEQA is sometimes abused. Its main abuse seems to be in businesses looking to stifle a potential competitor -- and AEG has every reason to be concerned that the competing NFL proposal in the City of Industry will mount some major legal challenges. However, CEQA can also be abused by unneighborly residents who simply want to stick it to their own neighbors.

Yet for all its flaws, CEQA serves a fundamental and important purpose, which is to specify the impacts or potential impacts of a project on the environment and to allow policy-makers to require mitigations or, alternatively, to make statements of overriding considerations -- in other words, to be politically accountable to the electorate.

The main purpose of CEQA was not to create more red tape when Mrs. Jones wants to expand her living room or Mr. Goldstein wants to add a balcony to his house, but to assess the environmental impacts of major projects -- of which a football stadium would be about the most prime of examples.

While the state legislature all too often, trampling on the principles of local control, seems to usurp decision-making from the municipalities, CEQA and statewide environmental protections are, in my opinion, legitimately the sphere of the statewide authority. Otherwise, it would be all too easy for municipalities to use lax environmental standards in an effort to attract business. But the state legislature should not be making a-la-carte accommodations for developers with juice or for politically popular projects. Such a-la-carte legislation fails the fairness test.

A couple of years ago -- also in the name of "job creation" -- the proposed NFL stadium project in the City of Industry was itself granted special legislation which effectively dismissed outstanding environmental challenges to that project. Quite understandably, AEG looks at that exemption as a precedent for its own special legislation. Yet this is a very slippery slope: it opens the doors to any project which has the potential to create jobs (and that would be most of them) to look to the precedents created by the state legislature and to try to get their very own special legislation.

The proper response for the legislature now should not be to pass special legislation for Farmers Field or other massive projects. The proper response would be for the legislature to rescind the CEQA exemption for the City of Industry project. If the legislature sees a need to reform CEQA to stop abuse of the process without weakening the reasonable built-in environmental protections which are supposed to be behind CEQA, then that's well and good. But such reform should apply equally to everyone.

The legislature has a serious trust problem with the people of California and part of the reason is the stranglehold that special interests seem to have on getting special legislation passed, as well as the opaqueness of backdoor deals that seem to permeate Sacramento. By bringing back the concept of "justice for all," the State legislature could take a step in the direction of reestablishing some modicum of trust with its electorate.

Before you start accusing me of being a blue-eyed optimist, let me confidently state: of course, it ain't gonna happen.

LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich recently suggested that whatever exceptions AEG receives should also apply to hospitals, schools and libraries. Certainly these projects can lay claim to a public benefit, and, of course, there are other private projects which can also legitimately be seen to create jobs or provide other public benefits. Should they also get special accommodations or a CEQA cut-in-line pass?

The State Senate's response to the Assembly's Farmer Field bill would not expedite the CEQA process for everyone, but only for massive projects which have the most and biggest potential impacts. The Senate's proposal is to allow the governor to pick $100+ million projects to put on the CEQA fast track. This "and justice for some" approach doesn't really help the little guy, now does it?

As said, this is a matter of fairness -- or it should be. As things are playing out, it seems like it's going to be a matter of Realpolitik instead. Jobs are important, of course, but a "Jobs über alles" attitude can lead to unfair exceptions and to straying from the important reasonable environmental protections we all deserve, just as the "job killer" label can be overused in attempts to subvert needed environmental protections. It's all about achieving the right balance, and -- I know, I know -- that's easier said than done.

But we should at least try, shouldn't we?

AEG alleged that Antonovich has a bone to pick with them because his wife allegedly is embroiled in a financial dispute with one of AEG's affiliates in China. Political Yoda Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies said, "I certainly would have advised him not to take the lead on this. It looks bad." Perhaps. But it looks even worse if nobody takes the lead on this, and if Antonovich shouldn't be leading the charge, then, well, somebody should. I'd even go so far as to presume that the supervisor has raised the issue because he thinks it is a question of good government, in the same way that some recipients of AEG's lobbyist largesse presumably are also supporting AEG's request because they feel it's the right thing to do -- not because they are engaging in political payback towards a major donor.

Again, for the sake of full disclosure, and as much as I admire the organization, I have to reveal that I have my own bone to pick with AEG. If that disqualifies my calls for CEQA fairness, then please be the judge of that yourselves. But I must admit I am extremely disappointed that AEG's plans for Farmers Field don't include provisions for playing Aussie rules football. For all their sports success throughout the world, AEG just hasn't done enough, in my opinion, to enlighten American sports fans who don't know what they're missing with Australian rules football, also known as "footy."

AEG has a whole division devoted to soccer. In fact, they own Hammarby, a soccer team in Stockholm, which is an entrenched rival to Djurgården, the Swedish soccer club I happen to support. (Do I sense yet another conflict of interest here?) Beyond their ownership of the despised "Bajen" (as Hammarby is lovingly known by their devoted fans), with all the resources they devote to spreading the gospel of soccer, AEG has done nothing, to my knowledge, to promote the development here of Aussie rules football. If soccer is "the beautiful game," footy is "the awesome game." I'm very disappointed by this negligence on the part of AEG in regard to one of the absolute best sports in the world. There -- I said it. Not sure what Bob Stern would have to say about all of this, but I hope this at least sets the record straight, and that my suggestions can be taken in context.

With my own disclosures now out in the open, my suggestion to the legislature would be to effect meaningful CEQA reform now and to streamline the process without jettisoning reasonable environmental standards. For everybody. This would benefit the entire state, not just one particular group. Barring that, when it comes to Farmers Field -- or any other individual development project, for that matter -- the legislature should let the entire CEQA process play itself out. Let's see what the EIR says. Let's look at the impacts. Let's put into place the mitigations.

The Assembly was able to gain "concessions" from AEG in the form of additional green goodies -- such as commitments towards reducing the number of people going to the stadium/convention center by car. That seems to be nothing more than an instance of the kind of gimmickry for which the California State legislature has become famous. Clearly, it is already within the purview of the LA City Council to require these kinds of environmental mitigations -- all these green goodies and more, if they so desire -- in the development agreement with AEG. This should, in fact, be a matter of local control. But special treatment within the state legislature for individual projects, even with the rationalization of some cool new environmental goodies, well, it's just not the best way to deal with this issue, it's just not good government, and it's just not fair.

Unfortunately, because of all the spheres and streams of influence, we can expect the legislature -- yet again -- to do the wrong thing, as was the case when the City of Industry project got its special legislation. It's a done deal, I'm guessing, and the governor -- who under the Senate version of the bill will have the power to pick and choose his pet projects for CEQA fast-tracking -- will soon sign the reconciled bill. And so I wish AEG the greatest success in their Farmers Field endeavor: may it be successful for both your company and for the entire region, with a minimum of negative impacts -- and may you guys finally see the light when it comes to footy.

Perhaps when the Farmers Field project does get built, as it surely will, and we finally do have an NFL team in LA, we can look to the state Capitol for special legislation to ensure the success of the newly-minted LA team. How about a law mandating that the LA team gets five downs, while the opponents only get three? Why not? Even if there are seemingly no lengths to which the legislature, backed by the political machine, are not willing to go to bring back pro football to LA, it seems crystal clear that they're not overly concerned with creating any kind of a level playing field.