The focus of Futch’s story is a “a stinker of a law known as Assembly Bill 2531, which was ghostwritten by Los Angeles’ powerful Community Redevelopment Agency.” As Futch describes the Fuentes-backed bill:
See, the CRA is a semi-autonomous city department that siphons off a portion of property taxes and uses those monies to redevelop “blighted” city neighborhoods. It does that by giving loans to owners — usually development companies who rehabilitate property or tear down existing buildings to erect apartment complexes, hotels or office towers.
It sounds pretty, but AB 2531 also had the potential to displace thousands of minority and poor L.A. residents—and wipe out huge swaths of nonblighted Los Angeles—through a land grab disguised as redevelopment.
The CRA has the power to declare eminent domain over blighted areas. According to the original wording of AB 2531 that Fuentes put his name on, “blight” would be expanded to a radical new definition: those unhealthy neighborhoods with “high incidences of obesity, diabetes and other diseases which are affected by poor access to fresh food” or places where there are “high incidences of asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases which are affected by air pollution or the presence of contaminated properties,” and, lastly, areas “that suffer from a lack of parks and open space.”
The argument goes that Fuentes was supporting a bill that would redefine blight in a way that would give the CRA power to redevelop minority areas. Futch was surprised when Fuentes actually agreed to talk for the story, a decision that led to some rather interesting exchanges:
“There’s nothing wrong with generating ideas from different sources,” he says. “I’m not an attorney and I’m not the best writer and I depend on the city people,” meaning the Los Angeles city officials and civil bureaucrats who are actually writing the bills on which Fuentes puts his name. “There isn’t a monopoly on good ideas. I’ll take them from anyone.”
Futch’s report is pretty explicit about his intention to do work the Sacramento press corps has for the most part failed to do. In the story itself, Futch writes, “Legislators who front for the ghostwriters pass themselves off as high-achieving lawmakers—an image that’s allowed to stand by the mostly silent Sacramento press corps.” He quotes de Sa to make the point:
When de Sa started working on her newspaper’s online database, which any member of the public can use to look up the most compromised of the state’s legislators, Capitol workers—including reporters—“would say, ‘Sponsored bills? Well, duh. It’s the way things are done,’” de Sa says. “I’ve never worked in the Capitol. But people in the Capitol who work there and who cover the Capitol have become far too jaded and accustomed to lobbyists pushing bills. Some of the [legislative] staff does work for lobbyists and the lobbyists become de facto legislators. [Legislative staff and the media] have accepted as routine what we as outsiders would think is a shockingly unethical way of doing business.”
The Sacramento Bee’s Walters takes issue with the Mercury News and L.A. Weekly reports on two fronts. Firstly, he says, the sponsorship process is transparent, with the sponsor of the bill noted on a document known as the bill analysis. “Are legislators supposed to dream bills up out of their own head?” asks Walters. “It’s the same in Congress and in every legislative body in the country. Sometimes the lobbyist’s intention is legitimate and sometimes it’s nefarious. Figuring out which is which is the job of the press corps.”
Secondly, Walters, who writes regularly about redevelopment and includes the names of bill sponsors in his reporting—“Newspapers always say who the sponsor is; it’s boilerplate basically”—says that the L.A. Weekly actually missed the more public-serving story in choosing to go after Fuentes as an individual. “The story is that this development agency wanted to change the nature of ‘blight’ in Los Angeles for some specific reason,” Walters told me over the phone from Sacramento. “The story was to find out the specific reason—usually a shopping center, factory, sports arena. The fact that this run-of-the-mill journeyman assemblyman carried the thing is really beside the point. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else from L.A. because the CRA wanted somebody to bring this bill. The real story is why.”