(Editor’s note: This story ran in the Westside Current on April 20 and is reprinted with permission. As a note: each councilmember receives discretionary funds, and are allowed to spend them on pet projects. This editor had asked former Councilman Mike Bonin repeatedly why Pacific Palisades received no funds and was told that all of Bonin’s funds were going to the homeless – but not the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness. )
By ANGELA MCGREGOR
Between August 5, 2022, and December 28, 2022, former CD11 Councilman Mike Bonin emptied the CD11 discretionary fund and made $127,474.14 in expenditures to a variety of recipients, mostly to nonprofits (see attached chart).
A statement from Councilwoman Traci Park’s office indicated upon taking office in December, it was left lacking funds. “The previous office, at their discretion, spent the prior funds – and we look forward to the new fiscal year with our full funding in July,” the statement from Park’s office read.
The largest single donation Bonin made, $27,500, during that period was to nonprofit developer Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC) on November 17, 2022, the day Park claimed victory in CD11 and Bonin’s chosen successor, Erin Darling, conceded, according to the data from the city.
VCHC is the only recipient on the list who is a real estate developer currently engaged in business with the city, and during Bonin’s tenure they received millions of dollars in developer fees from the City.
There is nothing illegal about the contribution, but it’s not clear why Bonin decided VCHC needed tens of thousands more in city funding; the description of his donation is given only as a “program for people experiencing homelessness.”
VCHC is by far the most prolific developer of taxpayer subsidized, newly constructed affordable housing in Venice.
Last year, the Venice Housing Corporation opened a 34-unit building on Rose Avenue near Lincoln Boulevard which cost nearly $60 million to build, including a $2 million developer fee. (Editor’s note: this is the new building across from Whole Foods. Tents have sprung up on the sidewalk and there are RVs, near this building.)
Venice Community Housing Corporation also has 40 units of HHH-subsidized housing currently under construction on Lincoln Boulevard north of Washington Boulevard estimated to cost more than $20 million.
Another VCHC project, the proposed 140-unit building on the Venice Median near the Venice Public Library and the Venice Canals, is currently awaiting a decision by the California Coastal Commission, which is expected to come this summer. That project – the Venice Dell Community – is expected to cost more than $82 million, including a $3.3 million developer fee to VCHC and $3.9 million for the services of architect Eric Owen Moss.
At the December 1, 2021, Council meeting, it was Bonin, and not the developer, who presented the Venice Median project (in fact, a representative from VCHC was never called upon).
According to the Coalition for Safe Coastal Development’s latest petition, during the hearing “Mr. Bonin himself assumed a combined role of what is normally performed by the Planning Department staff and/or the developer. He presented and advocated for approval of the Project and denial of the land use appeals. Working from his notes about the Project, Mr. Bonin spoke the longest at the hearing.”
For members of the Coalition for Safe Coastal Development [CSCD], the group of Venice neighbors who have been fighting since 2017 to have their concerns about the massive Venice median project addressed, the donation is further evidence of the favoritism they’ve seen shown to the developer by the former City Councilmember since the project was first proposed.
Charles Rosin, a Board member for CSCD, told the Current that it’s “Not at all surprising for Bonin to pad the developers’ pocket before leaving office. Mike has always shown bias through his love for the developer [VCHC] and animus towards his constituents.”
“Venice has never been fairly heard on this project and it took a lawsuit by Safe Coastal to call that out. You shouldn’t have to go to court to be heard,” Rosin continued.
Jack Humphreville, a Neighborhood Council budget advocate, said he’s critical of the lack of transparency regarding these discretionary funds, which are derived from oil pipeline franchise fees, real property trust funds revenues and street furniture revenues and amount to about $46 million distributed unevenly over all 15 council districts.
Humphreville said that while he can see the necessity for council members to be able to designate relatively small amounts of money to, for example, “aid in homelessness in Venice, or give $100,000 to Meals on Wheels…or whatever it is, that’s fine, as long as we know about it.”
Acquiring a comprehensive list of discretionary spending is an onerous process, one requiring either the filing of a California Public Records Act request (as the Current did) or conducting a complex search of the city’s file system, which requires knowing the various account numbers involved. (Editor’s note: CTN has long demanded transparency on Councilmember discretionary funding, but as the Current points out it is an onerous process.)
But Humphreville said he doesn’t find Bonin’s contribution to VCHC particularly problematic. “If he gives money to a housing developer that’s doing affordable housing or permanent supportive housing, from my perspective, that wouldn’t particularly bother me,’ Humphreville said, noting there was nothing preventing any council member from engaging in quid pro quo using these funds, exchanging them for votes or contributions from supporters clients of any given nonprofit. Neither are council members obliged to donate these funds in accordance with their stakeholders’ wishes, he added.
According to city documents, $5,000 of Bonin’s end-of-term discretionary funds were sent to Dignity and Power Now, an organization founded by Patrice Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, which calls for defunding the police.
Bonin sent the same amount to Palms Unhoused Mutual Aid (by way of a directed donation to a registered nonprofit), who describe themselves as an “abolitionist network of care directly working with unhoused communities.” Thousands of dollars in 17 different donations were given to a private company, United Site Services, which provides portable rest rooms.
Mike Bonin did not respond to numerous requests for comment on this story.