When organizers of the UCLA Extension Land Use Law and Planning Conference sponsored sessions on ethics in previous years, yawns and frequent checking of cell phones was the overwhelming response.

They expect a far more engaged audience this year for the session titled "Unringing the Bell: When Land Use Decision Making and Ethics Collide."

The 25th annual Land Use Law and Planning Conference is scheduled for Friday, January 21, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. About 400 planners, attorneys, development professionals and government officials are expected to attend the day-long session that will also address recent and proposed legislation, SB 375, CEQA developments and other topics. 

Land use has not been a major part of the ugly stories coming out of Bell – where elected and appointed officials enriched themselves with public funds – and Vernon – which has been run like a private fiefdom for decades. However, land use is at the center of upcoming trials for three former San Bernardino County officials related to a $102 million county settlement with an Upland developer and major campaign donor. And it's easy to see that the land use planning and entitlement processes are ripe for corruption because there is so much money at stake for private parties.

"The concern is that these are bellwether cases, but they are not isolated," said San Gabriel City Manager Steven Preston, who will moderate the ethics panel. He and the other participants intend to ask audience members to submit anonymous questions about ethics issues they have encountered. The panel will also build a scenario for how someone might start slipping down a slippery ethical slope.

Scheduled for the panel are Sonia Carvalho, a partner with the Best, Best & Krieger law firm and the city attorney for Claremont; City of Clovis Deputy City Planner David Fey; and David Snow, an attorney with Richards, Watson & Gershon. All three bring a different perspective to the issues, Preston noted.

A different lawyer from Carvalho's firm served as city attorney in Bell and has been implicated in the scandal. Although Carvalho won't be addressing the Bell situation directly, Preston said she is a frequent speaker on ethics issues.

Fey lived through Operation Rezone, a federal sting in Clovis and Fresno during the late 1990s that resulted in 16 convictions of public officials and developers. Fey can address the situation in a jurisdiction where large-scale growth is expected, Preston said.

The city attorney in Beverly Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes, Snow is familiar with pending state legislation and well-versed in the American Planning Association code of ethics.

"We've had ethics panels in the past, and they didn't draw much attention," said Preston. In 2006, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley talked about the activities of his local government corruption unit. But Cooley is not the most compelling speaker, and the atmosphere was much less charged then.

When the ethics discussion gets started at this year's conference, I bet everyone will put down the smart phone and listen.

– Paul Shigley