February 3, 2012
As Los Angeles experienced unprecedented growth at the turn of the last century, the need for carefully constructed development policies became increasingly apparent. Contrasting demands from economic interests and the city’s residents gave rise to a divide that would challenge politicians for decades to come. Early legislation often favored business and investors in an effort to continue the city’s growth. As alliances grew stronger between politicians and private interests, corruption became a recurring theme in decision making. However, many arguments can be made that city officials were acting in the city’s best interest as a whole, which suggests that we should reconsider our definition of corruption by taking a closer look at every facet of the issue.
Demographic growth and industrial expansion in the late 1800s into the early 1900s produced lots of environmental degradation to the growing city. The city’s political system was not adequate to deal with environmental problems. Political machines and rampant corruption dominated city government. At this time, the constituents were not readily considered when making decisions and government official were mostly out for their own well-being. As is the incentive even today for many of the politicians, the government officials wanted money and would entertain corrupt business offers. Not only were their practices corrupt, but they brought harm to the residents, their constituents.
Gas plants had frequent explosions, and leaked oil into the streets. There were protests against the establishment of gas plants. There was unresponsive service when it came to municipal trash pick-up. People spoke up against nearby slaughterhouses, and still the local government took no action, because these industries were working in their favor and bringing money into the city. The city was becoming an industrial haven not suited for human life and understandably, locals were getting upset. Eventually a politician by the name of James Davenport was recalled, inspiring other politicians to get their acts together, if even only for a brief amount of time following the recall. Local media outlets, specifically the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Express, aided the quest to eliminate the crooked politicians.
The red cars established in 1901 served the areas of Los Angeles, encompassing Long Beach, San Fernando, Riverside and San Pedro. As new lines spread throughout the L.A. basin, new cities began springing up, persisting the trend of growth and, even more environmentally significant, sprawl. As the sprawl of city began to fragment, each section faced their own problems, especially environmentally related concerns. Everyone got poor service when it came to garbage collection, but east LA was fighting the incinerators. West LA was fighting debates on the oil extracting. Everyone had their battle to face, and even more, fight for the selfish politicians to actually support their constituents. Slowly, with the help of the local newspapers, the corruption began to turn around and reform groups fighting for specific ideals began to be established.As interests in coastal oil drilling surged during the early years of the century, issues of political corruption began to plague more than just the LA Basin. Disputes about land ownership and development rights contributed to the growing rift between state and local governments, as both parties adamantly supported measures they felt would lead California to prosperity. The events that unfolded in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach in particular highlight the complexity of factors that influenced policy decisions and raise an important question about how we define the boundary between true corruption versus simply acting in the state’s best interest.
California’s fiscal crisis and the outrage following questionable development decisions in Los Angeles put great pressure on politicians to reconcile public and private demands. Many of those in higher positions campaigned against efforts to open state owned coastal lands to drilling, perhaps partially to distance themselves from those responsible for Los Angeles’s ongoing battle. With the majority of their constituents supporting coastal preservation, both surveyor general Kingsbury and governor Rolf decided that protection of the coast, a public good, would provide greater sustained benefits than drilling. To counter oil companies’ claims that California would be missing out on a lot of revenue by only allowing drilling on privately owned lands, they cited both the oversaturation of the oil market which had driven prices unreasonably low as well as the royalties laws that were far too low to make a dent in California’s debt.
Backed by legitimate concerns and supported by the public, Rolf and Kingsbury acted with arguably few ulterior motives, keeping the focus on the public’s best interest. However not everyone saw it that way, a fact that became especially apparent within the Huntington Beach City Council. Fearing that state leaders were in an alliance with the Standard Oil Company, the council saw protection measures as a cover for corruption that would favor private gains at the expense of the state and allow for monopoly control of the oil market. Though a link was never firmly proven, it is possible that some questionable dealings occurred, as suggested by Rolf’s slightly preferential treatment of Standard Oil in later lawsuits.
As with any city facing financial difficulties, Huntington Beach council officials sought to escape this burden however possible. They saw coastal lands as a prime source of revenue that would boost both local and state economies and attract the type of investment that would allow the city to grow and thrive. When frustrated oil companies took to digging illegally slanted wells to harvest oil pools under state lands, the council supported them. This choice was quickly validated as vast quantities of oil were harvested daily, without any degradation of state beaches. However, it would be easy to point out the corruption here, given the blatant support of unlawful activities.
These opposing positions suggest that there is no clear cut way to define what is corrupt and what is not. Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Rolf and Kingsbury and the city officials each felt that they were acting in the best interests of the people, so it is difficult to criticize them too harshly. However, it is evident that other factors influenced each party’s demands and occasionally these factors likely involved some personal benefit. The final outcome of allowing slanted drilling with payment of royalties is an obvious violation of state property rights, but it would be difficult to condemn this decision since it also found an unlikely compromise between beach conservation and private oil interests. What we can take from this is that corruption certainly still exists, but growing environmental, economic, and public concerns have complicated policymaking and it is not as easy as it once was to determine what course of action would benefit the greatest number of interests.
Deverell, William Francis., and Greg Hise. “Pollution and Public Policy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2005. 78-94.
This post was written by Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies; and Marisa Spinella ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies with a minor in Architecture.