Mayor James Butts Accused of Hypocrisy Given Previous Allegations Against Opposition

There’s a clever term occasionally used in politics: “astroturfing.” Per an online political dictionary, the word refers to “an artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grassroots activism” – akin to actual AstroTurf, which is artificial turf manufactured to look like grass.

The latest local example of political astroturfing involves the proposal to build a Los Angeles Clippers basketball arena in Inglewood. The city’s Mayor, James Butts, has repeatedly alleged astroturfing tactics are being used by community opponents of that proposal.

Mayor James Butts public attack on Inglewood Residents Against Takings and Evictions
Mayor James Butts repeatedly launches public attacks on his opposition similar to this one, posted to Facebook in early March.

As recently as the morning of March 9, 2018, he posted on comment on Facebook asserting, “there is a financed opposition to the Clipper project” that is “PAYING A FEW LOCAL PEOPLE TO AGITATE AGAINST [IT]” (caps not mine). In that comment, he specifically called out Inglewood Residents Against Takings and Evictions (IRATE), who sued the City in July 2017 to stop the arena project.

The Mayor’s claims have not been substantiated. But there’s now evidence that Mayor Butts himself has engaged in astroturfing and even used City resources to promote a deceptive website paid for by the Clippers.

The website in question, Inglewood Forward, features professional photos of smiling kids and Inglewood business owners. The header reads in part: “Inglewood Forward is a coalition of local residents, community leaders and business owners.”

Navigate to the “Who We Are” page and you’ll find rows of headshots, the majority of which are professionally taken. At first glance, they appear to be a group of Inglewood residents who have come together to support a shared agenda. But a closer look reveals about a quarter of the people shown are either paid by the City government or are appointed by the Mayor and City Council to various governmental commissions. Several others are current or former members of the Inglewood Airport Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, a business advocacy group that works closely with the Inglewood city government.

Mayor Butts features prominently on the website and on a glossy mailer that was sent to Inglewood residents. In speaking to individuals affiliated with Inglewood Forward, it seems the Mayor was important in bringing the project together. One person called him the “major player” behind Inglewood Forward, while another said he “chose” people to join. Indeed, some parts of the website read like PR for Mr. Butts.

“The city audited and revamped its Residential Sound Insulation Program after Mayor Butts took office in 2011. It is now the number one program of its kind in the nation, having successfully insulated more than 4,000 homes in the last three years,” reads the “Transportation and Infrastructure” page, one of five information pages on the site.

The assertions made on these five separate pages, which cover topics like “Public Safety” and “Affordable Housing,” often have hyperlinks to sources. A majority of those sources are either the Mayor’s 2016 “State of the City” address or a radio interview he did in Nov 2017.

The polished design and laudatory praise of the Mayor’s tenure in Inglewood caused some to question the site’s legitimacy. A pamphlet recently left on Inglewood residents’ doors read “Who is Inglewood Forward?” It went on allege the project was a “taxpayer-funded front group,” noting the website’s listed street address is the same as a PR company, The Robert Group, who the City paid $300,000 in an uncompetitive Nov 2016 contract. I spoke to an employee of the Robert Group whose headshot appears on the Inglewood Forward website. She denied the firm created the site.

An edit made to the Inglewood Forward website last week answers the question of its funding. In the site’s footer, which appears at the bottom of each page, a sentence was added: “Funding for this communication has been provided by Murphy’s Bowl LLC.”

Murphy’s Bowl LLC is the company representing the Clippers in negotiations with the City.

Inglewood Forward Website Screenshots; TOP: no mention of Murphy's Bowl LLC; BOTTOM: Murphy's Bowl relationship disclosed
Screenshots a few days apart from the Inglewood Forward website. Note that Murphy’s Bowl LLC is not mentioned in the March 5 capture.

Despite admittedly being bankrolled by wealthy outsiders – an allegation the Mayor has made pejoratively about other community groups with no evidence – Inglewood Forward was publicized on the front page of the City of Inglewood’s official website in the “Inglewood News” section.

The post, first published in early January, has since been deleted, though screenshots confirm its previous existence. Its thumbnail, titled “inglewood-forward.jpg,” remains uploaded to the City of Inglewood’s website and is the same image splashed across the front page of the Inglewood Forward website.

Screenshot from the City of Inglewood website showing how the advertisement for Inglewood Forward appeared on the front page of the City's website.
Screenshot from the City of Inglewood website showing how the advertisement for Inglewood Forward appeared on the front page of the City’s website. The post has since been removed, but the thumbnail seen in this image is still uploaded to the site.

Edward Walker, Vice Chair of the UCLA Sociology Department, has studied astroturfing extensively and is author of the book “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.” In a phone interview, he said that while astroturfing campaigns have become quite common, he’s never heard of a city government directly collaborating with such an effort.

“I’ve been tracking this for a number of years now,” he said. “Usually there is a significant amount of distance between the policymakers and the people who are running these campaigns. […] Putting it on a city government website is something I don’t know if I’ve seen before. Obviously enough, that just raises all kinds of conflict of interest questions.”

Bobby Bhagat, an Inglewood resident whose family partially owns and lives in a hotel located in the proposed arena site, pointed out the apparent duplicity in Inglewood Forward’s funding source given the Mayor Butts’ previous public accusations.

“It’s very hypocritical for the Mayor to insinuate that all opposition to the arena is chalked up to an outsider or funded by [Madison Square Garden, a corporate opponent of the arena]. It’s kind of insulting,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Bhagat also criticized the use of the official city website to advertise for Inglewood Forward. “Using the city website to promote this page, even though they took the link off – the mere attempt to do that speaks volumes.”

The City of Inglewood is holding a public “Scoping Meeting” for the Clippers project on March 12, where community members will have the chance to provide public input on the proposal.