Los Angeles Deserves Better

Despite its reputation, Los Angeles is a very politically engaged city — we’ve turned out by the hundreds of thousands for protests against Trump’s tyrannical regime. We volunteer and donate to campaigns across the country, and during this presidential election cycle, we have turned out in droves at campaign rallies for the many candidates who have visited our city.

But very few residents know much about how our own city government works — in particular, who their City Councilmember is, or what the City Council does, is a mystery to most people.

And that is not an accident. Our elected officials do an extremely poor job of reaching out to voters with their policies and politics. When we understand how local power works and what makes our system in LA so different, we can see why.

LA HAS THE MOST POWERFUL CITY COUNCIL IN THE COUNTRY

LA has only 15 councilmembers for a city of 4 million residents, which means each councilmember represents about 265,000 people. Other major American cities have a lot more representatives: New York has 51 councilmembers, and Chicago has 50 aldermen, even though it’s half the size of LA.

The power of the Council is enormous. The Los Angeles City Council oversees:

  • Land use (everything in the city that gets built and doesn’t get built)
  • Our energy policy and LADWP, the largest municipally-owned utility in the country
  • LAPD
  • LAX
  • The Port of LA (the largest port in the country)
  • Our city’s $10 billion budget
  • And much more!

The enormous number of constituents and massive portfolio gives our councilmembers outsized influence -- and so does our government structure. LA has a “weak mayor” system, meaning that the Council can override any mayoral decision, provided that they can get a 2/3 majority.

And the Councilmembers don’t have much trouble getting a majority.

In the last five years, the City Council has voted unanimously 99.37% of the time.

You read that correctly. In a body of 15 politicians (one of whom is a Republican), they have managed to agree unanimously on 99.37% of issues that come before them.

You might think they could be replaced with an “automatic yes” button, except for one thing: they pretty much already have been.

That’s right — the council’s voting machines are programmed to automatically vote “yes” unless they specifically indicate otherwise. Meaning that they don’t even have to be in their seats to vote — which they often aren’t. Their attention is often needed elsewhere, like the snack station in the back room.

The percentage of unanimous votes is mind-boggling, but there’s a reason: virtually nothing comes up for a vote unless all 15 councilmembers are in lockstep.

That means deals are hammered out in back rooms, out of the public eye. That way, councilmembers aren’t forced to debate in front of people, and nobody is made to look bad. And the special interests that influence many of their decisions get to operate with barely any scrutiny, media, or public attention.

This is an undemocratic and cowardly practice.

When so many policies that affect the lives of Angelenos are decided behind the scenes, that means Angelenos are excluded from the process. Instead, business groups and entrenched special interests pull the strings. They get to shape the city in their image.

That’s how you get rising rents that force low-income people out of the city. That’s how you get an explosion in homelessness. And that’s the process that has given us the worst air quality in the country, getting even worse for the last five years after decades of improvement.

Councilmembers often lament the lack of civic engagement in LA — but they’re the reason for it. They’ve removed us from the process to preserve their own careers, and made themselves available exclusively to business interests that hope to benefit financially from their policies.

I’m running to throw out this entire system — and replace it with something we can all be a part of.

Here are some of the things we would change.

FULLY PUBLICLY-FINANCED ELECTIONS

For decades, city elections in Los Angeles have had one thing in common: special interest money.

Instead of actual voters, city candidates have sought money and endorsements from groups that would benefit from access to their office — especially the real estate industry.

Councilmembers control land use decisions, so, if you’re a real estate developer, buying influence over their decisions is a smart business move — if you bundle a few thousand dollars for a friendly candidate, you could make millions later if they help pass your project through the permitting process.

Like in the rest of the country, the money flowing into local elections has grown dramatically in recent years.

Our opponent, David Ryu, is at the forefront of this trend. As of the last reporting deadline:

  • He’s raised almost twice as much money as any other candidate — the vast majority of it from real estate and other business interests that are hoping to profit from his favor.
  • He promised never to take money from developers — and then the LA Times caught him taking cash from dozens of them.
  • Less than half of his money has come from residents of the City of LA.
  • He’s done all this while positioning himself as a reformer — campaign finance reform is one of his signature initiatives.

When the “reformers" are taking the most conflicted money, we’ve got a serious problem.

The only way to clean up these elections is to get as much of the money out as possible. That means fully publicly-financed elections.

This is hardly a radical proposition, and it wouldn’t cost much. The City already provides a maximum of $151,000 in matching funds for candidates who receive a certain number of small-dollar donations from residents — a slight expansion of those matching funds should be plenty to finance a local election.

It shouldn’t cost millions of dollars to run for city office — and by allowing the costs to inflate more and more, we create a competition for the favor of the wealthy that only increases the influence of deep-pocketed special interests.

These public election funds would be available to candidates who refuse corporate donations, and kept their personal contributions to an agreed-upon limit.

It’s easy for our team to recommend these policies — because we’re already living by them.

We’re the only campaign in this race that isn’t taking any corporate money we only accept donations from individuals.

And we’re the only campaign in this race that isn’t taking any money from real estate developers or representatives of the fossil fuel industry.

We are funded by a coalition of people who are fighting for a better Los Angeles, not people who want to profit from access to the city.

Thanks to the 2010 Citizens United decision that allows corporations to make unlimited political donations, we can’t pull big money out of Los Angeles politics completely just using city law. Even under publicly-financed elections, business interests would still be able to form Independent Expenditure Committees, which are basically PACs that operate on behalf of campaigns.

That doesn’t mean we have to accept this culture.

When Independent Expenditure committees do get formed, we should call on councilmembers to publicly disavow them and encourage them not to get involved in their race — whether they be funded by labor or by corporate interests.

Council members can stand together to demand from all local officials that a better culture be created in Los Angeles: one where integrity and the public interest are centered.

Publicly-funded city elections are great for voters, but they’re also great for candidates — instead of spending their time dialing for dollars, they can dedicate their energy and focus on developing policies and engaging voters. We’d advocate for this motion from our first day in office.

MORE COUNCILMEMBERS

Remember earlier, when we talked about how LA had the most powerful City Council in the country? A big reason for that is how few of them there are — only 15 council members for a city of four million people.

The council has had fifteen members since 1925 — when the city’s population was only about 900,000.

We’re long overdue to add more seats. It’s not healthy for so much power to be concentrated among so few people — and our current districts are simply too big and too disparate for one person to govern effectively.

More Council Districts would mean a greater diversity of people could run for office, and it would reduce the amount of money required to run a race. Most importantly, we could redistrict our city in a way that’s easier for residents to understand. No more districts like the one I’m running for, which is shaped like this:

CD4

More Council seats means more democracy. Even though it would diminish the power of the office I seek, it’s a change I’ll fight for.

RADICAL TRANSPARENCY AND CO-GOVERNANCE

There’s obviously a huge amount of coverage around our national politics these days. Whenever there’s a big vote in Congress, we’re provided with exhaustive discussion on how each member is voting -- which helps voters know which representatives they need to call.

We don’t get that kind of information about City Hall. Nobody has a window into how members are leaning, even for hugely significant policies. The entire process is a black box. As we talked about earlier, the City Council’s debates over policy are rarely brought out in the open.

That ends when I’m elected.

I promise to bring you inside the process — whether it’s on my social media or in public meetings, I’ll let you in on every struggle and victory we encounter as we work to make positive change for every Angeleno.

Most importantly, I’ll let you know who’s helping pass the motions we’re putting forward... and who’s holding us back.

It may not seem like it, but this is a big change from how things are currently done at City Hall. One reason that the Councilmembers like to present a united front is that a lack of conflict allows them to run their district like a fiefdom.

Whenever a councilmember puts up a motion that only affects territory in their district, the other 14 will fall in line, with the understanding that the Councilmember will do the same for them. That’s how you get 99.37% unanimous votes. And that’s why Councilmembers almost never endorse a challenger running against an incumbent.

I’m not going to be a part of that system. This is a shared city, and Councilmembers have the power to vote at-large, meaning that they vote on all matters related to all districts. We cannot work towards ambitious, city-wide improvements without debating together about the future of the city we want to build.

If I don’t agree with something another Councilmember is doing on their turf, I’ll vote against it and I’ll call it out.

To develop my own policies, I’ll rely on a principle of co-governance: bringing in impacted residents and advocacy groups from all over the city to contribute their experience and expertise. That’s been our process in crafting all of our platforms in this campaign -- and importing this policymaking philosophy to City Hall is the primary reason I’m running for office.

BETTER PUBLIC MEETINGS

If you’ve ever been to an LA City Council meeting, you know that they can be a pretty mixed bag of inspiring, boring, and deeply depressing.

What’s inspiring is when hundreds of activists and concerned citizens show up to City Council Chambers — lining up one by one to voice their values. It’s always a thrill when these empowered Angelenos force the Council to react to their energy and sheer numbers.

What’s depressing, to me, is how little interest the Council seems to have in what any of these people have to say. Councilmembers rarely ever look at the person speaking before them. They’re often looking at their phones, or talking to somebody else. Often, as I mentioned above, the snack station calls and they leave their seat entirely.

I promise, if I’m elected, to do my job. I’ll come to meetings. If I have a conflict, I’ll let you know why I’m not there. And if you take the time to visit City Hall and summon the courage to speak, I will make sure you feel heard.

This, to me, is the most basic responsibility of an elected official: to listen.

But not all Angelenos can get downtown in the middle of the day to attend a Council meeting. That’s why we need more, better options.

First of all, I’ll push to change the City Council schedule so that one of the three weekly public meetings is held in the evening or on the weekend. Let’s start accommodating the Angelenos who work during the day, and give people a meeting they can attend more easily.

When I’m elected, I’ll also hold public meetings in the evenings every two weeks. I’ll rotate the neighborhoods where these meetings are held, all across the district. You’ll be able to voice your concerns directly to me, and I’ll respond to them. I’m very much looking forward to it.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF OFFICE

You probably don’t know where your councilmember’s local office is — and it’s even less likely that you’ve ever had a reason to go there. I’d like to change that. A councilmember’s office is public property — it should be a place where people gather and work together to create a better community. It should be your space.

Imagine a space where the door is always open. Imagine that there are healthy snacks (maybe some cookies too!) and a hot pot of coffee. A few desks where students can come in after school to do homework in a peaceful setting, and volunteers from the neighborhood who will come in to tutor them. A place where people can donate food, and those who need something extra for their households can come and get what they need.

Community groups would be able to sign up to hold meetings in our conference room. Even a book club could come in, or a girl scout troop. Or a quilting club. The office would have lists and contact information for places to get involved in your community, and volunteer opportunities where you could help your own neighbors.

I’ll invite non-profit lawyers and social workers to work out of our offices at least once a week and hold office hours, so that residents facing issues can speak to someone who can advise them on the best way to get help. Homeless outreach workers will use our offices as their home base -- they’ll know everyone experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood by name. And anyone who needs help can walk into our offices and get the help that they need -- from someone they trust.

One of the things I’m really happy about in our campaign is that, in just a few months, we’ve been able to turn our own campaign office in Koreatown into that kind of place. We opened up our space for donations for the homeless, and people dropped off enormous piles of blankets, tarps, and winter clothing. Community groups from the neighborhood hold their meetings here.

We’ve also built a highly responsive staff with a wide range of backgrounds, including in both activism and city government, as well as a horizontal management structure so each person in our office is empowered to take action on behalf of constituents. That’s the kind of office we’ll continue to run when I’m elected.

LOS ANGELES RUNS ON YOUR ENERGY

You deserve to be a part of the policies that dictate your daily life, and set the course of our city’s future. It shouldn’t be up to you to fight your way into the process -- your elected representatives should invite you.

That’s what we’re doing now. And that’s what we’ll do when we’re in City Hall -- create a space where every Angeleno is invited to share their voice and their efforts.

This is the Los Angeles we deserve.