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LA City Council members discuss dramatic year in the State of the Valley

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During last year’s State of the Valley luncheon put on by the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, Nury Martinez had yet to resign from the Los Angeles City Council for her role in a racist leaked audio scandal, Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas had not yet been convicted in a corruption case, and Councilmember Curren Price was not yet facing criminal charges.

But with all three news stories unfolding in the past 12 months, in addition to a string of City Hall corruption scandals in previous years – the question before six L.A. City Council members on Thursday, Sept. 7, was: “Do you believe this is the last of the scandals at City Hall?”

That question – posed by Spectrum News 1’s Alex Cohen, who moderated a discussion with the six Valley-based City Council members at this year’s State of the Valley luncheon – immediately drew laughs from the audience.

“I sure as hell hope so,” Councilmember Monica Rodriguez responded amid the laughter.

She and five other councilmembers – Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Nithya Raman, Imelda Padilla and John Lee – addressed a range of topics during the panel discussion, from the importance of trust and accountability in local government, to homelessness, affordable housing and public safety, to what issues will shape next year’s election season.

Rodriguez said the public has a right to be distrustful of government because there hasn’t been enough oversight on how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent, including on programs to address homelessness.

“We have a responsibility to demand oversight and accountability for every dollar that is expended in the city,” said Rodriguez, who serves on the council’s budget committee.

“And I am often very forthcoming about my frustrations of the lack of accountability and oversight  and direct answers and reporting on dollars that we’ve allocated to serve certain functions,” she added. “The public does deserve transparency and accountability.”

Other council members also acknowledged that taxpayers have been disappointed by the city’s handling of Prop. HHH dollars to build affordable housing, with some units costing more and taking longer to build than many voters expected when they approved the ballot measure years ago.

And they acknowledged that city officials must take stock of lessons learned as they prepare to spend Measure ULA dollars to support tenants and fund affordable housing.

Krekorian, who took over as council president after Martinez’s resignation, spoke of the need for decorum during council meetings, saying that Martinez’s prior concerns about civility paled in comparison to the toxicity in the council chamber after last year’s audio leak scandal erupted, with Martinez at its center.

Last year, someone made public a secretly recorded conversation between Martinez, two other councilmembers and a then-powerful labor leader that focused on how they wanted City Council districts to be redrawn — to their liking. The conversation also included racist and demeaning remarks about others.

That scandal led to weeks of pandemonium at City Hall, with protesters demanding to “shut down” council meetings which, at times, prompted city officials to call in police officers in riot gear to maintain order.

“We had borderline riots in the council chambers,” Krekorian said. “There were times when I genuinely believed that we were not going to be able to continue with a functioning City Council as long as we had this kind of outrage being brought into the council chambers every day.”

But, he said, the council has since gotten back on track and reform efforts are in the works, from discussions about having an independent redistricting commission to draw City Council districts, and increasing the number of council seats to dilute the power of individual councilmembers. Other discussions are underway about strengthening the city’s ethics commission and adopting comprehensive lobbying reforms.

And with two-fifths of the councilmembers newly elected in November, greater diversity than ever, and a record seven women on the 15-member council, Krekorian said there is an opportunity to “turn the page” and restore the public’s trust in government.

“This is a brand new council. This is a brand new day in City Hall, and we have an opportunity – and shame on us if we don’t seize it right now – we have an opportunity to reclaim the public’s trust and to rebuild the kind of city government the people of Los Angeles deserve,” he said.

During the discussion, many councilmembers cited homelessness, housing affordability and public safety as paramount issues that the city must confront.

Councilmember Raman said a lack of housing stability is impacting the local economy.

“It’s impacting our workers shortages across industries here in Southern California,” she said. “And I think if we don’t get out on this question and really address it as a city, we will lose our economic vitality going forward.”

To be sure, worker shortages and labor strife were on the minds of those who attended Thursday’s luncheon, held at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City. That hotel is non-unionized, and workers there aren’t on strike, according to Chamber of Commerce staff.

But some Hollywood writers who have been on strike since May – one of several groups who have joined the “hot labor summer” of strikes and work stoppages – were picketing on Universal Hollywood Drive near the driveway to the Hilton hotel on Thursday afternoon.

On the idea of supporting businesses, Councilmember Lee said elected officials sometimes pass legislation that is “feel good” but results in unintended consequences, and that policies should be examined thoughtfully.

He used the example of the now-expired eviction moratorium that the city imposed when it was under a state of COVID-19 emergency. He said mom-and-pop landlords who provide a lot of  affordable housing did not receive relief while the eviction moratorium was in place and were hurt by the policy.

And more broadly speaking, Lee suggested that the city could do a better job supporting business owners.

“Sometimes I feel that we treat the business community as some sort of adversary instead of understanding that they’re the ones that provide the jobs that make living possible for families here in the city of Los Angeles,” Lee said.

Councilmember Padilla said the city sometimes is afraid to encourage new industries to set up shop in L.A., such as the cannabis industry. She said she’d also like to provide more support for street vendors whose “entrepreneurial spirit” is allowing them to pay their bills and stave off homelessness.

“We just need to also, as a city, be more open, to invite new industries that can be the future job-makers of tomorrow,” she said.

Council members on Thursday also were asked what they see as top issues shaping the upcoming election season for Valley voters. Homelessness, housing affordability and public safety topped the list of issues that the panelists cited.

In addition, Councilmember Blumenfield said he worries that the bitter bipartisanship at the federal level of government will trickle down and “pollute” local elections.

“My fears (are) that … we’re going to lose sight of bread and butter issues,” Blumenfield said. “Most elections are really local elections. It’s about what’s happening in my neighborhood. But these elections become nationalized when the world becomes so bitter and partisan, and then you lose sight of the things that really matter … on the local level.”

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