Mid City West CD 5 Candidate Forum Highlights Major Issues. Larchmont Buzz.
On Wednesday, March 9, the Mid City West Neighborhood Council held an online forum for candidates currently running to replace termed-out City Councilmember Paul Koretz in the 2022 election. (Ballots for the June 7 primary will be mailed out in early May; if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in that election, the top two finishers will move on to a runoff in November.)
This particular forum featured all six of the current candidates for the District 5 seat — Molly Basler, Jimmy Biblarz, Scott Epstein, Kristina Irwin, Katy Young Yaroslavsky, and Sam Yebri. It allowed one-minute opening statements from each candidate, then individual one-minute answers to questions on seven major issues facing the city. These were followed by a “lightning round” requiring simple yes-or-no answers to another dozen questions, and then one-minute final statements from each candidate. The forum was moderated by Dre Guttag, chair of the MCWNC’s Outreach and Civic Engagement Committee.
Molly Basler identified herself as a progressive Democrat and native Angeleno, who’s running for city council because “I’m witnessing the demise of our beautiful city.” She further described herself as a community organizer, climate activist, and small business owner. She also said she wants to tackle corruption in City Hall, and that she is not accepting contributions from any sort of special interest groups. “I don’t get stuck into problems,” she said, “I solve them.”
Scott Epstein introduced himself as a public policy professional who has worked at the Rand Corporation and spent many years as the president of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council, a time he called “the transformational experience of my life,” and which he said directly led to his run for a seat on the City Council. Epstein said he is “grounded in community, guided by passion, and focused on results,” and that he is dedicated to making sure Los Angeles is affordable for all residents, ending homelessness in a compassionate way, and making sure LA fulfills its promises on climate change, especially by “building a multi-modal, 21st Century transportation system.” He also said he believes the city’s current problems are not insurmountable, and that solving them is a matter of political will.
Sam Yebri, the child of Iranian immigrants who is now a lawyer and former Los Angeles Civil Service commissioner, said he is running for City Council because the city is “broken.” Inspired by former Congressman Henry Waxman (who has endorsed him), Yebri said he has been watching the city’s decline over the last few years, and that its career politicians have failed us on issues such as homelessness, crime, and corruption.
Jimmy Biblarz, a faculty member at UCLA Law School who grew up in the Pico-Robertson area, said he was inspired to get involved with civic issues at a young age, after learning about Anti-Semitism suffered by his grandparents, and when his family later went through a housing eviction. That commitment grew, he said, as he grew up and realized he was gay, and later focused his graduate education on issues of income and wealth inequality.
Katy Young Yaroslavsky introduced herself as an environmental attorney, who has both 10 years of experience in the private sector, and more recently served as an environmental policy advisor to LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Yaroslavsky said that as a city councilmember, she hopes to be able to address the root causes of homelessness and poverty, help to make our community safer and healthier, and to transform the city into a more climate resilient and environmentally just place for all. She said she is dedicated to creating coalitions to work on big issues, and noted that she has several major endorsements, including Kuehl and U.S. Congresswoman (and LA mayoral candidate) Karen Bass.
Finally, Kristina Irwin, a real estate agent, introduced herself by saying, “I am not a political person. I’m a mom with three kids – the only candidate with three kids going to LAUSD schools.” She said she will fight to end corruption and mandates, and that she didn’t really want to get involved in politics, but felt she was called to it by the city’s problems in the last few years. Irwin said her parents are immigrants from Yugoslavia and Serbia, and that she is “not a politician who has been endorsed by people who have corrupted city Hall.” She said she supports the police, freedom, school choice, and medical freedom…and that she pledges transparency, an open door policy, and to listen to constituents. “I have real solutions, not political jargon,” she said.
Epstein said that the lack of affordable housing in CD 5 is fueling gentrification all over the city, as development is pushed out to more vulnerable communities. This is a very jobs-rich area, he said, including major employment centers like UCLA and the Cedars Sinai medical complex, but we put “walls” around it, and by not including housing for all different income levels and family types, people who work at those job centers just can’t afford to live here. Epstein said we can heal this inequality by allowing more new housing on our boulevards, eliminating parking requirements in new housing, allowing duplexes and other low-density multi-family housing on more properties, and improving renter protections.
Yaroslavsky said we need more housing at all price points, so people who work in Los Angeles can actually afford to live here. She said housing is most needed near our big job centers, and near the public transit that people need to get to work. She said the city also urgently needs to update its Community Plans, which will help us decide where to put much-needed affordable housing, and that we need to prioritize workforce housing and provide more incentives to developers in exchange for them including even more affordable units in their projects. Finally, she said, as a renter herself, she knows it will also be important to work with officials at the state level to provide better protections for renters.
Yebri agreed that for decades we have not built enough affordable and middle income housing in LA, and as a result, housing expenses are now crushing families. He noted, however, that affordable housing is also too expensive to build, and requires navigating a legal maze for approvals, so we need to do more to preserve existing housing (cheaper than building new units), and to streamline our permitting processes and building codes to make it easier to create a win-win situation for both builders and residents, so people can actually live in the communities where they work.
Irwin said that as a real estate agent, she has first-hand experience with the red tape involved in housing issues. She said we need to get rid of those barriers and make it easier to build affordable duplexes, single family homes and more because we need affordable housing and we need it now.
Basler said she believes that many of the roadblocks to building affordable housing are due to corruption in our system, and that, as a result, too much luxury housing is being built and not enough affordable housing, which has to stop. She said we need to “put people before profit” when it comes to housing, and that we’re not going to get anywhere with the gridlock we have now, and prices will just keep rising. Instead, she said, we should repurpose more existing buildings for affordable housing, and we should never force people to move from existing buildings.
Biblarz said that CD 5 has not contributed its fair share of housing to the city in recent years, even though we have two of the city’s largest employment centers (UCLA and Cedars). So it “behooves us to share this opportunity [to build more housing] broadly” across the district. Overall, Biblarz said, the city needs to build half a million new housing units, and we’re not going to address the affordability crisis if we only build new housing in communities vulnerable to gentrification, and if we only include 10 units at a time here and there in more expensive developments, as too often happens now.
Basler said she believes homeless encampments should only be cleared when the city has housing for the people being moved – whether it’s tiny houses, hotel rooms, or other places. She said we need to build more housing to make this possible, but also to bring back facilities for mental health care, because people are homeless for different reasons, and housing options should meet specific needs. If we only have temporary housing for people, however, she said homeless camps should only be moved if there’s a specifically dangerous situation, or if a camp is near a park or school.
Yebri said that he believes the job of city leaders is to alleviate the immediate suffering of our neighbors on the street, and to help prevent their deaths (an average of five people die on LA streets every night). But simply building more new housing is too slow, so our focus should be on the supply of many housing types, and on offering both shelter and services for things like mental health and addiction. It’s incumbent on us, he said, to save lives, but our current approach has been to leave people to suffer on the street, which is “unconscionable.”
Biblarz said we need to make getting housing construction permits much faster, for all types of housing including new construction, adaptive reuse of existing buildings, and housing made from alternate building materials. The second thing we need to do, he said, is to hire more outreach workers, so they have time to get to know people individually and develop housing plans for each person who needs shelter. But violence (the forced clearing of encampments) is not the answer, he said, and LA’s controversial ordinance 41.18 has only made the problem worse, providing threats of incarceration and creating criminal records for those who are homeless, instead of offering the services people actually need.
Epstein said there’s a “lie in our public discourse that addressing encampments means clearing encampments,” and agreed that ordinance 41.18 will definitely not solve the problem. Instead, he said, we need a plan that addresses the risks of encampments for both the housed living near them, and for the unhoused living in them. And the way to do that is not through criminalizing encampments but by offering well-resourced outreach to connect people to more permanent housing…of which we also need a better range of options very quickly.
Irwin said that if elected, she would created a dedicated LAPD overtime task force to deal with encampments, using police (and not social workers) to get people off the street and into housing. She said the city has several vacant buildings that could be used, but that the LA County supervisors won’t allow this.
Yaroslavsky said “the most effective way to end homelessness is to provide housing and service that meet people’s needs, so we should plan to move people from the street to housing through a sustainable street engagement strategy that builds trust, identifies the needs of each person, and pairs people with the housing and services they need. She said that when the city adopted ordinance 41.18, it also adopted a measure for street engagement, which we absolutely need to keep doing, or we’re just moving people from one sidewalk to another. We can’t begin to stabilize people while they’re living on the sidewalk, she said, so bringing them into housing first should be our priority while we’re also creating more permanent housing through adaptive reuse of commercial buildings, hotels, and motels.
Irwin said the best approach to deal with recent increases in crime is to create a dedicated overtime LAPD task force to address homelessness (as she suggested above), as well as the issue of people sleeping in front of small businesses, and associated noise issues. She said police currently have a “bad rap,” but that can be healed by involving the police more in the community, at schools, and through activities conducted through the Police Activity League.
Yaroslavsky said we do need to keep people safe, so we do need a well-staffed and well-trained police department, but we need them to focus on solving crimes and doing the jobs they were trained to do…and not focus on dealing with calls related to homelessness and non-emergency mental health calls. “We need to be looking at public safety more holistically,” she said, and investing in our communities to make them safer, while creating partnerships among the city, the police, and our neighborhoods.
Basler agreed that we need to bring the police and the community together, and that she would hold monthly town halls around the district to start healing the current disconnects. She would also promote community watches, the presence of mobile police units in the community, and addressing the systemic causes of crime by creating jobs and raising the minimum wage to help keep people from turning to crime.
Epstein said that “it’s not mutually exclusive to reimagine the city and make the city safer” at the same time. He said he, too, would like to see the work of policing more specifically focused on crime, and move the police out of routine traffic stops and homeless calls, so they can deal with more serious issues like hate crimes and violent crime. Also, he said, he’d like to create “kobans” – small, Japanese-style police kiosks – in the community, instead of our current system of patrol cars and a military-grade response to many situations.
Biblarz said safety is definitely the number one issue, but we need to think of it as a broad concept and do what we know works, which is not always reactive but can also be proactive, as in a number of successful programs around the country that have brought together police and the perpetrators of violence for sustained engagement and conversation.
Yebri said he believes we should also honor the victims of crime, and that there’s no more important job for a Councilmember than to keep their constituents safe. Policing is the heart of that safety, he said, but we also need to remove police from jobs that are not the core of their work. For example, he said, LAPD gets more than 140,000 calls per year relating to mental health and homelessness, while guns and gang issues are exploding. Also, he said, the police need better training, better oversight, and more officers.
Yaroslavsky said we need to make it easier for small businesses, which should include keeping some innovations (such as sidewalk dining) introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said we definitely need to streamline the city’s permitting and customer service procedures, especially for small businesses, but that we need to make things easier for big businesses, too, such as increasing housing affordability, and building new housing near large employers, so their workers can live near their jobs.
Epstein said we need to help our small businesses grow, but current outdated regulations make that difficult, especially for those owned by women and people of color. For example, he said, change of use permits, and eliminating parking regulations are particularly difficult, and we also need to address the issue of people moving away from their jobs because they can’t afford to live near them, as well as transportation costs for those who don’t live near near their employers.
Yebri said that small businesses are “the engine of our economy” and we need to start treating them as such, instead of contiung to levee fines and fees that make it hard for them to survive. Yebri noted that he’s the only candidate who has small business experience, which is “sorely needed on the City Council.” He said that if elected, he would have a staff member dedicated solely to small businesses, to help them open, thrive, and scale up.
Biblarz said that the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be felt by small businesses for at least a decade, so it will be important to extend subsidies for them, reduce red tape, streamline other processes, and invest in our business districts…which also includes housing.
Irwin said that red tape, zoning issues, taxes, and liquor license regulations all make life difficult for small businesses, and that many of them – including some owned by friends of hers – were forced to close, either temporarily or permanently, during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were deemed “non-essential,” while larger businesses were allowed to remain open. “The woke-ism is not a friend to capitalism,” she said, and we definitely need to cut red tape for small businesses, and especially, make parking easier.
Basler agreed with the others that we need to make it easier to open new small businesses, but said we also have to support the small businesses we already have and which have been struggling since the 2020 riots. She said we need to clean up our streets, clean up homeless encampments and build a small business coalition to help businesses support each other with things like beautification and cleanup efforts. Also, she said, we should work to get people away from online companies such as Amazon, and back to shopping at our local businesses – and that our leaders, especially, need to do this, to help inspire others. As for big businesses, she said, we need to lower taxes and help them get through excessive red tape, too.
Yebri said this issue is one big reason he’s running for office, and that his very first policy paper contained a five point plan to help improve public engagement with local government. His recommendations included campaign finance reform (with no donations allowed from real estate developers, corporations or PACs), ethics reform, meaningful planning reform, redistricting reform (creating a truly independent redistricting commission), and charter reform (including increasing the number and decreasing the size of our city council districts).
Irwin said that if she is elected, she would open her doors for frequent town hall meetings with constituents (“no more corrupt politicians – I’m a mom”). Also, she said, she’s tired of the corruption at City Hall, and urged voters to look at the endorsements other candidates have collected, and think about who’s endorsing who and why – because we don’t want to elect someone with other people’s hands in their pockets. To further help on that front, Irwin said she would urge the City Controller to audit various city departments, and to look at Councilmembers’ use of their discretionary funds. “Where is the transparency?” she asked.
Basler said she, too, would hold frequent town halls, in the many green spaces around the district, in the spirit of transparency. She noted that she also is not a career politician, but a person who has grown up in the area and has seen the mess and corruption grow in our system. Basler said she will put people first. To inspire people to vote, she said, you have to get out and get to know people, so they know you and don’t think you’re just hiding out at city hall.
Epstein agreed that we need greater accountability in our elected officials. As an example, he cited the current problems of the 10th Council District, where he said neither currently suspended Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas nor the city’s choice of temporary replacement, Herb Wesson, should be allowed to represent the area. Instead, he said, a community leader should be appointed to take the seat, because things aren’t getting done right now and the district needs results.
Yaroslavsky said that much corruption stems from the way land use decisions are made in the city, and the way we allocate development rights. Which is another reason we need to update all of our community plans as soon as possible, because once we decide where to put additional density, it takes away the discretion councilmembers currently have to make those decisions, and that’s where corruption happens. Yaroslavsky also said the way to regain public trust in their councilmembers is to provide excellent constituent services – and that when someone calls a city council office with a problem, staff should be able to answer sand fix it…or figure out who can.
Biblarz said the cure for corruption is sunlight, and that he will work with the City Controller’s office, as well as an eternal organization charged with oversight of the City Council. Also, he agreed, the best way to prevent corruption is to reduce the land use power of individual city councilmembers. “The 15 little fiefdoms model is rife for corruption,” he said. Also, he noted, a good way to restore trust is to make community participation easier – for example, to hold city council meetings in various locations around the city, at different times of day, so more people can attend, as well as reform the Council’s “arcane” public comment system. Finally, he said, campaign fundraising should be reformed, so candidates can spend more time with voters, and less of their time raising money.
Biblarz said that although he does support expansion of the city council, it’s not a “panacea,” and that having “35 fiefdoms instead of 15 little fiefdoms” isn’t enough. In addition, he said, the city should shift more actual planning work to its professional planners, and change the way we elect city council members, using ranked choice voting, and having some “at large” districts that would more broadly represent the city and be less tied to the narrow interests of any specific area.
Epstein agreed with previous suggestions to create a truly independent redistricting commission, and to increase the size of the city council. He said that would make it easier for new people to run for office, would encourage more collaboration among council members, and would take away some of their “aldermanic” powers.
Basler said she, too, favors expanding the Council – “it’s time for change, and big, bold change” – and that she thinks the suggestion to expand it to 35 members is excellent. Smaller, more numerous districts would better allow constituents to get to know their councilmembers, she said, and would help the councilmembers be more available, create fewer opportunities for corruption, balance out power, and allow for more diversity on the council.
Irwin said the city does need to clean house, and to improve transparency, accountability, and honesty. She said this is why she thinks it’s time to elect someone who is not a career politician to be your voice at city hall. She said that if she is elected, she will go back to a more personal approach to local government, where people can call in with their issues and be heard.
Yebri agreed with the others that we need to reform our redistricting process, and create a larger city council, with better people joining local government and not just the same career politicians getting elected over and over again. Also, Yebri pointed out that the City of Los Angeles does not have its own health department, and relies on LA County – what he called one of the most ineffective levels of government in the country – for health services. Yebri said people are dying on our streets because of this, and if the county doesn’t provide shelter, beds, or services, the city both needs and can afford to do it.
Yaroslavsky said she is also not opposed to expanding the city council, but – like Biblarz – doesn’t think that’s going to fully fix what’s broken. For example, she pointed out, Chicago has 50 aldermen, but is still famous for its corruption. So instead of just expanding the council, Yaroslavsky said we need to provide more resources to our council offices, so they can hire and retain experienced staff. Currently, she said, new people come in to council offices, but the pay is low, so they quickly move on to jobs with the county or state, which pay better…and that creates a revolving door, with little institutional knowledge. Finally, she said, we also need to better incentivize city council members to work together and not create 15 individual decisions on issues.
Yaroslavsky noted that as an environmental policymaker, this is her favorite subject. First, she said, we need smarter land use policies, which put more density near major job centers and public transit, which is the single best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and is fully within the purview of the city council. Another important thing, she said, would be to build out our bike infrastructure, all at once, so people feel safe and comfortable getting out of their cars and onto their bikes to get where they need to go. Also, she said, we need to focus on first mile/last mile transportation, to make it easier for people to use public transit. And, finally, she said, we need to look seriously at phasing out all oil and gas drilling near where people live, and to do it in partnership with labor, so no one is left behind.
Epstein said the most important thing we can do to help the environment is to build new infill housing in almost every zip code in CD5. We should also invest in active transportation infrastructure, improve transit service and infrastructure, make transit free, invest in clean energy (to get to 100% clean energy use by 2035), weatherize homes, and improve new energy production and transmission. And finally, he said, we should work on other ways to reduce emissions…and stop widening freeways, which he referred to as “climate arson.”
Basler said we should close down oil and gas drilling and get off oil and gas by 2030 (not 2035). Basler said we are already in “climate collapse,” and we’ll feel the effects more severely every summer and winter from now on. She said we need to stop oil drilling, increase the use of EVs, build more charging stating, get people out of their cars and onto their bikes, and protect biodiversity and animal life.
Biblarz said housing and single-occupancy vehicles are our biggest environmental issues, and our policies should flow from that realization. We need to invest in denser housing, he said, look for opportunities to add transit lanes, and create a well-connected bike infrastructure. He also lauded LADWP’s pilot programs for increasing use of electric appliances, and said we need to call out environmental racism wherever we see it.
Yebri said that it is an “economic and moral imperative” that we accelerate our transition to full electrification, become a world leader in solar power, distribution, and storage, and increase our electric vehicle charging stations. Yebri also noted that there are more oil and gas wells under our homes in the 5th district than in any other district, and that we need to do a better job of inspecting and monitoring them, and plugging orphan wells, since it’s only a matter of time before there will be another spill or other disaster. “Housing and transportation policy is climate policy,” Yebri said, and it’s important to build more housing near jobs and transit, so people can get to work without cars.
Finally, Irwin noted that the act of building new housing also has negative effects on the environment, so she said we don’t need to keep building and instead need to start with finding existing housing we can use for the homeless. Also, she said, “we keep hearing about this electric stuff, but what about the batteries when they die?” Irwin also questioned the wisdom of leading on this issue when other states and countries lag behind, saying “Even if every person in the U.S. does this, kudos, great, but what about the rest of the world? We’re not going to stop it if the rest of the world, like China, keeps polluting.” And finally, Irwin said the major problem with public transit isn’t its availability, but that people don’t feel it’s safe…so if we want people to use it, we need better lighting at transit stops, security cameras, and to generally make it clean and safe and then incentivize people to use it.
This round consisted of 12 quick questions to which candidates could answer only yes or no. The questions and their tallies were:
Yes: Biblarz, Epstein, Yaroslavsky, Yebri, Basler
Abstain (unfamiliar with the issue): Irwin
No: Epstein, Yaroslavsky, Yebri, Basler, Biblarz
Yes: Yaroslavsky, Yebri, Basler, Biblarz, Epstein
Yes: all candidates
Yes: Yebri, Basler, Biblarz, Epstein, Yaroslavsky
Yes: Basler, Irwin, Yebri
No: Biblarz, Epstein, Yaroslavsky
Yes: Yaroslavsky, Epstein, Basler, Biblarz
No: Yebri, Irwin
No: Epstein, Basler, Yebri, Biblarz, Yaroslavsky
Yes: Yaroslavsky, Biblarz, Basler, Epstein
Abstain (unfamiliar with the issue): Irwin
Yes: all candidates
Yes: Biblarz, Yarslavsky, Epstei, Basler, Yebri
Yes: all candidates
Finally, the last question in this round allowed a three -word answer:
Irwin: Accountability, Transparency, Honesty
Yebri: Homelessness, Public Safety, Corruption
Biblarz: Housing, Poverty, Equity
Basler: Homelessness, Climate Emergency, Public Safety
Yaroslavsky: Homelessness, Poverty, Safety
Epstein: Affordability, Homelessness, Climate
Irwin – Irwin again emphasized that she is a mom of three LAUSD-attending children, who is not a career politician. She said that if elected, she would be just the second woman to represent CD 5, as well as the first immigrant, and the first pro-Israel Christian. She said she has a concise, multi-tier program to end homelessness, that she is endorsed by great people, commits to an open-door policy and holding meetings with constituents, and can’t be bought. “I’m here for you,” she said, “Here to be your voice at City Hall. If you want change, vote for me; if you like the way the city’s going, vote for everyone else.”
Yaroslavsky also noted that if elected, she would be only the second woman ever to represent CD5 (the last was in 1965). Also, she said there are currently only two women on the 15-member Council, and policies suffer as a result. Yaroslavsky said she’s a collaborator who brings an inclusive intersectional approach to her work, along with a proven track record of creating and implementing policies and programs that are already improving the lives of Angelenos. She said she’s the only candidate who has actually worked in government, knows what it means to make policy, and understands that many problems are regional and intersectional – including homelessness, public health, the economy, public safety, and more. These are “complex challenges that require nuanced policy making,” she said, and it’s important to have people who know how to do the work step in ready to do it on day one.
Biblarz said his campaign is about optimism, and that’s what he’ll bring to the job. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something big and real and transformational,” he said, to make it easier to live here and build community. This includes cleaner air, better storefronts, and safer, more walkable streets.
Yebri said he loves Los Angeles, but for too long, city hall has not reflected the creativity, diversity, and energy of its residents. Instead he said, career politicians and bureaucrats have been playing “musical chairs” with different positions in local government. Yebri said he’s committed to running a campaign that puts communities and families first, and that he will take no money from developers, fossil fuel companies, PACs, or special interest groups. Instead, he said, he’s creating a broad coalition of progressives and moderates (including endorsements from LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and former U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman), as well as business groups, unions, and more than 1,300 “community leaders” in CD 5.
Epstein said we have big problems in the city, so we need big, bold, solutions…and he’s the only candidate with both a progressive vision and a record of results in the 5th District. He said it’s important to have a representative on the City Council who both understands the struggles of working people and has that lived experience. Epstein said he will bend toward social justice for renters and tenants, and toward building sustainability for a just, healthy city.
Finally, Basler said again that she was born and raised in the city, but has watched its recent demise and knows we need progressive, forward-thinking leaders who will lead us into a positive future — not just career politicians, but leaders who inspire change, and who will be courageous and not beholden to special interests. “I will serve the people. I will serve you, the people of CD5…and I will not put profit before people,” she said.
A full recording of the MCWNC forum is available at https://www.midcitywest.org/candidates
Please note: this article was originally published in the Larchmont Buzz.