Candidates Jim Murez, Allison Holdorff-Polhill, Traci Park, Mike Newhouse, Greg Good, Vince Sulaitis, Mat Smith, and Erin Darling engage in a lengthy forum moderated by Dr. Naomi Nightingale.
By Nick Antonicello
In what was a bumpy start getting the ZOOM presentation up and running, the night turned out to be a wide-ranging policy discussion on the issue of homelessness, encampments, crime, addiction and mental illness among the eight candidates who participated in this nearly three-hour discussion.This discussion centered on the most important issues in this race to succeed Mike Bonin on the LA City Council.
VNC Homeless Chair Frank Murphy and fellow member Vicki Halliday did an excellent job in herding the sheep to get this many candidates involved. It was announced that over 200 viewers watched seven first-time candidates and one second-time hopeful speak in the forum.
Surprisingly, the level of thoughtfulness and passion by all of the candidates came through. If there was one overriding agreement, efforts that are being made currently are not working and getting people off the street is the first priority no matter where you stand on how to fix this issue of homelessness in Venice and the rest of CD-11. The candidates were cautious and complementary to each other. It was clear from the beginning that none of the candidates tried to engage in any sort of attacks and all abided by the ground rules set in place by the moderator.
Because homelessness is in many ways the elephant in the room in any political forum, it is no coincidence that of the eight participating candidates, four of the candidates (Murez, Park, Newhouse and Darling) are all residents of DogTown. In total, there are six candidates from Venice: Cristian Letelier and Ronnie McCowan did not participate and neither did Gary Copeland who is from West LA.
The moderator asked a series of questions including asking each candidate for opening and closing statements. Since the marathon meeting was too long to report blow-by-blow, I have consolidated the commentary and relevant background information by candidate:
- Erin Darling – Born and bred in Venice, played Little League baseball in the community and is an attorney and tenant advocate. Married with a three-year old, Darling believes the government has a purpose in solving an issue such as homelessness and Darling said, “People can’t be dying on the streets.” A public interest lawyer, Darling called for accountability and housing of the homeless. Darling added, “Constituents need to be heard, progress needs to be made.” Darling stressed the need for federal funding and called for a Vacancy Tax dedicated to funding homeless initiatives. Darling said there was a lack of coordination and the marshaling of resources. Darling stressed the fact this is a housing crisis and that it’s “not just mental health or addiction issues.” Darling spoke to the fact Venice Beach has always had a homeless population and believes many of the homeless are former housed residents of the Westside. Darling believes that homelessness is an “American Crisis” and balked at the notion that a majority of the homeless are transients. Darling believes the root of homelessness dates back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and that the Westside is not just a place for “wealthy, white people.” Darling said he would make thoughtful staffing decisions if elected and would not just consider what he described as “government insiders.”
- Mat Smith – A US Army veteran who was deployed in Somalia, Smith said he was “heart-broken” by the level of people living in cars and public spaces. Smith stressed his “safety and dignity for all” approach while seeking “proven, effective solutions” regarding mental health and addiction. The Loyola HS graduate said he would lean on his military service to make the tough decisions. Smith believed systems need to be unified and assessed and there is a need to evaluate the number of beds required and incentivize rehabilitation, also noting the homeless have “a right to shelter, but must earn housing.” Smith believes the current model of large scale affordable housing does not work and the city needs to provide temporary, and not permanent housing. Smith stressed identifying “affordable” locations and that the current system is too reliant on “cookie cutter” models that do not work in his mind. Smith prefers a more tailored approach and stressed that behavior of the homeless is very much created by addiction and that there is a cure.
- Mike Newhouse – The popular Venice local, husband, father, homeowner, attorney and former city zoning and planning official is also a former president of the Venice Neighborhood Council. He was impressed by all the candidates and was a proponent of a sober, respectful process. A self-described “consensus builder,” Newhouse believes his campaign will be built on the volunteer network he has crafted across the district. Newhouse was blunt, stating “we need to get the people off the street right now,” and pointed to the Houston model that got people off the street in thirty days. “Let’s get them in recovery, get them off the streets and establish trust.” The candidate called for private funding and sourcing to eliminate the homeless issue and urged the other hopefuls not to “fear lawsuits” to correct the current conditions on the streets. Newhouse stressed “we need to look elsewhere” in terms of permanent housing due to cost and because we’re faced with what he described as a true “emergency.” Newhouse stressed that RV’s don’t belong in residential neighborhoods. Newhouse pointed to the boardwalk being cleaned up in thirty days and that that means the problem can be fixed. “We can get people off the streets in thirty days.” Newhouse said he would lean on his prior government service to recruit the right kind of individuals to build the right staff. He will seek out young and aggressive candidates who can hit the ground running on day one of his term of office.
- Vince Sulaitis – The Westchester resident and first to file for the seat before Bonin exited the race, Sulaitis believes the district has been “overrun by crime and homelessness.” He believes that crime and danger are persistent and wants to work with law enforcement to create a “collaborative bridge” that includes park rangers as well as ending the “demonization of law enforcement”, especially the LAPD. The candidate wants to bring a “dignified sense of pride” back to the communities of CD-11 and bring tourists back to places like Venice Beach. Sulaitis made note of the removal of homeless people near the location of the Super Bowl on February 13th and spoke about his visits to Skid Row, where what he described as “war zone” conditions exist. The candidate believes 60-70% of people with mental illness concerns are “recycled back to the street” and that the roots of mental illness are not being truly addressed. He pointed to the LA Sheriff’s “House and Help” initiative. He believes job training and job placement offers the homeless dignity while being mainstreamed back into society.
- Traci Park – A resident of Venice and municipal attorney, Park talked about how she “took the fight to City Hall” and is heartbroken by the state of homelessness at our beaches, parks, and in proximity to local public schools. Park stated homeless camps near schools in particular were “non-negotiable”. She stated shelter protocols are essential and mental health and addiction must be addressed. Park also called for emergency housing and said that the cost of construction of housing doesn’t need to be this exorbitant. Park pointed to the “pod share” model as a solution and that costs must be addressed and driven downward. Park spoke to current budget expenditures and that $955 million was already allocated for homelessness. She said that with a $11.2 billion dollar operating municipal budget that there “was plenty of funding” and no further need to “waste time” to address the homeless dilemma. Park described Venice as “too dense” for more affordable/homeless housing and questioned “the lack of rules of intervention” as she believes that no vetting process or guidelines exist. Park pointed to the outrageous cost of housing at the Ramada Inn on Washington Blvd. totaling some $650,000 per unit while those housed at this facility are still maintaining outside tenting which drives down the incentive to remain indoors. Park spoke about the plight of women on the street, the number of pregnancies, and domestic violence as a driving factor to homelessness. Park said she would concentrate on small business access and general services while offering legal advice and ensuring her staff would include “neighborhood specialists” as well as diversity of personnel in terms of race and gender.
- James Murez – The Main Street homeowner, husband and father to two adult children that attended local schools and excelled as collegiate athletes, with one competing in the summer Olympics, has been a Westside resident for 40 years and a resident of Venice for the past 35. Murez spoke fondly of remembering when the 405 was under construction and his initiative to plant some 1,400 trees in Venice while resurrecting and relocating the Venice Farmers Market in 1989. Murez served for twelve years as a member of the Land Use & Planning Committee (LUPC) of the Venice Neighborhood Council and he was elected President last June. He also served for the last five years as Chair of the Board’s Parking & Transportation Committee and stressed his ability and record of getting things done. Murez asked “where is the model” to fix the homeless crisis and believes “no accurate data on homelessness” exists to build that plan. Murez stated he supports “safe camping” initiatives like that in San Clemente and stressed the fact Venice is a “world class” name and that it should be able to “trade & transfer” resources to other neighborhoods and council districts that “balances solutions.” He opposes any RV’s in residential neighborhoods and wants to bring back communication between the council office and the district. Murez talked about having a podium every Friday at the Farmer’s Market that he manages where he can speak with people one-on-one. Murez said he would rely on experienced staffing if elected, but would consider more “out-of-the-box” hires to round out his staff. He has concluded that the business climate at Venice Beach is failing and that businesses are simply moving away.
- Allison Holdorff-Polhill – A lawyer, mother and resident of the Pacific Palisades, Polhill was an unsuccessful candidate for the LA School Board and served on the staff of current board member Nick Melvoin, who is now seeking reelection. A self-described “fixer” Polhill spoke to some conditions at a Venice elementary school where 47 hypodermic needles were found on the property making the environment dangerous for parents, teachers and students. Stating “we are better than this” Polhill believes there is a need to get back to fixing problems and that her time at LAUSD was a prerequisite to be able to fix challenging and complex problems like homelessness. Polhill stated she has a “six-point” plan to battle homelessness on her website. She views homelessness as a “state of emergency” much like the Northridge Earthquake in 1994 when the 10 Freeway partially collapsed and incentives were offered to ensure speedy reconstruction in just 90 days. The candidate supports temporary shelters and rapid housing and would focus resources on Venice, but would seek to make sure access to housing was distributed throughout CD11 and to ensure individuals would be less car dependent based on locale. Polhill stated that people are scared so treating homelessness like an emergency makes the most sense. She believes police officers should be moved from desk jobs to the streets and thinks her time at LAUSD has best prepared her for tackling the position of a city council member. She stated new technology will assist in the battle with homelessness and usage of accurate data and information can cure this societal ill.
- Greg Good – A former school teacher and not-for-profit executive, Good is a lawyer and former 14-year resident of Venice. Good was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti as President of the Department of Public Works where he recently resigned and was a former mayoral staffer as well. Good stated “bad decisions were made about homelessness”, but he views himself as a problem-solver and as a “leader who will listen.” Good stressed the need for “real time data” and will stop “the open air drug dealing” taking place today. Good said that he would be committed to increases in LAPD overtime and would appoint a Chief of Staff dedicated to the singular issue of homelessness in the district. Good said that he would lobby for state dollars from the state’s surplus funding and wants to “reset” the City’s relationship with the County of Los Angeles. He is also committed to “new ways to create funding” for homelessness. Good stated that Venice “deserves a pause” and he wants to “rebuild trust” between the council office and the community. He stressed steps to incentivize landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers, called the encampments in public space a “threshold matter” and that living in such spaces was “not appropriate.” Good reiterated the need for “trust building” with the electorate and that the strength of his staff and his leadership will be the basis of eventual outcomes. Good compared constituent services to providing excellent customer service and was disturbed that his candidacy was attacked right out-of-the-gate as being too similar to the outgoing incumbent. “Get to know me,” urged the first-time hopeful. He urged those watching to “avoid the chatter.”