On Monday night, the League of Women Voters of Greater Los Angeles, along with Los Angeles Valley College, the National Council of Jewish Women-Los Angeles, and the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, presented an online forum featuring the two current candidates for Los Angeles City Attorney – Faisal Gill and Hydee Feldstein Soto.
While many of our local neighborhoods have recently hosted forums with our city council candidates, and we’ve even had a few mayoral and state legislature candidate visits, this is one of the few public forums we’ve seen focusing on the two candidates running to replace outgoing city attorney Mike Feuer. The forum included 20 questions asked over 90 minutes, and – thanks to very precise, very civil answers from the candidates (without personal digs or urgent rebuttals), as well as tight timekeeping by both the moderators and the candidates themselves, it provided an ample chance for each candidate to express their views. (It also provide a lot of information, but in written form, it’s easy to skim through for the specific topics you’re most interested in.) Each candidate, starting with Gill, was allowed to answer first for five questions, and then the other was allowed to answer first for the next five questions. Here is what they discussed.
Why do you believe you are the best candidate for City Attorney?
Gill recounted his history as an immigrant from Pakistan, whose father was a cab driver, and whose mother worked in retail. Gill himself has worked as both a criminal defense attorney and a civil rights attorney, in addition to representing governmental bodies…all three of which the Los Angeles City Attorney also does. Gill said he has a vision for the city, and although a large part of the city attorney’s job is to provide legal advice to the various city departments, he sees his main client as the people of Los Angeles.
Feldstein Soto said she was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to the U.S. mainland to attend Swarthmore College and Columbia University School of Law, moving to Los Angeles after she earned her law degree. She says she’s the right candidate for the job because she is “right on the issues,” and will crack down on things like violent crimes, hate crimes, human trafficking, and getting guns off the street. She will also, she said, help to provide the services people need. She said she has spent the bulk of her career managing other lawyers and, once elected, wants to end no-bid contracts in city government, and plans to organize a “Neighborhood Law Corps” (a sort of Peace Corps/Legal Aid hybrid) to bring better legal services to our communities. She also said she will remain a truly independent voice, and promised to not use the City Attorney position as a stepping stone to another office, or to run for any office other than City Attorney.
What should the City Attorney do about the recent City Council scandal, and how will you work to prevent corruption in city government?
Gill said the City Attorney plays a huge role in preventing corruption, and should be there to root out misdeeds when they happen. He said he can hold officials accountable and prosecute them when necessary. He also said he will be involved in all kinds of city hall decision-making…and was one of the first to call for then-City Council President Nury Martinez to resign when the now-notorious recordings, in which she spoke in racist and derogatory terms about both her city council colleagues and other groups across the city, were first made public. (He also said that he thinks the other two councilmembers featured in the recordings, Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo, should resign as well.) He said he thinks the City Attorney should be involved in investigating the scandal, and that it makes no sense to say that the City Attorney can’t go after councilmembers for corruption. “That’s going to change,” he said, if he’s elected, and the only reason it can’t happen now, he said, is because it’s not supported by City Hall establishment.
Feldstein Soto said 20% of our City Councilmembers had been indicted before the current scandal, and the current scandal involves another 20% of the members. She said the comments heard in the leaked recording are “appalling” both for their racist nature and the way in which the councilmembers involved were strategizing to divvy up the city to ensure their own political power. That said, however, Feldstein Soto also noted that corruption is a felony, and since the City Attorney only has the power to prosecute misdemeanors, she would – if elected – work to make referrals to the District Attorney (who does have the power to prosecute felonies), rather than prosecuting them for more minor offenses at the city level. She also said the time is right for both an independent ethics commission and an independent city council redistricting commission, as further safeguards against corruption. And, finally, she said that she supports expanding the size of the City Council, which would give voices to more people throughout the city.
Our city charter was last revised in 1999, but it’s the document the City Attorney uses to advise the City Council and other departments on various policies. What improvements would you like to see made to the Charter?
Gill said there are lots of changes he’d like to see made to the Charter, including providing a mechanism (where none exists now) for removing city Councilmembers, or forcing them to resign, for certain kinds of misdeeds. He said he would also like to see changes made in city contracting policies, and more.
Feldstein Soto reported that she has been endorsed by legal scholar Erwin Chermerinsky, who helped write the current city charter. She said, however, that the document current “gives and takes” in too many ways, such as providing rules for writing city contracts, but also a very long list of allowable exceptions….and setting up our Neighborhood Council system, but giving the Councils no real power.
How would you address homelessness, and how would you enforce Ordinance 41.18 (which allows the removal of encampments near schools and other sensitive sites if housing is offered to the residents)? Do you see that policy as necessary or inhumane?
Gill said he “absolutely” believes Ordinance 41.14 is inhumane and that, if elected, he won’t enforce it. He said the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court has called such rules unconstitutional, along with rules against loitering, or trespassing in public parks, which are also used to remove homeless individuals. He said such practices just move people from one place to another and will no nothing to help end homelessness.
Feldstein Soto said that we are currently at “one of those inflection points around the city now,” regarding homelessness, but she also believes in safe schools and communities. She said she understands that we can enforce rules such as 41.18 only if we have a real offer of housing to make first, so we need to focus on creating the housing and support services we need. At the same time, though, she said she also believes in creating safe buffer zones near schools and other sensitive locations (such as abortion clinics, for different reasons)…and those have have been determined to be constitutional.
How would you protect immigrants despite their immigration status?
Gill said he has defended many immigrants during his career, and the first thing he would do if elected, when prosecuting an immigrant, is figure out what kind of effect the prosecution might have on the person’s immigration status. And he would make sure that if the person is undocumented, the legal action won’t be used against them in immigration matters. So “Angelenos are safe,” he said, also ensuring that he will not cooperate with federal immigration investigations.
Feldstein Soto agreed with Gill on both counts, saying she, too, would carefully explore the potential effects of specific charges on immigrants’ status before prosecution, and that she wants to make sure criminal justice is administered fairly and equitably. And she, too, said it’s important to separate the City Attorney’s office from actions of the federal border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and that she would be “meticulous about doing so.”
Are there any crimes you wouldn’t prosecute or for which you’d declare a moratorium on prosecution?
Feldstein Soto said no to this question, because she believes it’s part of the City Attorney’s job to enforce all laws equitable and fairly. That said, however, she also said she’d definitely use discretion when prosecuting first-time offenders, youth offenders, and certain property crimes. In other words, she said, the City Attorney can’t just say they disagree with a law and won’t enforce it – that’s a dangerous precedent to set.
Gill, however, said he “absolutely” favors moratoriums on certain kinds of prosecutions, because there many kinds of crimes that don’t affect public safety. So while he will prosecute serious and violent crimes, he would review cases that fall into other categories, such as a teenager loitering outside a 7-Eleven store, and he would try to move more of those kinds of offenders into diversion and restorative justice programs, so they won’t end up with conviction records that will follow them for the rest of their lives.
On the topic of civil justice, there has been a lot of police brutality, and many people have a deep distrust of our police. How will you address police misconduct and increase trust in law enforcement?
Feldstein Soto again mentioned the Neighborhood Law Corps she would like to create in the City Attorney’s office (as opposed to the current system of Neighborhood Prosecutors). She said different communities experience law enforcement differently, so it’s important to expand neighborhood-based law enforcement. She also said there are important differences between the kind of qualified immunity provided to police officers under federal law, and the California Police Officers Bill of Rights (POBOR). Overall, however, she said even most police chiefs would like to see some reforms on this front.
Gill said that from day one of his campaign he has promised to hold LAPD accountable for its actions, and it will be his job to make sure that every department follows city laws, starting with LAPD. More specifically, he said, he will work to end pretextural stops (e.g. using a minor violation such as a traffic stop to investigate a more serious crime), and he will make sure there are consequences if there are violations. “If [the police] don’t do anything wrong, they have nothing to fear from me,” Gill said. “But I won’t be a rubber stamp for the LAPD.”
Homicides are still high this year – so what should we do about guns?
Feldstein Soto said Los Angeles has already filed a lawsuit against one big ghost gun manufacturer, and the federal courts have also upheld “time and place restrictions” setting limits on carrying guns. So we need to set new laws establishing those kinds of restrictions, including buffer zones near sensitive places, and ask the City Council to close other loopholes in gun laws, including exceptions for gun shows, as well as crack down on unregistered guns.
Gill said that current City Attorney Mike Feuer has done a good job of going after ghost guns, and that if Gill is elected, he will continue targeting ghost gun manufacturers. He said he would also look for other ways to get more guns off the streets, including increasing education programs in communities where people of color feel like they need to have guns to be safe.
Current City Attorney Mike Feuer and state Attorney General Rob Bonta, have gone after businesses that cause environmental harm. How can we count on you to prioritize environmental justice?
Soto said she is endorsed by both the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, and lives near 10 active oil wells on Pico Blvd., so she is “exquisitely conscious” of this issue. She said she definitely supports issuing no new leases for oil wells within the city, will examine all existing leases, will take the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) seriously, and will lobby state government in Sacramento to keep CEQA strong.
Gill noted his own endorsement by the Youth Climate Strike group, and said he will definitely go after corporate polluters, will stop active oil drilling in the city, and will also focus on making sure the oil companies clean up their drilling sites after they’re closed. He said the companies will generally do the absolute minimum cleanup required, but he will hold them accountable, and will go after both companies that don’t comply and their executives.
What actions have you taken in your life or career that best illustrates what you will do as City Attorney?
Feldstein Soto said she has served on her own Neighborhood Council for the last six years, during which time she has spent her own money on things like collecting soil samples and lobbying for local issues in Sacramento. She said she has also worked hard, as an NC member, to be accessible to neighbors, and has walked the community and taken time to listen to people from all walks of life. “I listen and learn before I step into something,” she said.
Gill told the story of a client he once defended who had been wrongfully arrested with “zero probable cause.” He said it took two years of collaboration with the city attorney’s office to get his client exonerated, but he wasn’t afraid to tackle the difficult case, never gave up, and will bring the same kind of collaborative skills and perseverance to the job of city attorney.
The City Council recently voted to phase out the pandemic-related eviction moratorium. How will you hold landlords accountable now?
Gill said that in the past, city attorneys have not enforced the city’s tenant protections, including laws against tenant harassment, cash for keys violations, and more…but he will “absolutely enforce” them. He said he would also create a robust outreach program on renters’ rights.
Feldstein Soto said the expiring moratorium presents lots of issues, and while it is definitely time to end the moratorium, we also have to address the consequences of doing so. Also, she said, there’s a fiscal issue for the city council, because our current anti-harassment law needs amending to confirm that attorney fees will be awarded in successful prosecutions. Also, Feldstein Soto said, we need to continue to support other existing tenant assistance programs.
What can the City Attorney do to incentivize more affordable housing and avoid gentrification?
Gill said we need to make sure that the City Council follows state laws to build more affordable housing, and we need to enforce the city’s own AirBnB (short-term rentals) law, which definitely affects the rental housing market. He said focusing on just those two things would result in a “dramatic” increase in the number of affordable units.
Feldstein Soto said she would start with abolishing the current prohibition on building public housing, and would support an amendment to the state constitution that would let the government actually build, and not just incentivize, affordable housing. She said that affordable housing just doesn’t pencil out for developers, so we also need to let the government build it as part of our larger safety net. In other words, she said, we need to operate on “all cylinders” to create and fund more affordable units…and this would include adaptive re-use of existing buildings, as well as community land trusts that allow specific neighborhoods to get involved.
Is there a way to pass a law to ban building homes near freeways, to help ensure better environmental justice?
Gill said the City Attorney doesn’t make laws, and can only advise the City Council on the creation of new laws, but the idea of banning new homes near freeways makes sense and he’d be willing to consider it, if the Council takes such an action.
Feldstein Soto disagreed, however, saying such a law would be like “taking an elephant gun to something that has unintended consequences” (and may also be unconstitutional), because it would actually mean downzoning those parcels of land, and thus, taking potential housing units away from the city. Instead, she said, it would be better to better incentivize electrification of cars, and expanding public transit, to improve air quality and make such locations less dangerous for people to live in.
What can we do to improve mental health and addiction services?
Gill said this is one of the biggest problems, besides homelessness, facing the city today. He said that if elected, he would try to divert many criminal cases to mental health and addiction services (and to fund those kinds of diversion efforts). He said he would also work with LA County (which provides our mental health services) to expand those services and come up with more creative options.
Feldstein Soto said she’s been “tangentially” involved in this work for four or five years now, but the big problem is that the City of Los Angeles depends on LA County to provide these services, and there just aren’t enough of them. For example, she said, there are only five public psychiatric hospitals in the state of California, and there’s a two-year wait list to get into them. And the law says that if there is no such bed for someone, you have to release them. She said it’s “absolutely” a priority to get people into the facilities they need, and we need to re-write our agreements with LA County to make sure we can do that.
Why do you think the perception of crime is higher than the actual numbers, and how can you help people feel safer?
Gill said much of it has to do with fearmongering by the press and others, as well as the fact that some types of crime have more recently moved into white neighborhoods. He promised again, however, that he will prosecute violent and serious crimes, and will focus particularly on crimes that affect public safety…so he will both make people safer and make people feel safer, too.
Feldstein Soto said she’s not so sure that people’s perception of rising crime is so different from the reality…because it makes a lot of difference in how you’re measuring things, and from what points in time. For example, she said, are you measuring absolute numbers of certain kinds of crime, or per capita numbers? And from what point in time? So to some degree it is a matter of how safe people feel, she said. But “I stand unequivocally for safe neighborhoods,” she said, promising to prosecute hate crimes, gun violence, and other matters of public safety.
Domestic violence often leads to homelessness and even incarceration for the victims. What can you do about this?
Feldstein Soto said that domestic violence is a particularly hard crime to prosecute successfully because it takes place behind closed doors, which makes it hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and often turns it into a case of “he said/she said.” But it can also lead to loss of life, she said, so it’s very important. Feldstein Soto said she would use and enforce restraining orders, and provide better education and training on the subject, because we need to make sure we can keep people safe in their own homes, and provide a path to safety if we can’t do that.
Gill said we need to make sure that we have the resources to prosecute domestic violence. He said the state of California does have a Safe at Home Program to protect the whereabouts of domestic violence victims, but we really don’t have enough resources for this work.
What do you think of the new Wildlife District ordinance, and how would you deal with other threats to our environment?
Feldstein Soto said that because the latest draft of the Wildlife Ordinance came out just two days before this event, she hasn’t yet had time to read it (though she was involved with an earlier draft). She noted, however, that she lives in the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council district, which has no parks at all, even though neighbors have struggled to find space for one. So she said she will always be on the side of preserving our natural resources.
Gill, who lives in the San Fernando Valley near the hills, said there’s lots of wildlife in his area, and he wants to make sure that we preserve it. He said he hasn’t yet read the new ordinance either, but generally supports preserving our open spaces and wildlife.
Corruption costs taxpayers a lot of money (such as with the DWP scandal). How will you make sure we don’t have to foot the bill?
Feldstein Soto said a no-bid contract was as the center of the LADWP scandal, so she will work to end those. And she will also cooperate with investigators working on matters of corruption (even in her own department), unless information is privileged and she doesn’t have access to it.
Gill said fighting corruption in city government is one of the key points of his campaign…and people want the City Attorney to do that. He said, however, that a good litigation strategy is also important when prosecuting corruption, because it determines how much you may have to pay out later. He said he will both go after corruption and will have a strong litigation strategy.
How can we found out who made the leaked recording, and was it really illegal?
Feldstein Soto said she has no idea whether or not the recording was illegal, and that it depends on whether or not it might have been made as the result of a warrant in a criminal investigation. But she doesn’t know the facts, so doesn’t know if that was the case. But whether or not the recording itself was illegal, she said, it was not illegal for the media to publish it (something that was established in the Pentagon Papers case in the 1970s). So the key issue is what’s in the tape, which is ultimately much more important, she said, than who made it.
Gill said he doesn’t think the recording was the result of a Department of Justice warrant, but that it did shine the light on a massive problem in our city government – the “horse trading” that goes on during city council redistricting. He said the recording brought “sunlight” to that process, which is always a good thing. So if he were City Attorney, he wouldn’t investigate how the recording was made, or its legality. But he would, he said, like to know if there are more such recordings out there somewhere.
How long have you lived in LA?
Feldstein Soto said she has lived in Los Angeles for 40 years (since she moved here after she finished law school in 1982), and that she fell in love with the city immediately. At the time, she said, the economy was booming, as was entertainment production in Hollywood, the design community in East LA, manufacturing (aerospace, etc.), financial services, and more. She said it was a city of dreams, opportunity, hills, beaches, and more…but the only thing that has improved since then, she said, is the air quality.
Gill said he’s been here since 2008, and that – in addition to the air quality – the diversity, which is the best thing about the city, has also improved in recent years.
Gill said that during this campaign, he’s heard what people want from a City Attorney – criminal justice reform, and to hold the city accountable. And he said we can have both at the same time. He also listed several of his major endorsements (which include many labor organizations), and said that at every door he’s knocked at during this campaign, people say they want a safer neighborhood…but they also ask for someone who can do things that work and aren’t just empty promises. Gill said he will do this, and he won’t use criminal justice as a sword.
Feldstein Soto noted that, for many people, the City Attorney campaign is a “down ballot, low information race.” But she provided her own long list of endorsements, which include almost all the major newspapers in the city, about a dozen labor unions, environmental groups, tenant groups, and the Democratic Party. She said she’s running an inclusive campaign, and will represent all Angelenos. (And speaking to Gill’s point about diversity, she noted that the city was 25% African American when she moved here, but only 11% Black now, so “diversity” is a matter of perspective.) She said that the job of City Attorney requires a commitment to get into the nitty gritty of the issues facing the city, and to come up with a plan, which is what she would do if elected. And, she noted, she would also be the first woman ever elected to do this job in the city of Los Angeles.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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