The Hang Out Do Good local advocacy group is conducting a series of “Looking Local” conversations with candidates currently running for local offices, including Los Angeles Mayor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, LA County Sheriff, Los Angeles City Attorney, and several Los Angeles City Council seats. The conversations take place on Sunday afternoons, via Zoom, and are open to the public (see the remaining schedule below). This conversation with Supervisorial District 3 candidate Henry Stern, structured as a Q&A with HODG hosts, took place on February 20. Stern currently represents the 27th District in the California State Senate, is a sixth-generation Californian and a former education and environmental attorney, and got his political start working for former U.S. Congressional Representative Henry Waxman. You can learn more about him at http://henrystern.org/. These were among the topics covered in the HODG conversation:
Why are you running for this office?
Stern said he’s running because he believes “the County is the most important arm of government in Los Angeles,” the “budget is bigger than most nations,” and the Board of Supervisors serves “everyone who slips through whatever cracks emerge” in other levels of local government, including senior citizens, the homeless, and young people falling out of the foster system, among others. Also, he said, the County controls about 80% of the funding for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which is extremely important right now. But there are only five supervisors representing all of LA County, Stern said, so they often tend to feel very distant from the people they represent…”and I have a very different attitude about it.” Stern said he was always more interested in public policy than in the Hollywood community his family was part of (his father is actor Daniel Stern), and he wound up in politics because “I had to” to get involved to change things. “I need this job to go fix the problems in my own back yard,” he said, explaining tht he’s interested in the kind of “service-oriented” leadership he learned from his first boss in the field, former U.S. representative Henry Waxman.
What would you do on your first day in office?
Stern said he would immediately call whoever wins the LA mayoral race and pledge solidarity and “a sort of disarmament” with them, instead of maintaining what he says has traditionally felt more like a turf war between the county and city. He said he would make it clear that he would like to share governmental power and get rid of the “silos” that keep different governmental bodies from interacting and cooperating. “If we can’t get it done on a city and county level,” he said, we shouldn’t have these jobs.” Also, he promised that he does not see this job as a quick stepping stone to other offices, but instead that “this is going to be the work of my life.”
How should you be held accountable in the job, or what would constitute success for you after a year in the job?
Currently, Stern said, there are only three mobile psychiatric units serving all 10 million residents of LA County, with a total of 30 people assigned to them. Stern said he would immediately increase that number to 300, as well as immediately audit all for-profit nursing homes in the county to see where their Medical funding went, and change the Men’s Central Jail or close it and replace it with “a new kind of carceral system” that would be much more rehabilitative than the current system. And finally, he said, “we have about a million people living in harm’s way,” so he would also immediately address preparedness for fires, floods, and heat, to protect LA County residents and their homes.
Can you list one specific change you’d make to the Departments of Mental Health and the Department of Public Health?
Stern said that the Department of Public Health, the Department of Health Services, and the Department of Mental Health all do similar kinds of work, for similar groups of people, especially when it comes to supportive housing with mental health services, so “I would like to blow up those silos” and unify the agencies, services and entry points. Even more specifically, he said he would put multidisciplinary teams on the street to “force cohesion” among the agencies, and take a more holistic approach to engaging people who need services.
Do the County supervisors have the power to do those kinds of things?
Stern said they do, to at least some degree, but none have yet shaken things up in the way he would like to. For example, he said he would like to get MediCal to fund more things like acute psychiatric beds and treatment issues through a central channel. Also, he said, the Department of Child and Family Services isn’t constantly on the phone with LAHSA every day, and it should be, because so many kids flow directly from the foster care system to the streets when they turn 18.
What are the impediments to using the $187 million Measure J funding currently available to address corrections and homelessness in Los Angeles?
Stern said that both homeless funding and our current funding for the corrections system are very wasteful. And we definitely don’t need to cut our public safety budget to better fund or empower our social services – it’s not an either/or choice, and we don’t want to underfund one to support the other. For example, he said, we don’t want to put a person with mental health crisis in Men’s Central Jail…but we also don’t want an understaffed sheriff’s department when violent crime is happening around us. Stern said a number of these funding issues were put on hold while a legal challenge to Measure J played out, but that was very counter-productive. The $187 million is there, he said, and he doesn’t know why we’re not using it for things like creating a “housing navigator” to help kids who are aging out of foster care, to keep them from sliding directly to the street, or helping the 25% of residents in the Men’s Central Jail who have mental health issues and currently just get sent back to the streets to commit more crimes. It would be much better, he said, to get them beds in long-term mental health care facilities.
What is the holdup with this funding, if the money does exist?
Stern said a large part of the problem is staff “intransigence” – County employees who don’t want to work outside their scope, such as probation officers who only want to work within the traditional carceral system instead of finding new ways of assisting their clients. So we need to push them, Stern said, and push their unions. Stern called these “hidden impasses,” and said County Supervisors have to do a better job of talking to, inspiring, and being willing to push their employees and unions into more creative ways of doing their jobs. He pledged to do this, and said if it causes him to be labeled a “micro-manager,” it’s a title he’d accept. “I can’t sit here when my community’s on fire and wait for that to sort out,” he said. Stern also said that he comes to the job with a different perspective from the the other current candidates – California State Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg is an old-style deal-maker who’s been around a long time, and former West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath has been working on the ground at the very local level – and he’s sort of in the middle. “I feel like I know the machine, but I’m not of it,” he said. And he said he would also work hard to elevate other people and make them look good, in addition to being willing to have hard conversations with people when necessary and push necessary reforms through to fruition.
Will Los Angeles be shifting from the 911 emergency number to a 988 line for mental health issues?
Stern said the service is coming in a few months at the federal level, but only a few counties are ready to use it. Stern said that he, along with other Angelenos, has been dissatisfied with existing systems like LA-HOP (the current outreach portal for reporting homeless issues), because there never seems to be any response when calls are placed. So a new 988 system would be good in theory, but – as with LA-HOP – if there aren’t enough people to staff it, or other necessary resources, the County won’t be able to turn it on and start using it. Also, he said, some people say we need a lot more permanent places for people with mental health issues to live before we can activate a 988 system…so why are we stalling when we’re sitting on a billion dollars to help with this? But the simple right to shelter that city hall is proposing isn’t enough, Stern said – we also need on-site services to go along with housing. So “Step 0,” he said, before we can implement an new emergency mental health response system, is to break the impasse and create “abundant and available” help for mental health issues, which we do not currently have. (And that goes for everyone with mental health issues, he said, not just the homeless.)
How would you have vote on the recent state-level SB 9 and SB 10 housing bills? [Note: although Stern was in office when these bills passed earlier this year, he was not present for the votes.]
Stern said he privately opposed both bills (SB 9 allows construction of duplexes and lot splitting on many properties currently zoned for single family housing, and SB 10 allows cities to choose to allow up to 10 units on any parcel within a certain distance of public transit), and publicly opposed earlier versions the legislation, too. He said his position led to his being called a “NIMBY” (Not in My Back Yard) by some housing advocates, but because neither bill did anything to promote specifically affordable housing, he couldn’t support them. He said he would much prefer to create an affordable housing trust or other systems that would help to publicly fund and subsidize the construction of much-needed affordable housing. Also, he said, as someone who lost his own home in the 2018 Woolsey fire, the fact that these bills did not exempt new development in fire districts, which are usually high-priced housing areas, didn’t help. And neither did the fact that housing developers have been the ones pushing these issues so far. “Large developers have controlled the narrative and made it sound like it’s a YIMBY thing to do and that’s it,” Stern said, “but it’s not actually affordable.”
Racial justice groups have worked with officials to replace youth probation systems with a new Department of Youth Development that is supposed to be available later this year. But those advocates were disappointed recently when Supervisor Sheila Kuehl introduced a motion to replace the proposed DYD with a new bureaucratic agency called the Justice, Care and Opportunity Department, ignoring the diverse array of stakeholders that have been working on this for three years. Will you publicly oppose this proposal?
Stern said he has already opposed Kuehl’s motion privately, and would continue to do so publicly. “I don’t get the logic of scrapping it” he said of the original proposal, which he called a “very nice blueprint.”
Both U.S. Representative (and current LA mayoral candidate) Karen Bass and District Attorney George Gascon have recently come out in favor of stronger law enforcement positions (Bass by saying she would put more police on the street, and Gascon by backing down on previous promises to eliminate life sentences for juveniles), so what would you do to make sure we don’t put more people/children in prison, and traumatize even more families…while also acknowledge people’s fear and then helping them realize that locking more people up is not the answer?
Stern said we can’t abandon decades of law enforcement reform efforts just because the politics of the day (including the current recall effort targeting Gascon) are uncomfortable. He said doesn’t want to be “one of those people” that does such things, and that he resents the aloofness of the current supervisors in this matter. Stern said he worked as a juvenile justice litigator, and elsewhere in the juvenile justice system, so this issue is very personal for him, and that he would like to partner with Supervisor Holly Mitchell, whom he thinks has a more balanced perspective on this issue. On one hand, he said, there do have to be consequences for violent crimes…but the punishments shouldn’t be the same for kids as they are for adults. He said the cognitive development of teenagers isn’t helped by locking them up until they’re 65, and then just releasing them to the streets. Stern said, “I don’t think there should be a disciplinary, carceral mindset” when it comes to children, and the real tragedy is poverty driven. But again he said that he’s not against funding public safety, and there is also money to fund alternatives to prisons, so we can do both. Also, he said, people with mental health issues, especially, won’t do well in Men’s Central Jail – we need treatment beds in sub-acute care facilities for them instead.
For all intents and purposes, our juvenile halls are “dungeons,” but the unions representing their employees want us to “refurbish” them into more secure facilities for more a more dangerous population. Will you oppose any effort by probation unions to push the state to pour more money into securitized juvenile halls, and will you actively oppose pushback from probation officers’ unions on this issue?
Stern said that he would, and if the probation officers refuse to do the more necessary work to truly support kids in the system, he’s already talking to other groups of County employees, such as psychiatric social workers and others, to get their employees to help. “Those lines are already being drawn” in the election, he said, with the probation officers’ union supporting “the other guy,” while “I’ve got the social workers.”
Can LA County provide resources for urban farms to help with issues of food sovreignity?
Stern said he thinks that we definitely could change city codes to allow for more residential agriculture. Also, Stern said one thing he would like to do is allow farmers markets and small farms to compete more directly with grocers in underserved areas, perhaps through a system of County-sponsored farmers markets, or a new County-level Office of Food Equity. This could be a new workforce, not welfare, program, and could help improve on food options currently available through SNAP and WIC programs. He said there’s definitely a lot more we can do in this area.
How would you incentivize the construction of affordable housing?
Stern said there is a ballot initiative coming up on this topic in the City of Los Angeles, but he would like to see something in place at the county level as well, because all LA County cities need better housing equity. Also, he said, he would like to create an affordable housing trust to help the County meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers from the bottom up, and not just through construction of new luxury housing. Instead, Stern said, all developers should contribute to a central trust to help build more affordable housing…but it will take other money, too, including governmental subsidies, to do the job.
The next HODG Looking Local event is scheduled for this coming Sunday, March13, at 4 p.m., with State Assembly District 51 candidate Louis Abramson. Sign up here for the Zoom link if you’d like to attend.
The remaining HODG “Looking Local” candidate conversations include:
3/20 (4-5pm) Katy Young Yaroslavsky, City Council District 5 (confirmed)
(5-6pm) Scott Epstein, City Council District 5 (confirmed)
3/27 (4-5pm) Jimmy Biblarz, City Council District 5 (confirmed)
4/3 (4-5 pm) Sam Yebri, City Council District 5 (confirmed)
4/10 (4-5pm) Mitch O’Farrell, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
4/17 (4-5pm) Kate Pynoos, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
(5-6pm) Dulce Vasquez, City Council District 9 (confirmed)
4/24 (4-5 pm) Hugo Soto Martinez, City Council District 13 (confirmed)
5/1 (4-5 pm) Teddy Kapur, City Attorney (confirmed)
(5-5:30pm) Eli Vera, Sheriff (confirmed)
5/8 (4-5 pm) Hydee Feldstein Soto, City Attorney (confirmed)
5/15 (4-5 pm) Faisal Gill, City Attorney (confirmed)
5/22 (4-5 pm) Bob Hertzberg, Board of Supervisors (confirmed)
5/29 (4-5 pm) OPEN
6/7: ELECTION DAY