Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

NCSA Holds Environment-Focused CD 13 Candidate Forum

Scott Epstein (moderator and NCSA board member), Mitch O’Farrell, Hugo Soto-Martinez, and Lisa Hart (NCSA board member) at the August 14 CD 13 candidate forum.


The November election is still almost three months away, but candidate forums for the various offices in contention are starting to show up on the calendar again.  Last night (Sunday, August 14), the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance, which works on policy advocacy, best practices, and  community action relating to environmental issues for the city’s 99 neighborhood councils and their stakeholders, held one of these early forums with city council candidates Mitch O’Farrell and Hugo Soto-Martinez, focusing on a variety of environmental issues.

The session was moderated by NCSA board member Scott Epstein, who recently concluded his own City Council run in Council District 5.

In his opening remarks at the start of the session, incumbent O’Farrell described himself as a life-long environmentalist, whose passion was sparked in part by his family living next to a creosote site, where telephone poles were coated, when he was young.  So “this is personal,” he said, and it’s no accident that he is now the head of the City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Water Committee, where O’Farrell said he’s working to end all fossil fuel purchases by the city and – eventually – the use of fossil fuels as well.

Meanwhile, Soto-Martinez, the challenger who outscored O’Farrell in the June primary election (with 40.63% of the votes cast to O’Farrell’s 31.65%), said he has worked his for his entire adult life for the Unite Here Local 11 union, which represents hotel workers in the Los Angeles area.  He said his experience as a grass roots organizer has shown O’Farrell’s office to be unresponsive to community activists, and that we need to act with more urgency now on climate matters.

Here were Epstein’s further questions to the candidates, and their responses.


Our climate has already changed, as we’re seeing with our current water crisis and worsening wild fires.  What have you done so far to address climate change…and what will you do next?

Soto-Martinez said climate change is “the existential crisis” of our time, and that – as with most issues – the most vulnerable members of our community will also be the most vulnerable to its effects.  He said he himself is both a bike rider and a user of public transportation, so he knows from experience that we have to change our own behaviors before we can convince others to change theirs.  As for his track record, he said he has worked with the Food and Water Watch organization to push for 100% electrification in new buildings.  And his long-term goal is to push people in power to do the right thing when it comes to climate change.

O’Farrell reported that during the last few months of his current term in office, the City Council has instituted new water conservation measures that have reduced the city’s water usage by 9%, even though Los Angeles was already one of the most aggressively water-conserving cities in the country.  Also, he said, he will be traveling soon to Sacramento, to meet with Governor Gavin Newsom about his new water plan for the state, including measures for rain capture and further water conservation efforts.  And, finally, O’Farrell said, we need to expand our production and use of recycled water.  The water we currently use from Lake Mead, he said, is recycled water from Las Vegas, but we need more.


UC Berkeley has studied the effects of local policymaking on reducing carbon emissions, and found that the biggest factor in reducing emissions is increasing housing density.  So how do we build more housing?

O’ Farrell said there are already 4,300 units of affordable housing that have been built or are in the process of being built in CD 13 since he took office, and that he has also focused on turning parking lots into new housing with affordability covenants.  “This is what we do.  This is what I know how to do,” he said, noting that more housing is especially needed in our urban core.

Soto-Martinez said one way to increase housing production is to remove individual city councilmembers from the decision-making process.  And we especially need to locate more new housing near transit lines, and include less parking (which is expensive and reduces the number of units you can include in a development).  Also, he said, the city should move ahead with 100% electrification rules for new housing, which can be done through the City’s Community Plans and doesn’t need to wait for the new ordinance currently being drafted by the City Council.


The City took the first step toward electrification this year, led by the the City Council’s Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Water Committee.  How committed are you to pursuing that goal?

O’ Farrell, who chairs that committee, said he is “wholeheartedly” behind the effort, and the key will be building our capacity to generate between five and six gigawatts of power each year from renewable sources, something he’s already working on with grass roots and industry groups, Native American tribes, and more to create the new jobs and build the new infrastructure we’ll need to meet the goal.

Soto-Martinez noted that City Councilmember Nithya Raman introduced the motion in question, and said he, too, is 100% in support of the effort.  He also said the grass roots groups he works with were pushing O’Farrell to work on this three years ago, but got no response…so it could have been done a long time ago.

In response to that charge, O’Farrell said his office has been working on increasing the use of renewable energy for a long time, and largely in cooperation with grass roots activists like those in the NCSA.  He also said that while the LA Department of Water and Power currently has about 9,400 employees in all, the push to increase power from renewable energy sources will create an additional 9,500 jobs, so he’s been working with labor groups, too…which is “baked into” the city council ordinance.

Soto-Martinez, however, continued to take issue with O’Farrell’s characterization of his work on renewable energy, saying the push is definitely coming more from Councilmember Raman than O’Farrell.  Soto-Martinez also repeated that when he went to O’Farrell’s office a few years ago with a petition for 100% renewable energy, O’Farrell refused to meet with him…so grass roots activists have felt ignored during O’Farrell’s term.


CD 13 is densely populated and rich in services…but there’s only one good bike path in the district (along the LA River).  How can we create a better bike network?

Soto-Martinez said that on day one, if he’s elected, he will begin working with the Department of Transportation to implement the city’s Mobility Plan 2035, which is an “amazing plan,” but has so far been only 3% implemented in the seven years since it was passed.  Soto-Martinez said we need to have a more future-focused vision for transportation, and to move people away from cars by providing things like bike networks and free public transportation.

O’Farrell said two recent proposals to build new bike paths along Elysian Park Drive and Fletcher Ave. were his initiatives.  He said he has also worked on Operation Healthy Streets, and is incorporating bike improvements in the renewal project now underway along Hollywood Blvd.  And he said he has worked to implement new bus lanes on La Brea Ave. (and in other areas), supports the Sunset 4 All project, and – like Soto-Martinez – is a bike and bus rider himself.


Do you support the City Council’s Healthy Streets Ordinance (which is the same as the same as the Healthy Streets ballot measure, which will be up for a vote this fall)?

O’Farrell said he prefers what the City Council is doing, because it incorporates input from people who didn’t have a voice in the creation of the ballot measure.  But the council process puts those voices on the record, he said, so he’s “all in” on the Healthy Streets Ordinance.

Soto-Martinez said he “absolutely” supports the ballot measure because it’s based on the city council ordinance, and would simply implement what Councilmembers have already voted on, and “makes them do their jobs.”


Environmental policies cost money, but the city’s 2022-23 budget gives half of its discretionary funds to the LAPD. 

O’Farrell said he’s “not of the opinion that we need more police officers,” but does think we need to put money where it’s needed to deter crime…with some of that done through unarmed responses (such as through the new CIRCLE program, now being piloted in Hollywood), when an armed response isn’t needed.  He said he would like to expand the CIRCLE program to more parts of the city, but each year’s budget is an exercise in evaluating the data and following the data when allocating funds.

Soto-Martinez said people are very frustrated with LAPD right now, and that it often takes hours to receive a response when calling for help.  But 92% of calls to LAPD are for non-violent issues…and yet the department receives more than 45% of the city’s discretionary funds.  Soto-Martinez said he would like to bring in a program like Denver’s STAR program, which he said he prefers to CIRCLE because CIRCLE has some shortcomings (such as being run by an outside organization that isn’t accountable to the city.)


What was the original plan to clear the large homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake, how do you feel about how it unfolded, and how would you plan for similar efforts in the future?

O’Farrell said his office is currently conducting a needs assessment for the whole Echo Park complex, and that he wants to hear from the community on what they want for the future of the area.  (Also, he noted, the fence now surrounding the lake, which some people have complained about, is – and was always intended to be – temporary.)  The goal of the encampment clearance, he said, was to get people out of horrific living conditions, under a roof, and on the path to wellness.  He said the police were called only because of protestors making threats against the effort.  He agreed that police tactics used that day were “heavy-handed,” but said that was a decision made by LAPD, not his office.

Soto-Martinez said O’Farrell left a lot out of his assessment of the Echo Park incident, especially that the camp grew from just a few people to more than 100 under O’Farrell’s watch…and he should have addressed the suffering when the problem was still small.  That he didn’t, Soto-Martinez said, was a “failure”…and then bringing in police only made things worse, especially coming, as it did, so soon after the George Floyd murder and protests.  Soto-Martinez said O’Farrell needs to take responsibility for his own actions in the clearance issues, and that he would have done many things differently.


Can you elaborate on the issue of the use of force and the potential for escalation in trying to get people housed, especially with people who are especially vulnerable and distrusting of the police?

O’Farrell said that it is “another complete misperception” that LAPD swept the homeless from the Echo Park encampment.  Instead, he said, StreetWatch practitioners worked with people at the site for months, starting when the camp was much smaller, but it still grew and he was determined to house everyone there.  O’Farrell also said that a now-infamous report on the incident from UCLA, harshly criticizing the cleanup, was “unscientific,” “editorialized,” and not peer reviewed as it should have been.  He also noted that police did actually clear large encampments on Venice Beach and in other areas, but they did not do that work at Echo Park.  And finally, he reported, Echo Park Lake has been completely crime-free for a year since it re-opened after the cleanup, and the lake itself is now back in compliance with clean water standards.


If you had 100 officers in Pan Pacific Park (in Epstein’s CD5 neighborhood), people would “freak out.” Knowing that kind of police presence makes people anxious, what would you do in the future?

O’Farrell repeated that the incidents in the Echo Park Lake cleanup were “very unfortunate,” but also that the “real problem” was that many protestors were making it impossible for outreach workers to come in and do their jobs, which is why the police were called.  O’Farrell said he doesn’t approve of the LAPD’s specific actions that day (including offenses against reporters), but in the end the encampment residents were removed from a dangerous situation, and the park has since been restored to being “one of the crown jewels of our park system.”  Also, since then, CD 13 has added hundreds of homeless housing units, which is great progress.

Soto-Martinez said that instead of being defensive about the cleanup, O’Farrell needs to accept that the approach taken that day is the wrong one for the city…as is the City Council’s recent vote to enforce Ordinance 41.18 rules against camping near schools, which O’Farrell also supported.  Instead, said Soto-Martinez, it would be better to remove the police from situations involving mental health, drug addiction and homelessness, and start by connecting people to the services and housing they need.

O’Farrell clarified that he was not the architect of Ordinance 41.18, and said Soto-Martinez is perpetuating a false narrative about what really happened at Echo Park.  “I don’t criminalize homelessness,” O’Farrell said.  “I house people.”


The NCSA has opposed the LA River Master Plan.  What is your opinion of it?

Soto-Martinez said we do need to de-pave the LA River, but many plans for the river’s revitalization focus too much on tourism and are not sensitive to gentrification and the needs of the people who live near the river now.  He said we need to move away from that kind of planning and toward more open space for all Angelenos, especially communities of color.  So he doesn’t support the plan as currently written.

O’Farrell also said that he does not support the current plan, but that he did support a plan the city did several years ago, which was very organic, would have removed some of the concrete river channel, and addressed some important hydrology issues, including the Taylor Yard area.


What have you done to support campaign finance reform, and what do you think of Democracy Vouchers (a program pioneered in Seattle that provides voters with four $100 vouchers to donate to candidates of their choice)?

O’Farrell said he has always supported campaign finance reforms that have come before the City Council during his tenure, but the “devil is in the details” for voucher programs.  Also, he said, allowing candidates to raise at least some money can provide a good indicator of public support for their candidacy…though the best solution is probably full public funding for elections.

Soto-Martinez said he now has personal experience with how hard it is to raise funds in a grass roots campaign, especially since he doesn’t take money from fossil fuel or development interests, so he thinks the vouchers are a good idea, and that they would take away advantages for wealthy candidates and donors.

Soto-Martinez also charged that O’Farrell has received 50% of his campaign funds from developers and others outside the city of Los Angeles, but O’Farrell said that if any checks had arrived from petroleum companies, they would have been returned (since he is currently working on ending all oil drilling and capping all oil wells in the city of Los Angeles).  He also said he has returned contributions from many organizations he does not support.


Would you support…

…a ban on non-individual campaign donations (i.e. those by corporations and other organizations)?

Soto-Martinez said he doesn’t think of unions as “corporations,” but yes, he would support such a ban.

O’Farrell said he would definitely consider such a ban, but there’s also a chance that it could drive more donations undercover, so it would be better to make sure there is complete transparency in campaign financing.


…lower maximum campaign contributions?

O’Farrell said it’s not easy for every candidate to bring in $800 donations, but he did it when he was a grass roots candidate in 2013, so he knows it can be done.

Soto-Martinez‘s response was an enthusiastic, “Oh, my god, absolutely!,” noting that his campaign’s average donation is $60, while O’Farrell’s has been more than $500.  The current “incredibly corrupt” system, said Soto-Martinez, will never allow a housekeeper, single mother, or teacher to run for office.


…more generous matching funds?

Soto-Martinez said “absolutely,” especially if it helps more people run for office.

O’Farrell said the match is currently 6:1, which is better than the 4:1 it used to be, so it’s better now…but he also said he’d still like to find a more honest, sincere approach to campaign funding, and would like to be part of the conversation to create it.


Closing statements

Soto-Martinez said the reason 70% of voters in the June primary didn’t vote for the incumbent in this race were his constant refrains of “it’s coming,” and “we’re working on it”…but for climate and housing, “there is no middle ground” and we need immediate action.  Soto-Martinez said he represents the voice of those at the grass roots level of the community, and will focus on building coalitions to get results.

Finally, O’Farrell said that while Soto-Martinez offers a lot of words, he has never taken real actions like O’Farrell has…especially on renewable energy, where we’re already on our way and on track to meet the city’s 100% renewable energy goal, which includes hiring thousands of people from disadvantaged communities.


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Elizabeth Fuller
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 has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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