Four candidates running for an Eastside seat on the Los Angeles City Council sparred on Saturday over housing costs, real estate development and the state of basic services in Boyle Heights.
In the first candidate forum of the campaign, former County Supervisor Gloria Molina said her opponent, Councilman Jose Huizar, had done too little to repair broken sidewalks, remove abandoned furniture and keep the neighborhood clean. Huizar is only working hard now that he finds himself with challengers in the March 3 election, she said.
"This community needs a champion, somebody who’s going to fight for it every single day, not just on Election Day," she told the audience of more than 150.
Huizar, running for a third and final four-year term, accused Molina of pushing unwanted development projects on the neighborhood without consulting residents first. And he defended his track record at City Hall, telling the crowd he had delivered a series of positive changes to the neighborhood: redevelopment of the historic Boyle Hotel at Mariachi Plaza, new sidewalks and bike racks on 1st Street, housing for homeless veterans just south of Whittier Boulevard.
"I don’t think there’s been a time in the history of Boyle Heights that we have seen so many improvements," said Huizar, who represents neighborhoods stretching from downtown to Eagle Rock.
Saturday's forum was sponsored by Boyle Heights Beat, a bilingual community newspaper written by young people. The event, which featured questions from local high school students, provided a platform for two other candidates running for the seat: social worker Nadine Diaz and community activist Mario Chavez, both of whom live in Boyle Heights.
Chavez, a former union organizer, criticized the council for letting downtown developers keep hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that would otherwise flow to the city budget. He also said L.A.'s elected officials have failed to properly replenish the city's affordable housing trust fund, which provides money for the construction of subsidized apartments.
"There is no real effort by this city to provide affordable housing for its residents," he said.
Huizar agreed there is a housing crisis and said he is working with Councilman Mitch O'Farrell to find more funding. Meanwhile, Diaz said Boyle Heights residents are worried about being pushed out as new projects are built in the neighborhood. "We need a seat at the table. All of us need a seat at the table when we're planning this community," she said.
Diaz took her own dig at Huizar. When candidates were asked about ethics at City Hall, she made a stinging but indirect reference to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the councilman by Francine Godoy, one of his former aides. The council voted last year to spend up to $200,000 on lawyers to defend Huizar in the case.
"I will not cost the taxpayers excessive amounts of money for recreational activities that have nothing, nothing to do with government," Diaz said.
Huizar did not respond to Diaz's assertion. In interviews last year, he called the harassment claims false and said he had a consensual relationship with Godoy. The case was settled in September at no additional cost to the city.
On the ethics issue, Huizar told the audience he had worked with campaign finance advocates on passage of a measure that prevents city contractors from giving political contributions to candidates. He also talked up his push for more taxpayer funding of city candidates.
"When we get more public financing of campaigns, we will be able to focus more on campaigning and not on fundraising," he said.