L.A.'s quiet election season needs more candidate debates

No wonder L.A.'s voters feel detached: There are few debates or opportunities to meet City Council candidates

At a breakfast-hour Council District 4 candidate debate last week, I jokingly asked one of the prospective council members whether this was the 26th or 27th forum. This is every morning, the candidate replied, with some exasperation. "Every. Morning."

That was an exaggeration, but not by much. Candidates for the open seat to replace termed-out Councilman Tom LaBonge have two or three debates a week. So far, there have been at least 10 forums that have been held or are scheduled. Several debates have invited all 14 candidates to participate, and most of the events have been packed with potential voters.

The candidates have repeatedly answered questions about how they would handle development, mansionization, the city budget, traffic, homelessness and street maintenance -- and the March 3 primary is still a month away.  No voter in District 4, which stretches from Los Feliz to Hancock Park to Sherman Oaks, can honestly complain about having no information or no opportunity to vet the candidates in this election.

However, it's a very different story for voters in the rest of the city. There haven't been any debates held yet for the other council districts up for election, despite some competitive races.

In the San Fernando Valley's Council District 6, incumbent Nury Martinez -- who only took office a year and a half ago after a special election -- is facing a rematch from former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez. There is just one debate scheduled, hosted by the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council at 7 p.m. on Feb. 11 at Van Nuys City Hall

In South L.A.'s Council District 8, there is a rare open seat with Councilman Bernard Parks termed out. Four politically experienced candidates are vying for the job but there have been no debates as of yet. Two are scheduled, the first of which is to be hosted by the Empowerment Congress Central Area Neighborhood Development Council on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Barack Obama Middle Global Preparation Academy.

Voters in the 14th Council District, which runs from downtown to Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, have more opportunities to hear the candidates hash out issues. There are four debates scheduled. Councilman Jose Huizar is up for reelection, and he faces four challengers, including veteran Eastside politician and former county Supervisor Gloria Molina. The first debate, hosted by the Boyle Heights Beat, is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. Candidate Nadine Diaz has helpfully posted the scheduled forums on her website.

As for the other council races, there appear to be no debates set. Councilman Paul Krekorian has one challenger for his District 2 seat in the southeast San Fernando Valley, but he has received no invitations for a debate, his campaign said. Councilman Herb Wesson has two challengers but no debates planned in District 10, which includes Koreatown and Mid-City. And Councilman Mitch Englander is running unopposed for his north San Fernando Valley District 12 seat. These folks represent a quarter of a million constituents, but those residents won't get a chance to ask questions or hear council members account for their last four years in office.  

There's a lot of hand-wringing about the lack of civic engagement in L.A., low voter turnout in city elections and the fact that Angelenos feel detached from local government, as The Times recently reported. After the dismal 23% turnout in the 2013 contest, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council appointed a commission to study how to boost participation. That spawned Charter Amendments 1 and 2 on the March ballot, which would consolidate L.A.'s local elections with gubernatorial and presidential elections with the hope of getting more people to cast ballots. City leaders even pondered wacky ideas, such as offering cash prizes in a voter lottery.

But the example of Council District 4, with so many debates and so much attention from residents, suggests that Angelenos will respond when there are real choices on the ballot and they have the chance to hear candidates speak to their concerns. It would be nice if residents in the rest of the city had that opportunity too.

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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