Four candidates are seeking to succeed Richard Alarcon as the representative of the 7th District on the Los Angeles City Council. Of those, the best choice is Felipe Fuentes.
There are plenty of reasons for voters in this north San Fernando Valley district to sigh in despair as they mark their ballots for Fuentes, a termed-out assemblyman who made some noteworthy mistakes during his tenure in the Legislature. When the best thing one can say about a candidate is that "he's smart enough to be really good one day, if he wants to be," something is amiss.
This is a district in need of an extraordinarily talented and committed council member who can enhance the area's industrial potential while ending its use as a dumping ground — not merely for garbage but also for poorly designed and planned development. It needs someone who can recognize and protect its natural beauty and bring attention to its underappreciated landmarks while still attracting the economic development that it has for too long lacked. It needs someone who can protect and enhance its residents' quality of life.
It needs a better field of candidates.
Fuentes stands out not simply because he has raised so much more money than the other three candidates, but because he has valuable background and experience in getting things done here. He's no mere Sacramento import. He's a local guy, having grown up in the north Valley. He was Mayor James K. Hahn's deputy for the Valley and later chief of staff to Councilman Alex Padilla before being elected to the Assembly. He has worked on important projects such as the cleanup and development of the Price Pfister foundry in Pacoima. He could do a credible job as councilman for the 7th District.
Still, voters here — in Sylmar, Mission Hills, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace, Sunland, Tujunga, Sun Valley, Shadow Hills and La Tuna Canyon — won't easily forget that he was cited as one of the Sacramento lawmakers most prone to introduce bills sponsored by special interests. Neighbors who want to preserve the Verdugo Hills Golf Course may not forget that he introduced a bill to override local land-use laws to allow a political donor to develop housing on the site.
They will want evidence that he can think for himself and keep the interests of constituents foremost in his mind and actions.
That is not to say that he must block any attempt to develop badly needed housing or retail, or that he should say no to any project that stirs community opposition. The job of a council member is a balancing act, and the person entrusted with the work must keep a keen eye on what constituents want as well as on local economic development and citywide interests, including a fiscally sound budget.
Fuentes, if elected, should expect close scrutiny. Despite any understandable discomfort about him, though, he's still the best candidate in the field.
Among the other three — Krystee Clark, Nicole Chase and Jesse David Barron — there is passion, heart and good intentions. They are not enough.
Imagine a board of directors that was looking to hire a high-level executive at an annual salary of nearly $180,000, for a job that serves the needs of a quarter-million people, includes enormous power, requires oversight of a multibillion-dollar budget and tens of thousands of employees — including armed and sworn police officers, licensed professionals, emergency service workers and skilled technicians. What's more, the job comes with a virtual guarantee against layoff or firing for at least four years and maybe as many as 12. It's not unreasonable to expect the applicant for that job to have studied up a bit before the interview.
The board — in this case, the voters of Los Angeles — should be able to expect the job applicant, or rather, the City Council candidate, to already know how the city works, what the budget says, when labor contracts are up for renewal, even how to manage a staff. And if not, how to find out. The candidate should come prepared with a comprehensive program, including goals, a budget and a way to measure their success. But few candidates do that. And none of the District 7 candidates have.
That's not a knock only on them or only on grass-roots candidates who emerge from neighborhood councils or community activism. It also applies to seasoned politicians, who always seem to do their political homework — hiring their fundraisers and consultants, lining up their endorsements and conducting their polling — but too rarely crack the books to find out anything substantive about the new position they are seeking.
That approach may work for someone running for a purely legislative office like the Assembly, where a newly elected official can cruise through a few terms by following the marching orders of the speaker, a political mentor or even a special interest. It's no way to serve one's constituents, but damage to them is relatively contained. Any lingering nervousness about Fuentes is that for a time, he seemed like one of those lawmakers.
The Los Angeles City Council isn't like that. The responsibilities of the job are enormous, and an unprepared candidate can inflict a great deal of harm on the district and the city.
In addition to his time in the Assembly, Fuentes has served in the north Valley and in City Hall. And despite his rocky start in the Legislature, he quickly improved his performance. In this field of candidates, he's the one who comes closest to being ready to serve.