The 7th Council District in the Northeast San Fernando Valley is in desperate need of committed, inclusive and ambitious representation. This region, which includes the communities of Sylmar, Mission Hills, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace, Sunland, Tujunga and Shadow Hills, has some of the city's most intractable challenges and some of the greatest opportunities for improvement — if only the district could get a council member to stick around.
The district has been represented by a caretaker councilman for months because the last one it elected, Felipe Fuentes, bailed on his constituents three years into his term to become a lobbyist in Sacramento. It was no big loss, many residents say; Fuentes had just been going through the motions on the job for a while. But the problem didn't start with Fuentes; the area had inconsistent leadership for years due to redistricting and elected officials leaving for greener political pastures.
The result, residents say, is that their communities have fallen behind other areas of the city in terms of redevelopment and economic investment. They too often lack basic infrastructure, such as sidewalks, shade trees and street lights. And while their district is rich in community activism, they need a partner in City Hall working on their behalf.
There are many good candidates in the race, but Monica Ratliff stands out as someone who can be a problem solver and a fighter for her constituents in City Hall.
Ratliff began her career as a lawyer at Neighborhood Legal Services in Pacoima, where she saw the connection between poverty and the lack of a quality education. She became a teacher, working at an inner-city school. After 12 years of teaching, she felt the district was lying to teachers and ran successfully for the Board of Education in 2013, serving as a voice for transparency and accountability. Her diligent research and questioning exposed flaws in the district's ill-fated plan to buy iPads for every student. She's not a go-along kind of politician, and that independence is needed in City Hall. But she's also demonstrated a willingness to listen, learn and then lead, which is important for communities that have lost trust in their elected officials.
There are several other strong contenders as well, and any of them would probably do a better job than the previous councilman. Nicole Chase thoroughly understands the issues and needs of CD7 after years of working in both government and nonprofits. Karo Torossian, who is the planning deputy for Councilman Paul Krekorian, is an expert in land-use issues and has a track record of working with the community to make development projects more responsive to local needs. Venessa Martinez, a lawyer with the California Department of Justice, is an impressive newcomer to local politics.
Monica Rodriguez has a long and diverse resume, most recently working on the city's Board of Public Works. She's known for being a persistent, single-minded advocate to get things done.There's a backlash in the community against Rodriguez because she has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Northeast Valley political leaders. But she's got an independent streak and has bucked the political establishment before, running unsuccessfully against her former boss, Councilman Richard Alarcon, in 2007. (The Times endorsed her then.)
With 20 names on the district's ballot, it's unlikely that a single candidate will capture 50% of the vote, so there will probably be a runoff after the March primary. That would give voters a welcome opportunity to push the candidates for more specifics on a few key issues.
One of the biggest challenges facing the district is the high speed rail route between Palmdale and Union Station in downtown L.A. The proposed alignments cut through CD7, and residents are justifiably worried that the routes will devastate their communities. All of the candidates are opposed to the current alignments, but they need to go beyond opposition and explain how they'll protect residents' interests, what alternatives they'll put forward and how they'll work with other elected officials to make the project better.
The candidates also need to be clear about how they'll address the need to build housing for homeless residents and deal with large encampments in the Big Tujunga Wash and the Hansen Dam Recreational Area, which are sensitive environmental habitats. And the candidates should offer more detailed plans for how they would attract economic investment and jobs to the district.