L.A. on the Record: Should the city go its own way on mental health?

A group of four men and a woman stand on a stage and hug and shake hands.
Mayoral candidates Kevin de León, left, Karen Bass, Mike Feuer, Joe Buscaino and Rick Caruso greet one another after Tuesday’s debate at USC’s Bovard Auditorium.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to L.A. on the Record — our new local elections newsletter. It’s Ben Oreskes and Julia Wick here, both energized and exhausted from a wild week in mayoral politics. David Zahniser pitched in as well.

For months, we’ve been following the mayoral election in microscopic detail, but Tuesday night’s debate at USC’s Bovard Auditorium felt like the first time the contest had more fully captured the public’s attention. The 90-minute back-and-forth among the top five candidates exposed key contrasts in how the candidates view Los Angeles.

It was the first time billionaire developer Rick Caruso had been on stage with his opponents — and it was full of illuminating moments.

We’ll run through some of our coverage of the event below. But today we’re going to focus on a subtle but significant policy disagreement that’s emerged among some of the candidates — and, most saliently, between Councilman Kevin de León and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

Bass was asked if the city should have its own public health department — one that operates separately from the county.

A quick refresher on the two mammoth bureaucracies: The city (home to nearly 4 million people) and the county (home to 88 cities and a little more than 10 million people) are two separate but interlinked entities.


The county is governed by five elected supervisors, each representing about 2 million people. The city is led by a mayor and the 15-member City Council. The city has taken the lead on building housing and shelter within the city limits.

The county is largely responsible for social services, including many of those that are central to the fight against homelessness, such as child welfare, public health and mental health.

While attempting to address the crisis, some on the council have lost faith in the county’s ability to deliver those social services. Some of those council members are now running for mayor.

Bass called the concept of a city health department “a nice idea.”

“The problem with that,” she said, “is it would probably take 10 years to happen. And we have a public health crisis that’s happening on our streets right now.”

Bass said the city and county needed to get along better. She noted that she had close relationships with members of the Board of Supervisors, who wield wide discretion in allocating health services funds.

De León has presented a far different view. He was one of five council members who asked city analysts last year to explore establishing a city public health department. In a policy paper released this week, he called on the city to create its own mental and public health department in an effort to provide more control over Los Angeles’ homelessness response.


Caruso has taken a similar stance. “As the largest population of L.A. County — and also the largest contributor to property tax rolls — it’s time we created our own mental health and addiction treatment department to fund and implement critical services that our residents need,” his platform says.

For his part, Councilman Joe Buscaino has long felt that the city needs to take a hard look at the services it’s receiving from the county and whether the relationship needs to be reshaped.

This desire to start anew says something larger about several of the candidates’ frustration with the county. De León has also called for the city to remove itself from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which is a joint-powers authority with its own governance and budget and acts as the clearinghouse for the region’s response to the crisis.

Fights between the city and county led to the creation of LAHSA. Critics say it’s also the complicated lines of authority that slow the homelessness response currently.

Buscaino and Caruso either called for or are open to seeing the city withdraw from the county-city homeless agency. Bass and Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, on the other hand, want to study the issue more before taking such drastic action.

This willingness — or lack thereof — to work with the county came up again at a forum Ben moderated Monday before it got shut down by activists. He asked the candidates whether they’d like to see the city settle a long-running lawsuit over homelessness.

(The city and county were sued two years ago by plaintiffs who alleged that government had failed to adequately care for people living on the streets. That case — presided over by Judge David Carter — has had many twists and turns that would melt your eyes if we tried to explain them here.)


In recent weeks, there’s been some suggestion that city leaders will go at it alone, settling the case and leaving county officials to continue fighting in court. De León sounded fed up, saying the city should settle the case “with or without the county.”

De León did say he thought going solo might force the county to come to the table, but it’s clear he won’t wait around for it.

Buscaino and Bass, on the other hand, said the county needed to be part of the resolution. Bass said finger-pointing between the two sides needed to stop and that they needed to collaborate.

“There is no way to resolve this problem if we don’t resolve it together,” Bass said. She later added that she was disappointed a commission to examine how to improve services for homeless people had no participation from the city.

(Because of his role as the city’s lawyer, Feuer was a bit more circumspect. He did say a courtroom was never going to be the venue where homelessness was solved. But he blanched at the idea of creating a new public health department at this moment, saying the next mayor needs to more effectively collaborate with the county).

“We have an emergency requiring action now, not years from now — and it would take years, during which the many, many bureaucratic, fiscal and legal issues would have to be hashed out,” he said in an email.


Obviously the devil is in the details in all these complex policy problems. But the last week has provided some insight into how the city might relate to the county if one of these people is elected.

Around the horseshoe and beyond

DEBATE RECAP: Here’s our story from Tuesday night’s debate, our takeaways from the night and some smart analysis from our crack team. Times columnists Erika D. Smith, Mary MacNamara and Steve Lopez all weighed in as well.

CARUSO CASH: The money flowing from Caruso’s own pocket into his campaign coffers can simply be described as unprecedented for a local race. As he geared up for the debate, a major donor committee controlled by the developer lent the campaign $3 million, according to disclosure forms filed with the City’s Ethics Commission. Last weekend, we learned he had lent the campaign $1 million.

This week an independent expenditure committee supporting Bass picked up $145,000 in donations, according to disclosures. The largesse came from some familiar names, including Edythe Broad — the widow of philanthropist businessman Eli Broad — who kicked in $25,000. Former Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer and his wife, Wendy, each gave $50,000 as well. This is on top of the $270,000 this committee has already raised from some Hollywood boldface names and the $250,000 sources have told us that former DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg has committed to giving.

RECALL RUMBLE: L.A. city voters might be warming to the idea of a recall of L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón. A survey released this week by the Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers, found that opposition to the recall among L.A. voters has fallen to 36%, down from 49% in spring 2021.

Support for the recall in L.A. has climbed to 41%, up from 36% a year ago, according to the union, which favors Gascón’s ouster and sponsored the poll. Gascón, of course, represents not just L.A. but also 87 other cities across the county. League spokesman Tom Saggau said the findings are noteworthy because the union considers L.A. to be a Gascón stronghold.

A POLL BUMP: In other poll news, a new survey from Univision found Caruso besting De León among Latino voters. It’s just outside the margin of error but the developer received 16% of Latino voters — six points ahead of the councilman. More than half of voters were undecided though.


And in non-campaign news ...

WESSON’S FIRST MOVE: Last week a Superior Court judge affirmed that former Councilman Herb Wesson could return to his old job in a temporary appointment to take over for Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is suspended after being indicted. In one of his first moves back in office, Wesson fired a longtime aide to Ridley-Thomas who had been serving as the district’s caretaker. He also fired another top deputy.

—GONDOLA PROBLEMS: A fight to stop the construction of a gondola from Union Station to Dodger Stadium has reached a new stage with a major local nonprofit now stepping in trying to stop the project.

SHORT-TERM RENTALS: Feuer announced Monday that his office has filed a lawsuit against an online vacation rental company, saying it repeatedly failed to comply with the city’s regulations on home-sharing.

Some of the best one-liners from the debate

“I’m glad my colleagues heard what the president said. I actually talk to the president and work with the president.”
— Bass jumping in after other candidates cited President Biden’s State of the Union pledge to “fund the police.” Bass has trumpeted her relationships with the federal government as a mayoral selling point.

“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
— Feuer on releasing his tax returns, which the city attorney then made public Wednesday. The line came after Feuer pressed Caruso to release his returns. (Caruso agreed during the debate to release everything he paid in taxes if the others did the same, but has not said anything about releasing the entire returns.)


“Mike, I’m sorry that you opened this door. Your office was raided by federal agents. Your office is under investigation.”
— Caruso hitting back at Feuer, who had just slammed him in an unrelated attack.

“To all the single mothers who are watching on TV, a big shout-out for what you do for your children every single day, especially those women of color.”
— De León, after talking about his mother, Carmen Osorio Núñez. The councilman’s origin story as the son of an immigrant single mother has been a central part of his campaign narrative. He went on to mention the nannies and housekeepers working on the Westside, janitors and hotel workers who “form the backbone of the economy of the city of L.A.”

“Let’s talk about that article, that irresponsible article in the L.A. Times — the headline should have read ‘Joe Buscaino follows the rules.’”
— Buscaino, kindly directing potential readers to a story by Ben Oreskes about how spending from Buscaino’s officeholder account far exceeds the amount spent by other elected city officials on travel for family members. (As both Buscaino and the article note, that spending is allowed under city ethics rules.)

The green room brownies back story

Careful listeners of the debate likely heard Feuer thank co-moderator Elex Michaelson’s mom for the brownies she’d brought.

Crystal Michaelson — a Venice-based artist and one of three Michaelson family members in attendance Tuesday night — has been making baked goods for California politicos since her son’s weekly show “The Issue Is” launched in 2018.

The Fox 11 anchor told us that Crystal’s cookies and brownies have been referenced on air or social media by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and gubernatorial recall candidates Caitlyn Jenner and Larry Elder, among many others.

 Elex Michaelson and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eating cookies
Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eating Michaelson’s mom’s baked good at a prior event.
(Elex Michaelson)

Michaelson called the popular baked goods a “testament to the power of food to unite both parties.”

“I handed them out to the candidates and their staffs backstage in their green rooms and the makeup rooms,” Michaelson said. “Buscaino jokingly asked whether the brownies were laced with anything.”


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Quick hits

  • Who’s running the city? Still Eric Garcetti. His confirmation as ambassador of India awaits a Senate vote. After months of being stonewalled, Dakota Smith got her hands on a confidential, city-commissioned report on sexual harassment allegations made against a former political advisor to Garcetti. It was given to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the fall before they voted on Garcetti. The report also left out information that would have bolstered the claims of the LAPD officer suing the city over the advisor’s harassment, said the officer’s attorney, Greg Smith. Also, another Republican senator said she is putting a hold on Garcetti’s nomination.
  • The latest in mayoral endorsements: Former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton endorsed Caruso, saying: “He understands the importance of the position of Mayor — to unite people on common ground and bring solutions to the crises the city is currently facing.” It wasn’t necessarily an endorsement but Laker legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson loved Bass’ debate performance. United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. teachers’ union, endorsed Bass. Avance Democratic Club and Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains endorsed De León.
  • And council endorsements: The California Women’s List endorsed Kate Pynoos in her run against Councilman Mitch O’Farrell in Council District 13. Run for Something endorsed fellow challenger Hugo Soto-Martínez in that same race. The Sunrise Movement L.A. also endorsed Soto-Martínez, as well as Bryant Odega in Council District 15. The Fund Her political action committee, which supports progressive women running for office, has endorsed Allison Holdorff Polhill in Council District 11. The LA Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Mike Newhouse in the Council District 11 race. And UTLA released a slew of council endorsements: Soto-Martínez in Council District 13, Greg Good in Council District 11 and Danielle Sandoval in Council District 15.

    (Council endorsements are new to the newsletter this week. If you have an endorsement you’d like to flag for next week, please send it to us.)

  • On the docket for next week: Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and the People’s Budget LA Coalition will hold a candidate forum Saturday afternoon in Leimert Park. Street for All is hosting a “mobility” debate for Council District 11 candidates on Monday.

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