Your guide to the L.A. City Council District 12 race: Northwest San Fernando Valley

Serena Oberstein and John Lee pictured from the shoulders up in side-by-side photos.
Serena Oberstein is challenging incumbent Councilmember John Lee in L.A. City Council District 12 in the northwest San Fernando Valley.
(Los Angeles Times)

Are voters in the northwestern San Fernando Valley satisfied with Councilmember John Lee? Lee faces just one challenger, Serena Oberstein, in the March 5 election, and the race could come down to how voters in Council District 12 feel about the incumbent.

Recent ethics allegations lodged against Lee — who denies wrongdoing — could play a role in the outcome.

Either way, the two-person race will be decided in March, so voters get one chance to make their pick.


Wide boulevards, suburban cul-de-sacs, strip malls, tract homes, and hiking and horse trails dominate the district, where Cal State Northridge is a major job center. Churches and community groups, including North Valley Family YMCA, also play an important role in the area.

Environmental issues are also important in District 12, in part because of the massive 2015 gas leak at Aliso Canyon.


Where is District 12?

The district takes in Chatsworth, Northridge, Porter Ranch, Granada Hills, North Hills, Sherwood Forest and West Hills.


Who are the candidates?

  • Councilmember John Lee

Lee’s central campaign message is that voters know him and like his moderate views. A onetime Republican who was first elected in 2019, Lee is now registered as “no party preference.” He regularly backs city policies that support businesses and policing.

He was one of only two council members to vote against cutting the Los Angeles Police Department’s budget by $150 million after a national outcry over police use of force following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 by a Minneapolis officer.

Lee, 53, also points to his work earlier in the pandemic to help get food to senior citizens and loans to small businesses. He also pushed for an ordinance that makes it illegal to possess an unattached catalytic converter without proof of ownership.

Voters in his district know that he’s not “red or blue” and “not somebody who has come in with any type of agenda,” said Lee, who lives in Porter Ranch with his wife and two children.

  • Serena Oberstein

Oberstein, 44, argues that the district needs new leadership following a string of recent City Hall scandals. She also said Lee hasn’t been responsive enough to the needs of community, particularly on homelessness.


Oberstein has worked as executive director of the humanitarian nonprofit Jewish World Watch and as a regional director for J Street, a group that lobbies for Israel’s security and Mideast peace. She has also served as president and vice president of the city’s Ethics Commission and worked for then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Oberstein touts her experience working with Democrats and Republicans and people of different cultures and faiths.

“We need someone who’s going to bring people together now more than ever,” she said.

She sought to run for the District 12 seat in 2019, but was barred from doing so when a judge ruled that Oberstein had conflict of interest because she’d recently served on the Ethics Commission, which weighs in on campaign matters.

She lives in Northridge with her husband and two children.


Anti-camping law

The district has historically had a low rate of homelessness compared with other parts of Los Angeles. At the same time, police in the area enforce 41.18 — the city anti-camping law commonly referred to by its section in the Municipal Code — at a higher rate in District 12 than in many other districts, according to City Controller Kenneth Mejia’s office.

Lee said in an interview that he’s proud that 41.18 is frequently used by the police, calling it a “very helpful tool.” He also credited the district’s lower rates of homelessness in part to his office’s focus on outreach.


Enforcement of Los Angeles’ revised anti-camping law rolls out in slow and uneven steps.

May 2, 2022

Oberstein said she supports 41.18 in some cases, but that it can’t be a starting point for addressing homelessness.

“We’re moving people from sidewalk to sidewalk and not solving the problem,” Oberstein said. She said that she’d have a “people-first approach” and focus on bringing mental health services to people living on the streets.

As for policing, she also supports investing more in public safety.


Ethics and reforms

In October, the Ethics Commission accused Lee of multiple violations of the city’s ethics law over his acceptance and reporting of meals, drinks and poker chips in 2016 and 2017.

Many of the allegations stem from a Las Vegas trip that Lee took with his then-boss, City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who later pleaded guility to a charge of lying to federal authorities.

A judge said arrogance and greed drove Englander to lie to the FBI about cash payments and a debauched night in Las Vegas.

Jan. 25, 2021

The commission’s complaint accuses Lee and Englander of back-dating checks to reimburse a businessman who treated them in Las Vegas. The checks were sent after Englander was first contacted by the FBI, and were backdated so it would appear that Lee and Englander had previously reimbursed the businessman, according to the accusation.


Lee told The Times that he had provided ATM receipts and bank statements to contradict the Ethics Commission’s complaint. He is fighting to have the case dismissed, saying the city waited too long to announce the allegations.

“I have no other avenue than to fight this on a statute of limitations [claim],” Lee said.

Oberstein said that the allegations against Lee prompted her to get in the race, and that she would bring “ethical integrity” back to City Hall.

She wants to make the Ethics Commission more independent, allowing the department to be budgeted for several years at a time, for example, rather by the council each year. She also wants to boost the size of the department so it has more staff for investigations.


Police hiring

Both Oberstein and Lee want to focus on retaining LAPD officers, who are increasingly leaving the force.

Among other things, Lee would seek to bolster the city’s Reserve Officer program by increasing stipends for reserve officers.


Oberstein said she wants to create a pipeline for officers by creating more magnet schools. The city should also target junior high and high schools with the message that “working for the police force is a source of pride,” she said.


Measure Healthy Streets L.A.

Measure HLA is on the March 5 ballot. If approved, it would require the installation of hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, bus lanes and other transportation improvements on designated boulevards that undergo major repairs. Supporters argue that it will make the streets safer for pedestrians and drivers. Opponents question the cost to the city.

Oberstein supports HLA. She said the number of dangerous roadways in the district “far outpaces the number of projects meant to keep people safe.”

Lee hasn’t taken a position on the initiative.


Who’s getting endorsements?

Lee is supported by the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, Service Employees International Union Local 721, Mayor Karen Bass, L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, City Council President Paul Krekorian, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D -Pacoima) and Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita), among others.

Oberstein’s backers include Unite HERE Local 11, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, L.A. Forward, Streets for All, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union‘s Southern California District Council, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), among others.


Past coverage

The two candidates in the west San Fernando Valley are blasting each other as untrustworthy in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

Serena Oberstein, a Northridge resident and nonprofit leader, is challenging incumbent John Lee in a campaign that promises a new approach to homelessness in District 12.

The ethics accusations filed against L.A. City Councilmember John Lee, related to a trip to Las Vegas in 2017, could complicate his 2024 re-election bid in the San Fernando Valley.

Oct. 3, 2023

L.A. Times Editorial Board Endorsements

The Times’ editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.


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