Special to the Daily Press
The Westside of Los Angeles will get a new City Council member in the Nov. 8 election with Councilman Mike Bonin stepping down after two terms.
Among communities that Council District 11 encompasses are Venice, Mar Vista, Westchester, Playa del Rey, Brentwood, Del Rey, Playa Vista and Pacific Palisades.
Vying for Bonin’s vacant seat are Traci Park and Erin Darling.
Why did you decide to run to represent the Westside?
Park: As a resident of Venice, like many others on the Westside, I have seen the catastrophic effects of failed policies in our communities. Many things were going on, particularly in 2020 and 2021, with the proliferation of encampments in many pockets of the Westside—from fires to the destruction of the Ballona Wetlands [a protected area that once served as the natural estuary for neighboring Ballona Creek] to the daily reports of violence and assaults and attacks on our communities. Our councilmember has been silent on all of this.
I was approached by people looking for a change and was asked to take on this incredibly challenging role. I realized with my background that I had unique qualifications and skill sets that translate well into a policymaking role. I recognized the community was asking for my help and that it was time for a change. With that context and my background, I jumped into the race.
Darling: For me, in this campaign, I am running with an emphasis on constituent services. I want to address the homeless crisis, the affordable housing crisis, public safety and climate change, citywide and regionally.
With hundreds of millions spent and billions more to come in the name of “help is on the way,” with the homeless crisis, our communities have never seen worse. Do you think that current policymakers are taking a mistakenly narrow approach to the homeless problem?
Park: I do think there is a narrow and in many cases mistaken view of homelessness. I echo concerns of lack of accountability and transparency and have questions about where the money has been spent. We have thrown billions of dollars at this problem in the past decade, and it seems we have had little to no meaningful progress in abating these issues.
We have seen a sole-minded approach to housing first and harm reduction and have had one and only one model that we are using—and we haven’t seen a tremendous amount of success with it.
A few programs and models on the Westside—the Venice Bridge Home [ABH] comes to mind—have been dismal failures in the community, both in terms of taking people off the streets and in keeping promises made to the community about what the facility would be and the benefits they are supposed to bring to the community.
We don’t do anything to measure the success of the myriad nonprofit service providers we contract the work out to. We can’t just keep writing blank checks and hoping for the best. This has gone on way too long. We need to establish a system where we can access where our dollars are being well spent.
I have no problem doubling or tripling down on programs that are getting results. But I would also have no heartburn in canceling contracts where we do not see a return. It doesn’t seem that anyone has been minding the bank account or outcomes. So, this is something that I am going to look at very closely.
Darling: I think we all agree that this crisis is decades in the making. I believe we have a mental health component where we haven’t had a mental health social safety net in this state for decades. And then we have a housing crisis where the cities prioritize market-rate development and not the creation of affordable housing. We have rents going up, and the burden of being homeless is greater than ever. We have the status quo of the City, which is pushing folks from one street corner to the next with no citywide unified approach.
We also have this system in the Council with 15 council districts, so there are often 15 approaches. So, I agree that the status quo is not working, and I believe we need a citywide approach, and we need to create a pipeline that should get people off the streets and get people inside so they can get housing and all the services that they need.
When the Venice Bridge Home was opened, the community was promised a safer and cleaner community. The exact opposite has happened. What are your plans for the Bridge Home and surrounding community if elected?
Park: I recognize the real challenges the Venice Bridge Home has [inflicted] on the community. I am aware of the promises made to the community, every single one of which has turned out to be broken. Even accounting for the decompression of shelters because of COVID, we should have expected to see much higher rates of success. That has been a real disappointment.
We were promised that the ABH was going to be for the homeless in Venice, and that has not turned out to be true. We were promised this would be a special enforcement zone, and that never happened. We were promised that the residents would be good neighbors. What we have seen instead is a lack of accountability and engagement.
We have folks occupying beds in the ABH and keeping their tents on the beach and in the neighborhoods. We are doing nothing about the tents around the Bridge Home, which was the whole purpose of the facility in the first place. It has been an abject failure in my mind.
Darling: I talked to many neighbors, and for the folks who moved here, the City has to do a better job. A lot of promises were made, and it’s good that we have gotten people off the street, but I think my message is that we must house people—we can’t just warehouse people—and people have to be good neighbors.
We need to see that things like bridge housing work, which means making sure folks are good neighbors. So, I think there’s a lot that we can do to improve. I think there are valid criticisms, but I don’t think the answer is to close that bridge housing facility. We have to focus on improving it.
Are you saying that you would be in favor of extending the lease like Councilmember Mike Bonin is looking to do?
Park: I fully support the effort to see the sunset date on this be what was promised to the community. We have not seen a return on our investment. One of the very first things I have to do when elected is to keep the promises to our community. The Venice Bridge Home is the bright shining example of why people don’t trust local council offices and why they don’t trust the local government to keep their promises.
Darling: I am not in favor of closing it. I think we need to continue, but we need to improve it. I do not believe Westsiders want to close facilities and have people who’ve been inside suddenly be on the streets. I do not think that that’s the solution.
The safety of kids and our community is paramount. If elected, will you identify and enforce the City’s anti-camping law [41.18] and keep children in the community safe?
Park: If we are not making policy around keeping kids safe or seniors safe—families and members of the public—we are failing as a government. I have been very clear about my position on dangerous encampments and the circumstances around schools. It is not acceptable to me. I know it’s not acceptable to people in our community. When Bonin filed his motion to use beaches as a place for homeless shelters, I was clear that those are places intended for the enjoyment of the public and should remain that way. We have tools to regulate this. Our vehicle dwelling laws need to be amended and implemented, which I will take up as soon as it gets to City Hall.
Darling: I’m a father of a three-year-old, so I feel that my child’s safety is the most essential thing in the world. I also remember growing up in Venice in the eighties and nineties, seeing encampments, and it’s intense.
First off, as it relates to schools in the 500-foot zone around the school, let’s be very clear—that is a citywide law. That is not discretionary, meaning it does not require an individual City Council member to invoke it.
I believe that we need to do a much better job of addressing parks. It’s not just Westchester; it’s lots of other parks throughout the Westside. I think it’s a daily reminder of the systemic failure that is so frustrating to all of us. So, my big focus is going to be on getting folks inside.
Mr. Bonin has a well-established pattern of pushing through projects and not informing our community until they are approved. The community calls for transparency and participation in decisions impacting their communities. How would you handle this?
Park: I am aware that our community councils have been bypassed in a lot of decision-making processes. That certainly happened with the Ramada in Venice. It happened with the Extended Stay inn in Westchester. It happened with safe parking at Westchester Park. That approach in the Council office has created a huge rift and mistrust in local communities. I have experienced it personally and share the frustration around the district when they find out about these things after the fact. If the City Charter says our neighborhood councils are there to serve in an advisory capacity, as a City Council member, I would be remiss if I wasn’t seeking out that engagement and that collaboration and considering what community concerns are. So, yes, I will be transparent. I will be going to communities and asking for their help and for ideas. The “your input doesn’t matter to me” approach ends with me.
Darling: As I said in the beginning, it is job number one. People need to feel heard. I believe, first off, that when someone calls, we need to respond within 24 to 48 hours at the latest. So, that needs to be a priority and relate to decision-making. You know that people shouldn’t have to feel in the dark, and I will need to see progress. I agree with those concerns, and I’ve had my frustrations. So, yeah, I think we need to lead with constituent services and active public involvement.
At one point, more than 50 RVs were camped at Ballona Wetlands with no oversight. Residents say they have exhausted all avenues to protect this environmentally sensitive area. If elected, will you enforce the laws and restore the ecologically sensitive habitat?
Park: That half-mile-long encampment along the wetlands existed before COVID. I have been over there. I have walked the interior of it multiple times. I have invited other elected officials to walk with me. I have written about it and talked about it on the radio. If the Council office had the political will, at the very least, they could have brought in restrooms and done outreach to get these folks help.
Environmentalists have worked for decades on this area, and in just a matter of a few short years, we have undone a lot of work that has gone into this area. This is something that I recognize the community wants to have happen quickly. The entire strip of Jefferson has been identified as “no parking.” We have to lift the state of emergency and get back to enforcing laws on the books. I recognize this is urgent, and I will use every tool available to me on day one to get the RVs moved.
Darling: I met with some folks from the Conservancy and walked the area along Lincoln and Jefferson. I would say that we need to address the psychological problems and do that by focusing on what works, and that’s getting people off the streets. If we sweep the people who are there away, other people will come back. We need to get people into housing. We need to focus on looking at properties for things like a safe parking zone where people have a place to go. Find somewhere they can connect to electricity, connect to water and sewage, so it’s easier for them to live, and then look at affordable housing. I know one family who actually left their bus because they were able to find an affordable housing unit.
What can we look forward to on the Westside if you are elected?
Park: One of the things I am going to do is pull 85.02 [the vehicle dwelling ordinance] and get the system revised to address the RV situation. We have got to get the area around Venice Bridge Home cleaned up. We need to bring up all the 41.18 [no sitting, sleeping laws] in areas and get sensitive areas designated. I will make sure the 500-foot school zones are established and enforced. I will be going to regular meetings with our neighborhood councils. Their agenda and priorities are our priorities.
I have spent hundreds of hours talking to people on the Westside to hear what people’s concerns are. I have done well over 100 community meetings. I’ve spoken to people on all sides. We have to have a diversity of viewpoints, and we have to understand that the solutions are going to be challenging in a lot of cases. I feel like my time in the field has given me a broad sense of the problems and how we approach them. When I go to the City, I know the mandate is to address the homeless crisis and public safety issues.
Darling: I want to give people a reason to vote. I want to look at solutions that work—solutions that tangibly improve people’s lives, that get people off the streets, that create more affordable housing so that people who work on the Westside can afford to live there so that we can address climate change and improve constituent services.
First published in the Westside Current