With just two people running in the Los Angeles City Council District 12 race (if not counting a write-in candidate), the race for this Northwest Valley seat could very well be decided by voters next month without the need for a November runoff election.
Current Councilmember John Lee is seeking reelection – while fighting accusations of ethics violations.
Lee’s challenger on March 5 is Serena Oberstein, who happens to be a former city ethics commissioner and whose campaign stresses the need for “ethical leadership” in a City Hall that has undergone a series of shocking corruption scandals that landed two former councilmembers — Mitchell Englander and José Huizar — in prison.
The candidates are vying to represent Angelenos living in Council District 12, which includes the communities of Chatsworth, Granada Hills, North Hills, Northridge, Porter Ranch, Sherwood Forest and West Hills. Lee lives in Porter Ranch and Oberstein lives in Northridge.
If either candidate captures a majority of the vote in the March 5 primary election, they win the race outright. But write-in candidate Vas Singh could prevent the leader on March 5 from winning more than 50%, pushing the race to a runoff in November.
A member of the City Council since 2019, Lee is endorsed by six current city councilmembers – Paul Krekorian, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Tim McOsker, Traci Park, Heather Hutt and Curren Price, according to his campaign website.
Lee, 53, is vice chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee and is endorsed by the unions representing L.A. police officers and firefighters.
“I am an independent leader. Throughout my council tenure, I have always prioritized the needs of my community, not a partisan agenda,” Lee wrote in response to a questionnaire the Los Angeles Daily News asked the candidates to complete. He was registered as a Republican before switching to “no party preference” in 2019. His campaign said Lee never considered himself partisan.
Lee’s opponent is the executive director of Jewish World Watch, a humanitarian nonprofit that encourages “people of all faiths and cultures to join the ongoing fight against genocide,” according to the group’s website.
Oberstein, 44, was vice president and later president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission between 2014 and 2018. She had planned to run for City Council in 2019. But a judge ruled she was ineligible at that time, citing city rules about how much time had to pass since she had served on the ethics commission.
In the upcoming election, Oberstein is endorsed by ex-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – in whose administration she worked as a policy analyst and special assistant – and by two former L.A. city controllers, Ron Galperin and Rick Tuttle, according to her website. A Democrat, Oberstein has racked up endorsements from a number of Democratic groups, including the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
“Our city continues to face a crisis of conscience,” Oberstein wrote in her questionnaire. “As a second generation Angeleno raising my family in the San Fernando Valley, I know what’s at stake and care deeply about making sure we have the representation we deserve.”
She added, “I have spent my career working toward actual solutions to better our community and, as past president of the L.A. City Ethics Commission, I am uniquely prepared to succeed.”
L.A. City Council races are considered nonpartisan. That said, voters in Council District 12 have had a history of voting in Republicans while the majority of Los Angeles councilmembers are registered Democrats.
But the number of registered GOP voters in Council District 12 saw a decline during the first two decades of this century, dropping from 37% in 2000 to 24% in 2019, according to the L.A. County Registrar’s Office.
In their questionnaires, Lee and Oberstein both cited homelessness and public safety as their top two issues. To round out their list of top three priorities, Lee said supporting local businesses is important while Oberstein said she’d focus on providing “living wage jobs.”
Write-in candidate Vas Singh did not return the newspaper’s questionnaire.
Below, we’ve outlined what Lee and Oberstein had to say about some key issues driving discussions among voters in Council District 12.
In October, Lee was accused by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission of violating city ethics laws for failing to report gifts he allegedly received from a businessman and developer while serving as former City Councilmember Mitchell Englander’s chief of staff before Lee was elected to the City Council.
The Ethics Commission said there was “probable cause” to believe that in 2016 and 2017 Lee accepted gifts far in excess of the gift limit for city officials, failed to report the gifts, misused his position, and aided and abetted Englander, who misused his own position and ultimately went to prison.
The probable cause finding by Ethics Commission staff is not a definitive determination that Lee violated the law. That will be determined in the future by the Ethics Commission board.
Lee denies the allegations and has filed a lawsuit against the Ethics Commission challenging its case.
Lee is accused of accepting $7,831.50 in gifts – $6,891.50 more than allowed under gift limits for city officials. The alleged gifts included expenses incurred during an evening of poker in L.A.’s Koreatown plus a 2017 trip to Las Vegas, which included hotel amenities, gambling chips and drinks.
Lee’s boss at the time, then-Councilmember Englander, also attended those events. In a separate case, Englander was accused of failing to report more than $20,000 in gifts he received during trips to Vegas and Palm Springs in 2017, for accepting gifts beyond the city’s gift limit for elected leaders, and for using his position for personal gain.
Englander pleaded guilty in 2020 to falsifying material facts. He was sentenced to 14 months and surrendered to the U.S. Federal Camp in Tucson, Arizona, but was released from prison early, in February 2022.
During a candidates forum on Thursday, Feb. 1, at Cal State Northridge, Oberstein highlighted her background as a former ethics commissioner and attacked Lee for his ongoing ethics case.
“My opponent has ethics counts against him. And what we haven’t heard from him is ‘No, I didn’t do it. I wasn’t there. I didn’t go to Las Vegas with a lobbyist and a real estate developer,’” Oberstein said.
Lee countered by saying he provided investigators with access to his bank accounts and statements from different people to prove his innocence. He maintained that he’s been an “open book” and vowed to fight the accusations.
“I refuse to sign anything that says that I did anything that I did not do, and that’s why you will see me in court, fighting all these different accusations,” he said.
Lee then accused Oberstein of not mentioning that her husband is a “registered lobbyist” in the city.
Oberstein responded that her husband is not a registered lobbyist but that he works in public affairs and strategic communications. That aside, her husband intends to quit his job to avoid any conflict of interest if she’s elected, Oberstein said.
Housing and homelessness
In 2022 and roughly the first three quarters of 2023, Council District 12 led the way with the most arrests of homeless people breaking the city’s anti-camping law known as Municipal Code 41.18, which bans people from sitting, lying or sleeping, or storing personal property, on public right of ways and near “sensitive” places like schools, daycare centers, public parks and libraries.
Data compiled by the city controller’s office showed District 12 had the most 41.18 arrests and had the lowest homeless population in 2022.
Lee’s campaign has seized on that as one of his accomplishments in office. “Under his leadership, Council District 12 boasts the most robust enforcement in the entire City, working closely with LAPD to ensure our residents feel secure,” his website states.
Oberstein said there may be instances where she wouldn’t oppose using 41.18. But it wouldn’t be her first choice. Rather, she wants to start with a “people first” approach by offering mental health services and other opportunities to get people off the streets.
“I understand that businesses need to be able to operate and people need to feel safe, but (41.18) is not where I’ll start,” she said.
Oberstein said that if elected, she would be “laser focused” on addressing homelessness. She criticized the current CD12 officeholder for not doing enough, saying District 12 has seen a roughly 45% increase in unsheltered homelessness since Lee took office. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of unsheltered homeless people in the district soared 46% between 2020 and 2022.
“For too long, our leadership has left unaddressed the biggest humanitarian crisis on our streets,” Oberstein wrote in her response to the Daily News questionnaire.
She made similar remarks during Thursday’s candidates forum.
Lee responded by pointing to City Controller Kenneth Mejia’s audit which showed District 12 still had the lowest homeless population of all 15 council districts in 2022.
“That is an independent audit by a controller who does not support me,” he said.
As for affordable housing, Oberstein said she’d work to streamline building processes, encourage mixed-use housing and advocate for workforce housing and temporary and permanent supportive housing and use so-called “project labor agreements” that, among other things, give preferential hiring to union workers and people living in particular areas.
Lee agreed with Oberstein that the city needs to make it simpler for builders to build in L.A. However, he said the city needs to stop imposing different taxes and fees on builders.
“If we really want … affordable housing, we have to make it more affordable to build here in the city of Los Angeles,” he said during the candidates forum.
Lee has noted that he was one of two councilmembers who voted against cutting $150 million from the police department’s budget in 2020.
“I voted against all arbitrary ‘defund the police’ LAPD cuts and am committed to increasing the morale among our rank-and-file officers,” Lee wrote in his questionnaire. “I am proud to have the support of our city’s rank-and-file police officers and firefighters.”
The local firefighters’ union had spent nearly $149,000 in independent expenditures to support Lee’s campaign as of last month. Another independent expenditure group, called Residents, Small Businesses and Public Safety Professionals for a Safer and Cleaner LA, had spent nearly $364,000 in support of Lee, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the ethics commission.
No independent group had reported spending money in support of Oberstein as of Friday, Feb. 2.
While Lee touts his record in promoting public safety, Oberstein is challenging the notion that District 12 has become safer under Lee’s leadership.
She said she supports “putting resources back into the department” and creating pipelines and more recruitment opportunities. She said that her office, should she become a councilmember, would provide trained intervention workers to work with police and businesses to protect communities from individuals experiencing mental health crises.
2024 L.A. City Council District 12
Election Day: March 5, 2024. Polls close at 8 p.m.
Early voting: You can vote at the Los Angeles County registrar’s office beginning Tuesday, Feb. 6. The registrar’s headquarters are at 12400 Imperial Highway, Room 3002, in Norwalk. That office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Vote-by-mail: Ballots begin going out on Monday, Feb. 5. You can submit VBMs in three ways: By mailing them to the registrar’s office (VBMs include return envelopes with the correct address and postage already included); by placing them in an official drop box; or by dropping them off at any county Vote Center.
VBM deadline: VBMs sent via mail must arrive no later than 10 days after the election, but they must be postmarked by March 5. The deadline to place VBMs in a drop box or deliver them to a Vote Center is 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Vote Centers: Vote Centers open 10 days before Election Day. This year, that’s Saturday, Feb. 24. You can vote at any Vote Center in Los Angeles County. Prior to Election Day, the Vote Centers will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Election Day, they will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
About the ballots: In California, the order races are listed on ballots goes from local to federal, meaning the nominees for president will be listed at the bottom. Except for presidential races, California’s primaries for “partisan” offices – now known as “voter-nominated offices” have a top-two system. That means the top two vote getters in a given race advance to the general election, regardless of political party.
To find a drop box or Vote Center and for more information: lavote.gov.
L.A. City Council District 12
Candidates: John Lee (incumbent) and Serena Oberstein
Term length: 4 years
District boundaries: Northwest San Fernando Valley, including the communities of Chatsworth, Granada Hills, North Hills, Northridge, Porter Ranch, Sherwood Forest and West Hills
Registered voters: 171,328
Key issues: Ethics, homelessness and public safety
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