City Council (D4): Ross Sarkissian
As an outsider to City Hall, my focus will be on policy, not politics.
I envision a city that is composed of small villages and neighborhoods that have thriving main streets and are connected by smart transportation. It is a city whose budgets are balanced, and whose small businesses are charting the course for the new economy.
Top three goals
List the top three things you would seek to accomplish as a city council representative.
1. Balanced Budget – Adopting a budget that addresses the major structural issues that currently plague our current budget.
2. Reduce Traffic - Expanding the neighborhood bus system; building more parking near transit stations; synchronizing lights; and working with the private sector to integrate ride share options into the “first” and “last” mile of the public transportation process which keeps so many riders from utilizing the options that are currently available to them.
3. Helping Small Businesses Thrive and Create Jobs - Ensuring we do not implement policies that will hurt our small businesses while helping those in neighboring cities; streamlining regulatory process for new businesses; creating new incentives for small businesses; supporting existing BIDs and working with neighborhoods to establish new ones.
Is City Hall doing a good job handling development projects? If so, why? If not, how would change it?
No. Without a strong set of neighborhood plans, too many projects pass on the wishes of a developer. Only when there is large scale opposition to a project, do elected officials take heed of a project’s impact. The model of development that concentrates everything in a singular space is detrimental to the long term growth of the City. While it may be in a developer’s best interest to get density exemptions and parking reductions to cram more units into a given lot, it impacts neighborhoods by creating singularity points which increase congestion. Additionally, it has the drawback of stifling a more evenly distributed growth patterns, which could help develop large portions of a neighborhood rather than individual corners.
City Hall power
Do you believe any particular interest – labor, business, or something else — has too much power at City Hall? If so, how would you counteract that power?
The one group that does not – consistently - have power at City Hall are the residents of the City. They may have sway on specific issues when they are mobilized, but unless they are constantly putting pressure on their representative, then it is the arrayed interests in City Hall who have undue influence in how our City’s $8+ Billion budget is spent.
Part of the problem is that the City Council is made up of a recycled group of state legislators and aides to retiring council members. Without an injection of fresh thinking into the process, then the status quo is maintained. To increase community representation at the Council, I would increase the amount of public financing available to candidates to minimize the role of money in the election process.
Additionally, I would move municipal elections to June and November of ODD number years to give:
1. City issues the attention they deserve and;
2. Candidates ample daylight time to be able to canvass and speak with more voters at the door.
By doing so, we can engage the electorate directly and give them a greater sense of ownership and oversight of their council members.
Council District 4 includes an unusual array of neighborhoods, from Sherman Oaks to Los Feliz to Hancock Park. Do you believe any parts of the district have been underserved, and if so, how would you rectify that?
The sentiment across CD 4 is that the city has been failing on providing the basic services that their tax dollars should be going toward. Specifically, they cite crumbling roads and sidewalks that have not been repaired for decades; they lament that tree trimming services have been reduced and given the drought that we are facing, the hazard some of these trees have become to residents. Finally, the spate of water main breaks and stories of leaking pipes has raised the alarm that while residents are being asked to do more to conserve water, the city’s mismanagement of the budget has created a condition where we are wasting one of the most precious resources that we have.
What do you see as the three biggest issues facing CD4, and what concrete proposals would you make to address those issues?
1. The biggest issue facing Los Angeles, which directly impacts the services that we receive in CD 4, is the structural deficit: In 2012, when some city leaders warned of bankruptcy, the then-Mayor identified 13 seemingly untouchable areas of the budget as possible solution areas. These should serve as the starting point to addressing the budget deficit and building up the City’s Reserves. See next question for details.
2. The miserable traffic that we have to sit through and its spillover into our neighborhoods: We can minimize some of these impacts by creating a neighborhood bus system which feeds into our existing public transportation system; As a short term measure, we need to build more parking near transit stations; synchronizing lights would be a fairly quick way of moving along traffic along major corridors; Additionally, we should deploy more police and parking enforcement personnel during rush hour to facilitate the flow of cars in certain high traffic corridors. Finally, we need to work with the private sector to integrate ride share options into the “first” and “last” mile of the public transportation process which keeps so many riders from utilizing the options that are currently available to them.
3. The competitive hurdles facing our small businesses: We need to ensure that we do not implement policies that will hurt our small businesses while helping those in neighboring cities; we need to streamline regulatory process for new businesses while creating new incentives for small businesses; We need to support existing BIDs and work with neighborhoods to establish new ones.
What three steps would you take to help balance the city budget?
This is the biggest issue that faces the City, every year. With an approximately $ 8 billion budget, consistently running budget deficits is a sign of structural deficiencies and a lack of leadership on the part of the City. To address this issue, the Mayor and Council have to be unafraid of bringing up issues that would elicit a backlash from labor. The largest portion of the City’s budget goes toward staffing costs, so that is the first place we have to look to ensuring fiscal health.
1. The City’s unfunded pension liability and especially the ever increasing health care costs are the biggest threats to the stability of the budget. We need to find an equitable way for employees to pay a slightly larger share of their own health care costs, as they now do with their pensions.
2. Where appropriate, we need to civilianize some of the tasks of the police and fire departments. Secretarial tasks and other non-critical police and fire functions should be handled by more appropriately compensated employees, not full time sworn officers or firefighters.
3. As a long-term cost savings approach, we need to be willing to rethink the staffing model of the fire department. For example: nearly 80% of the calls that the fire department receives are for medical emergencies, so why don’t we have more appropriately compensated EMTs in the Fire Department, which would free firefighters to more quickly respond to fire emergencies?
Are there any major decisions in CD4 over the past three years that you would have opposed?
The gerrymandering of CD 4 is an abomination and will impact the level of services available to residents for the next decade. Rather than having a genuinely contiguous district that places similar communities of interest together, it groups 3 major parts of the City that have largely different local concerns together. The reason why this will impact services to residents is because the large geographic distribution and its varied local issues will create a competitive environment between communities for the attention and focus of their City Council member.
In such a crowded race, what makes you different?
As an outsider to City Hall, I am not encumbered by the groupthink that exists in City Hall, nor am I afraid of speaking truthfully on the critical issues that impact the City, especially on issues that might be opposed by organizations that can rally resources to a candidate. Nearly every City Council member is either a former state legislator or an aide to a former City Council member. The city needs more voices that are willing to break from the cyclical relationship that causes politicians to obsess over their next elections and how they will fund those campaigns. I think the fear of losing the next election or the hopes of winning a new seat makes for weak leadership and bad public policy.
What steps would you take to address L.A.’s failing pipes and other aging infrastructure, and how would you fund those steps?
I think we should get a handle on the city’s budget and prove to the residents that we are responsible stewards of their tax dollars before we approach them with a bond for infrastructure projects.
I think getting a handle on Los Angeles’ structural deficit is the first step in beginning to make progress on this issue. By reducing our pension and health care costs and bringing more efficiency into our departments, we can allocate more of the dollars that the DWP transfers to the city’s budget to address these infrastructure upgrades. As we make incremental progress based on these funds, we can then approach voters to approve an infrastructure only bond to finish the job.
Do you support increasing the citywide minimum wage, and if so, to what amount and by what year?
In principle, yes, I support increasing the minimum wage, but not as it’s currently proposed.
1. I would like to see a 2nd opinion on the Mayor’s proposed $13.25/hour minimum wage, especially the possible impacts on small business that border neighboring cities. I want to know what the net benefit will be of increasing the salaries for some, while enacting a law that will lead to the loss of jobs for others.
2. I would like to see a regional, countywide or statewide minimum wage that does not provide a disincentive for business to locate out of Los Angeles. In the interim, the City of L.A. can lead on this front by passing a conditional law that would go into effect if a certain number of neighboring cities do so as well.
3. If the City Council does choose to move forward with a current minimum wage increase, then I would like to see safeguards in the law to ensure that small businesses that operate on tight margins do not close or relocate to neighboring cities.
Do you think the city should reduce or eliminate its gross receipts tax on businesses? If so, how quickly should it do so, and how can the city replace the revenue it provides?
In the long run, yes. In the short term, no. While the gross receipts tax is a burden on local businesses, most companies have already incorporated this cost into their operating model. If we were to eliminate this tax, we would provide a small reprieve to businesses while creating a massive hole in the budget, which would lead to more service cuts. I think small businesses are more worried about the impact of increasing the minimum wage than they are about the gross receipts tax.
In the long term, when we are able to get a handle on the pension, health care and staffing costs of the city, then we can look to removing the gross receipts tax as an added incentive for businesses to move into the city.
Do you support returning control of LA/Ontario International Airport to the city of Ontario? Why or why not? Should the airport be sold or simply be transferred back? If you support a sale, what do you think is an appropriate price?
Ontario airport is part of Los Angeles’ regional airport mix and as such, we need to ensure that whatever agreement we come to, it helps address the region’s flight needs. If Ontario can better manage the airport, at a lower cost and with greater efficiency, then they should run it. If Ontario’s proposal for the airport degrades Los Angeles’ travel capacity, then we should not transfer control.
If we do transfer the airport, I think we should receive fair market value. The price will be negotiated and at this point, it seems like the appropriate price is somewhere between the approximately $100 million that Ontario wants to pay and the $400 million that Los Angeles is asking.
Which company do you believe should be awarded the Greek Theatre contract – Nederlander-AEG or Live Nation? Why?
Having spoken with local neighbors on this issue, I think the Nederlander-AEG project is the right one for the neighborhood. Seemingly, both projects bring in an equivalent amount of revenue to the City, whether it’s directly into the City’s coffers or as an investment into the Greek Theatre. The issue that residents have with the Live Nation proposal is the sheer number of events that Live Nation is proposing for the Greek. Residents are concerned about more events, more traffic and a rowdier crowd for the types of concerts that Live Nation would bring in.
The Greek Theatre is a Los Angeles cultural treasure, but it is also a neighbor to many families in Los Feliz. While upgrading the theatre and increasing its events capacity could have financial benefits for the City, in this case, its impact on residents outweighs those benefits.