Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Advocating for Better Transportation Investments: An Interview with Councilmember Karina Macias of Huntington Park

Note: The Just Growth Champions interview series is a collection of conversations with elected officials, public agency staff, advocates, and community members who embody the values of the “Just Growth” concept — a concept developed by Dr. Chris Benner and Dr. Manuel Pastor, focused on equity, inclusion, and investing in the most economically-challenged neighborhoods first to develop a strong regional economy. Just Growth is a central concept for our Equity Opportunity Zones vision in Los Angeles County.

karina-maciasIn our first interview, we talked with Councilmember Karina Macias, who is serving her first term in the City of Huntington Park. In 2015, she was the youngest Mayor in Huntington Park’s history, and currently serves as the city’s representative on the Eco-Rapid Transit board, 710 Project Committee, and the Sanitation District Board.  

She was a “vocal” critic of LA County’s transportation ballot measure, Measure M — “It’s important to keep the promise to voters… We want you to do the right thing,” said Councilmember Macias in a LA Times article. In June 2016, Councilmember Macias and a group of Southeast LA County elected officials urged Metro to accelerate the construction and opening of the West Santa Ana Branch, a 19-mile light-rail line connecting Union Station, Vernon, Huntington Park, South Gate, Paramount, Bellflower, and Artesia. The line is part of a transit project being planned known as the Eco-Rapid Transit, a joint powers authority which Councilmember Macias sits on the board, stretching from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank to Artesia.

After discussions with Metro CEO Phil Washington and Mayor Eric Garcetti about the benefits and potential opportunities for under-resourced cities like Huntington Park, Councilmember Macias eventually supported Measure M.

Investing in Place: What motivated you to be a councilmember?

Councilmember Macias: I tell people I never pictured myself being in elected office. But, I’ve always held progressive views and had a deep belief that in order to have change, we need a people’s movement. You need people to believe in something and push our legislators to do something to benefit the community.

After college, I came back to my Huntington Park community and got involved with city council meetings and asked questions, never with the intention of running for office — only with the intention of emerging myself into local issues. Some community members approached me about running for office. I was going through my master’s program at the time, working part-time, and taking care of my family.

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-3-02-41-pmWhen there was an opportunity to run for office, my motivation was the community, and to provide a different approach as a councilmember. I could only have done it with community support. In 2013, I ran against incumbents that had a lot of resources. For my campaign, community members, college friends, and colleagues came out to help. It was very much a grassroots campaign that won at the end of the day.

I was surprised, I didn’t think I was going to win by such margins. It told me the power of movements, of people, and when they believe in someone, the importance of having a progressive voice.

Investing in Place: What are the top issues your community faces and how does transportation fit into that?

Councilmember Macias: In the Southeast cities, there’s a lot of issues but there’s also a lot of potential. In Huntington Park we face a very small budget. Our resources are not what they used to be several years ago, especially with redevelopment gone.

Future train station site for the West Santa Ana Branch in Huntington Park (Pacific Blvd. and Randolph St.).

Now, as a council we have to figure out our priorities. My community depends so much on the resources we provide, like parks and public works. There’s a great need of having more so we can provide more. Future train station site for the West Santa Ana Branch in Huntington Park at the intersection of Pacific Blvd. and Randolph St.

Now, we don’t have as much but we’re trying to provide as much. Everything ties into transportation. We have a transit-dependent community. We have members of our community who take the bus to work, or to downtown for work, or even further. Our Pacific Boulevard is a transit hub. Everybody takes the bus. Everyone here knows about Pacific and Florence.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 3.13.48 PM.pngThe potential to have transportation projects can possibly change a lot of lives because you have individuals who can travel a little bit farther because they can get that job because they just so happen to not have a car. You know I didn’t have a car until I graduated college, for the same reason that it takes a lot of money to have a car.

A lot of these communities really depend on having resources to move, having that access to bus, to rail, because that’s their way of getting to that job that’s going to pay for their rent and everything else that comes up, having a family, taking care of someone.

They look upon our city council to provide not only policy, but also what else we can provide is resources. Making sure that we’re going out there advocating for the community.

Investing in Place: Thinking about transit-dependent populations and potential investments in your community, can you talk about how you feel about Measure M passing?

Councilmember Macias: I’m very hopeful for Measure M, because it’s going to provide a lot of funding for Metro and for their projects.

It’s no secret when it first came out that I was one of those vocal elected officials that was not happy about how the projects were first prioritized and the lack of MTA really looking into the needs of the Southeast cities.

There was a lot of people in the Gateway Cities and Southeast Cities in general that felt, “What about us? You promised us in 2008, now we’re back in the same place.”

I think a lot of it has to do with communication and making sure that we have a sit-down… which happened. There was a lot of work from elected officials that took the time. I sit on the board of Eco-Rapid Transit. There was a lot of work that was done to make sure they understood the importance of the West Santa Ana branch project, and how much that’s going to help out our immediate cities, the importance of making sure that we can continue to get the resources and the priority for them to continue looking at the Southeast cities.

There’s a lot of potential in these cities, it’s just that we have to really sit down with people — like the Metro CEO Phil Washington — that have the power to make sure that we can continue to get resources. Not just for a project, but the resources to fix our streets, making sure that they keep the Southeast as a priority.

A sheltered bus stop along Huntington Park’s major business corridor along Pacific Boulevard. The Metro 60, 251, 751, and 760 run through this corridor.

All the other cities have their own priorities, but we’re talking about the reality that our community is a transit-dependent community. If you put a rail system or if you put a bus line here, you’re going to have that ridership. They are just waiting for that resource for them to use it.

Investing in Place: Like Martin Luther King Jr., we believe our budget documents (where we invest our public dollars) says a lot about our morals. How does this statement resonate with you? What budgets are you most interested in tracking and better understanding?

Councilmember Macias: The statement resonates with me. I think that it’s in the personal but also in the public.

For me, I value where I put my money, where I invest it, where I get a donation — whether I’m campaigning or not. A lot of the donations I get from individuals eventually goes back to the community, whether it be a toy drive for the kids, a turkey drive, whether it be an event for the kids on Christmas. Everything goes back to the community.

When I came into the council in 2013, there was a lack of understanding of where we were investing our money, where we were budgeting our money, whether it be how much we were giving to a contractor, how much we were paying… “Do we really need that contractor right now? Do we need to keep them as a retainer? Can we use this money for something else?”

In order to track other budgets, we need to look at our own house. We can criticize other cities, we can criticize the county and how they spend their money, but I think we also need to look on the inside. Since I’ve gotten here, it’s about prioritizing what the community really needs right now — what contract needs attention? Maybe we can save money here.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 3.17.53 PM.pngNo service is cheap unfortunately, everything is going to cost more throughout the years for cities. It goes back to what I was talking about: we are doing more with less. I think where we invest in, how we go about it, really has to be transparent for the community too so they know where the money is going.

I personally would love to have the chance to see where our federal funds are going, especially now with a new administration. I think it’s going to be crucial for everybody to track where all our monies are going in the federal, county, and state budgets. There’s always a need for questions to where the money is going, and it definitely starts in-house.

Investing in Place: Thinking about Measure M and local return, is there any opportunity for fixing sidewalks, better crosswalks, and traffic signals?

Councilmember Macias: There’s an opportunity with local return that we are looking into. Local return helps us a lot with fixing and repaving streets, not just pot holes. A lot of residents are asking us if we have a plan to repave a lot of streets because they have seen potholes and haven’t seen any change.

It goes back to having a bigger budget. We definitely will depend on local return because we can pave the way to have a plan to provide safer streets, better streets, and sidewalks. Everything counts because at the end of the day we have a lot of people who walk on Pacific Boulevard and parents who walk their kids to school. All those project funds like local return are really important to us.

Investing in Place: What advice do you have for future community leaders?

Councilmember Macias: I always say that anybody that would like to go into public office needs to keep the community in mind. At the end of the day, I am a politician, that’s the reality. There’s many public officials that lose their way. It can easily happen. A lot of people will come around you: contractors and people with influence. It’s the nature of politics.

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 3.26.50 PM.pngHow you navigate it and how well you are grounded has a lot to do with it. If you are well-grounded and believe that the community comes first, you can navigate it really well. You can talk to a contractor and say, you can put an RFP and that’s fine.

If you’re going into public office or a public position, if it’s not about the community comes first, people can easily become lost. When I ran, I was 25, I was pretty young. A lot of people had their doubts. A lot of people see the age and ask, “are you mature enough? Are you really grounded in the sense that you’re going to represent the community?”

I think it’s going to happen with more young individuals — you see a wave of young elected in the Southeast, they’re coming back from college, going back home, and they want to make a difference. It’s not just about showing up to the council meetings, you really have to want to invest your time in the community.

Investing in Place: How do you feel about the new additions to the Metro board?

Councilmember Macias: I think it’s good, change is always good. I think there’s an opportunity for other cities who maybe felt they have not had a chance to be heard by the board, maybe this time they can be heard. That includes the Southeast.

I commend the work of Mr. Phil Washington who has taken the time to not only himself but his staff to come to the table with the cities, including myself. I had a sit-down meeting with him and with Mayor Garcetti to talk about the issues that we see. “I don’t want to cause any trouble with you guys, I want this measure to pass.”

We want to make sure that we are not forgotten, because we have a whole population that is transit-dependent. If you put a rail there or another bus, they are going to use it. It goes back to community and the resources that they need.

Investing in Place: Councilmember, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Councilmember Macias: Thank you for the opportunity. I think that we are looking at a future of transportation that’s going to look different and I’m very hopeful for the future.

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