May 2023

By Hank Greenberg

Meghan Sahli-Wells never expected to be a mayor. Yet, for two years, she was the lead official of Culver City, a Los Angeles California suburb of about forty thousand residents.  

Sahli-Wells had always planned to be an anthropologist. Sahli-Wells spent time studying anthropology in France, Burkina Faso, Mali and Madagascar. Spending time in other environments made her realize that America was falling behind.

“Waste is not something you’re really going to see in places like Burkina Faso or Mali,” Sahli-Wells explained. “When I got back home, it was pretty appalling to see how much waste Americans create. It feels like our economy is completely dependent on waste.”

Sahli-Wells’ changed plans after becoming a mother. She turned to local activism. Sahli-Wells spent a long time working as an environmental advocate within Culver City, but she never envisioned running for city council. 

“Honestly, [elected office] was the last thing on my mind,” Sahli-Wells recounted. “I had been working as a community organizer, mostly focusing on environmental work. There was a small group in Culver City that were part of the Transition Towns movement. We wanted to create communities that were not dependent on fossil fuels.”

Sahli-Wells’ work got noticed around Culver City. However, she still needed to be persuaded to run for office. However, once she saw her opponents, she felt much more confident about her credentials.

“A lot of the folks that I had been working with in the Transition Towns movement gently nudged me towards running,” Sahli-Wells said. “It took many conversations to get me to kind of get the confidence to take the leap. Once I got going, you know, I attended candidate forums, where I was asked questions by potential constituents. At my first candidate forum, I looked to my left and I looked to my right. It was all men running except for me. I thought, ‘Oh, I can totally do this.’

Sahli-Wells won elections in 2012 and 2016. She believes her greatest accomplishment in office was ending Culver City’s use of the Inglewood Oil Fields. The Inglewood Oil Field posed serious risks to the air quality of Los Angeles. Every year, the oil field releases as much carbon dioxide as eleven coal power plants.

“We have 10 percent of the Inglewood oil fields in Culver City,” Sahli-Wells said (photo above right). “For my whole eight years in office, I worked to shut down Culver City’s part of the oil fields. It culminated in a historic vote to stop all new oil drilling in the Culver City portion of the Inglewood oil field and to phase out existing drilling over the next five years. We also wanted a just transition for the workers.”

According to the Sierra Club, Sahli-Wells’s action will improve the health for the millions of people who live near the oil field. Certain types of cancer, asthma, and birth defects are more likely to occur in these heavily polluted areas. 

By 2024, the town Culver City hopes to be completely removed from the oil fields. Culver City’s choice to stop drilling influenced Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles. The governments adopted similar legislation to Culver City’s.

“It ended up being a monumental step forward.” Sahli-Wells said. “Thankfully, it inspired both LA City and LA County to follow the lead of our little town.”

Even though she now is out of office, Sahli-Wells continues to live by environmentally-friendly practices in her personal life. She no longer owns a car. Sahl-Wells and her husband exclusively use electric bikes and public transportation. Sahli-Wells believes living sustainably has brought a renewed sense of freedom in her life.

“I don’t have a car. In my everyday life, I use an e-bike,” Sahli-Wells said. “I take the bus or the train if I need to go to some faraway place. We’ve been car free since June. Biking really gives us a lot of joy.

We live in downtown Culver City and all of our shopping is within walking distance or an easy biking distance. We work from home, so that really helps too. We’re happy being really car-free and you can put the emphasis on free.

Sahli-Wells currently is active on Elected Officials to Protect America California Leadership Council and serves as the CA Program Director