By Miriam Raftery
September 30, 2012 (El Cajon)—Councilman Tony Ambrose was appointed in March to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Jillian Hanson-Cox. Now he’s running for re-election, one of seven candidates vying for three seats. After serving more than 20 years on the city’s Planning Commission and previously chairing the East County Economic Development Council, he brings experience along with some new ideas to the Council position. A Republican, like the other incumbent Council members, Ambrose shares some values with his colleagues—but differs on some key issues.
In an exclusive interview with ECM, Ambrose shares his detailed vision for improving the economy and quality of life in El Cajon.
Biographical background: Born in San Diego, Ambrose served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. After returning home, he moved to El Cajon and received his B.A. from San Diego State University in 1973. A member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, he is co-owner of Burkett Wong Engineering, which has provided planning consulting services to numerous companies and government agencies. He has served on numerous cit committees related to planning and community development, in addition to his long tenure on the planning commission, which he has also chaired. Married for 34 year, Tony and his wife, Toni, have two children who graduated from local schools. When asked to fill the vacancy on the council, “I gave it a lot of thought,” he says. “I decided that it was a good time for me to see what I could do, and if I could help.”
Economic development and helping local businesses are priorities: “I believe the city needs to focus more on economic development,” Ambrose told ECM, noting that in the past the city relied largely on the El Cajon Community Development Corporation to do that. (The agency was dissolved late last year after the state eliminated redevelopment funding.) “I’ve been a member of the East County Economic Development Council for a long time. We have some good contacts in that group and now we have a seat at the Regional San Diego EDC. East County didn’t have that for a long time—we just never got a lot of respect.”
Now, he added, “We have some wonderful opportunities that we need to take advantage of to increase our industrial base in El Cajon. We have a lot of under-utilized buildings and we have an emerging economic cluster of precision machining in East County that we can build on, expand and create more good-paying jobs for our people in East County.”
Ambrose plans to be “actively engaged in trying to find developers and businesses that are interested in coming to El Cajon.” He says he has made many contacts through the years in his business. “I know some of the larger companies in Los Angeles and San Diego. I plan to bring them to town and give them a tour.”
He believes the city needs “a new updated downtown specific plan” that would be “more flexible” and allow more permitted uses. “Instead of just restricting it to retail, let’s open up and be more creative,” he said, citing as an example a local realtor who was not allowed to open up a business downtown. “We need more people downtown for all kinds of reasons.”
He also wants to help existing businesses to thrive. “An initiative I’ve taken upon myself already is we are working with the Chamber and Cuyamaca College and the ECDC,” he noted. “The city needs to be more engaged in helping people to learn how to run a business…Instead of empty storefronts, ten years from now we would have people who know how to tackle touch times and stay in business.”
Reopening the Theater: Asked his views on the East County Performing Arts Center which has been closed for nearly three years, he replied, “I unequivocably want the theater reopened. No question about that.” But he added that he doesn’t want to “rush into anything. I really want to get a lot of answers. I think the ECPAC Foundation has provided us with some great ideas.” Then he revealed, “Right now the City Manager is having energy audits done on the old building. We are trying to get costs to put solar panels up there.” He sees room for reducing operating costs by improving energy efficiency. For example, the air condition units are not zoned, he notes, so currently the entire facility must be air conditioned, not merely areas in use.
Beyond downtown: Ae believes it is time to “rethink how Broadway and Second Street and East Main Street are treated. I would propose we prepare corridor revitalization plans for those three streets and look at the architecture, planning, land use and economic vitality of those areas.” He believes there may be too much commercial development and wants to consider mixed use along Broadway. “We should look at each of these areas independently and work with businesses to come up with solutions…I think we need to reinvent ourselves.” Changing the mix in these corridors could also result in “more eyes and ears on a 24-hour basis…maybe we can help reduce our crime with that.”
The Council has drawn criticisms over the years for cozy relationships with a handful of developers who have landed deals for major projects, particularly downtown. That may change, Ambrose implies. “I think if we have redevelopment again we should issue a request for proposal and we should see what is the best deal out there,” he observes. “I think in the past it’s been pretty hard to get people to pioneer in El Cajon; that’s probably why certain developers have gotten the lion’s share, because nobody was willing to put their money on the line. But I’ve talked with other developers who are interested, so in the future I would like to see more developers bid on doing the work in our city.”
Political backers: Ambrose is endorsed by fellow Councilmen Bill Wells, Bob McCellan, and Gary Kendrick, other prominent Republican officials, the county Republican Party, the Lincoln Club, and Foothills Church Pastor Kevin Miller, among others . He also has endorsements from local business owners and the Chaldean-American Association.
Accomplishments on Council: Though he’s only held a Council seat for a few months, Ambrose takes pride in playing a “large role” in the city’s current budget, which is balanced per council policy and has a 20% reserve. He indicated he also played a role in bringing Kenworth Truck Dealership open on Johnson. “Then I’ve made al ot of progress on incubator space…I have had an outpouring of support from community colleges and even some local banks.” He has also asked the city’s finance director and city manager to provide quarterly reports after budgets are adopted, instead of the current six-month reports “so we can see where we are.”
Sales Tax: Ambrose was not on the Council when Prop J was put on the ballot, then passed by voters to increase the city’s sales tax. “I didn’t support Prop J and I didn’t vote for it,” he says, but adds candidly, “the reality is today it generates $7 million for our public safety and I really didn’t see where else in our budget that money would come from. At this point I support Prop J. If people want to rescind it, then they need to know the consequences. I’ve been told by the city manager that there is no way we could keep police and fire at the level we have without Prop J. I could not support rescinding it without another revenue stream.”
New Revenues: Ambrose opposes new taxes, as his campaign signs clearly state. But he does have some other ideas for raising revenues. “There are events I’d like to see. I’d like to see us return to the Friendship Festival,” he says, adding, “The Centennial is an opportunity for us to showcase El Cajon. Western Days was one of my favorite days,” he adds, noting that kids enjoyed seeing cowboys, mountain men and Native American at the event, which he’d like to see revived. Ambrose also wants to “develop a city marketing plan” that would “get word out about businesses that we have. All the businesses are struggling. Maybe the city could put a little money in and businesses too, to get some advertising about all the businesses in El Cajon.”
Crime: Ambrose praised a new community policing program that El Cajon Police Deparmtent has created. “It divides up the city into five sectors,” he said, noting that each sector has a police commander as well as a civilian and a business person involved. Neighborhood watch areas also have watch captains who meet with the others involved. “This is so exciting,” Ambrose said. “Once this gets implemented across the city we will have so many eyes and ears for the Police Department. This has worked well in New York City and other places.” He acknowledged that “I think there is an increase in crime” including problems with methamphetamine addicts. “It’s going to be up to us and the Police Department to work together to keep it under control.”
Smoking ban: El Cajon has one of the state’s strictest ordinances limiting smoking, including in many outdoor areas. “I know it is a rights issue but at the same time it is a poisonous substance that affects people’s health,” says Ambrose, who adds that he does not want his grandchildren exposed to smoking. “I would not change anything.”
Chicken ownership: The Planning Department is currently working on a proposed ordinance that could legalize chicken ownership in El Cajon. “I would prefer them to do a rational approach,” Ambrose says. “Let’s not rush to legalize chickens until we’ve had a chance to study it and see how it works in other cities. If someone wants to have a few hens laying eggs, it’s probably okay with me, but let’s just see what all the issues are.”
Charter city status: Asked his views on the charter city status recently granted to El Cajon by voters, Ambrose notes that about a quarter of California cities are now charters, including San Diego and San Francisco. “They seem to be working pretty good,” he says, but adds, “As with any city, whether general law or charter, there’s always the opportunity for it to be abused. If handled properly, a charter can be beneficial to local jurisdictions. One thing we can do is use general fund money for economic development; you couldn’t do that before as a general law city and without it, it would be tough to move redevelopment forward. Another thing that might be a positive is that as a charter city, we can modify the state Map Act…that is, how we subdivide properties and sell them.”
Separation of church and state: El Cajon’s Council has stirred controversy in the past for posting videos on the history of pastors in America on the city-owned website, an action halted when a citizen complained and the city attorney agreed that the action violated the U.S. Constitution. Council recently voted to place an “In God We Trust” sign in Council chambers and at least one member has openly stated he does not support separation of church and state.
Asked his views on this issue, Ambrose replies, “I think the courts have pretty well handled that and our city attorney keeps the council in check on that issue…However you feel, you do need to be careful because the law is the law.”
Sign controversy: Recent news reports indicate some signs for Council candidate Ben Kalasho were removed and replaced by Wells/Ambrose signs, as well as signs stating that only Lincoln Club-endorsed candidates may post signs at the prominent downtown locations. Asked about the sign removals/replacements, Ambrose says “I didn’t know that it was taking place.” He calls the matter “an unfortunate incident” and adds, “I would not take down somebody else’s sign.”
Diversity: The Council raised controversy by appointing Ambrose while refusing to consider applications from others, including a Chaldean businessman and an African-American woman who previously served on the Planning Commission.
Ambrose wants the community to know that “I respect everybody.”
His family was Portuguese and his mother was “mostly white but part Native American,” Ambrose says of his own ethnic heritage. “My wife’s family is from Mexico; she is first-generation born here in this country, so we’re a pretty eclectic family.” In his business, Ambrose says he has worked with people from all racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as women and people with different sexual preferences.
“I think our refuge issue is just huge in El Cajon,” Ambrose observes. He praised the many Iraqi Chaldeans in the community, adding “I’ve learned a lot about them in the past few years. I think they are very courageous to leave their country and come here.” Ambrose notes that many recent immigrants have strong backgrounds in engineering, medical and other fields but are restricted from finding work here due to lack of English speaking skills. “I think the city can play a larger role than it has,” he says. “I’ve been working with the Chaldean American Association on developing a Chaldean cultural center for the city. We think we could provide a location where people could help get job placement and information on how to get housing, a lot of things….We could also provide a place for non-Chaldeans to go there and learn about the culture.”
Ambrose, who is endorsed by the Chaldean-American Association, concludes, “Why don’t we turn this into a n asset instead of treating it as a liability? They are here—let’s work with them.”
To learn more about Ambrose’ candidacy, visit his website at www.votetonyambrose.com.