By Miriam Raftery and Janis Mork
February 15, 2013 (La Mesa)--It’s not often that a mayor accuses a councilmember of lying in a public meeting, or that a councilmember contends the mayor is engaging in schoolyard banter. Both happened in La Mesa this week, where Mayor Art Madrid and Councilmember Ernie Ewin engaged in a terse dispute over appointments to three regional boards plus travel expenses.
On January 8, the Council unanimously approved three appointments on a motion introduced by Mayor Art Madrid, who renamed himself to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), recommended Ewin for reappointment to the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), and nominated himself for the Joint Powers Metro Wastewater Treatment Board that Ewin has chaired for the past two years.
Also on January 8, Ewin launched a discussion of travel policy, contending that Madrid has not met reporting requirements pursuant to state law under AB 1234. (Madrid contends he did nothing wrong.)
Ewin later sought to have council reconsider appointments. He also asked that the travel issues be agendized. Both items were placed on the January 22 agenda.
Madrid was traveling and could not attend the January 22 council meeting, so requested that these items be postponed until he returned.
Madrid contends that “no explanation, reason or good cause” was given for seeking his removal from two boards. In a strongly worded diatribe at the January 13 meeting, he stated that while reviewing a video recording of the January 22 meeting “I was stunned to see the specific items I requested to be continued were under full discussion by Mr. Ewin and he concluded with a motion to remove the Mayor as the primary member of the waste water/JPS board because he couldn’t serve as an alternate…If Mr. Ewin can’t serve as the alternate, he should resign so we can appoint his replacement.”
Madrid then went on to accuse Ewin of challenging Council’s authority, adding, “and there is something especially troubling when a Council member openly lies at a public meeting and thinks nothing about it.” He accused Ewin of lying about continuing the agenda items on the 22nd and other matters.
Ewin defended his actions in an interview and e-mails sent to ECM. “Mr. Madrid is welcome to his opinion but not his version of the facts as `gospel,’” said Ewin, adding that much of Madrid’s statements amounted to the Mayor’s perspective. Ewin contends that the Mayor has made several prior efforts to oust him from the Transit board.
Ewin says that his job requires travel, and so does service on the MTS board for out of town meetings. MTS recently decided that its LOSAN representative should be an elected official. A Chula Vista Councilmember has been attending LOSAN meetings on the board’s behalf, but Ewin says the intent was for him to takeover “once I get up to speed….So my purpose, why I agendized this, was to go ahead and do a public discussion.”
He explains that he didn’t simply call the Mayor because “I already talked to one Councilmember, so if I talked to the Mayor, that would be a Brown Act violation. So I put it into the agenda (for Jan. 22.) The items were later continued to February 12 after the Mayor announced his travel plans.
But Ewin states, “Because I had agendized it [the wastewater appointment] I felt obligated to disclose publicly what I knew and why I was doing this, because there had been a formally ratified appointment at MTS. They had ratified my outside assignments. I am the chair pro tem for MTS and I will probably be the audit chair again this year.” He added that continuity and seniority are important.
He adds that he discussed the matter with Council and “We made the motion to reconsider the appointments” and put them on the agenda for February after the Mayor returned. “Whether he had been there or not we would have made the recommendation, so there was no harm there.”
Ewin also believed that for the wastewater board, newly elected Councilmember Kristine Alessio was better qualified as a former Planning Board member. “It’s a land use issue,” said Ewin. “Here is my question…Why is it, Art, that of the three major outside appointments, you didn’t see fit where you have a land use attorney to represent the best that we have for the wastewater appointment?”
There’s more than the honor of representing La Mesa at stake; councilmembers receive stipends, typically $150, for attending meetings to boards on which they are appointed to serve.
City regulations state that Council must approve appointments in January of each year. However Ewin notes, “We can remove someone anytime we want. It takes three votes.”
At the prior meeting, Ewin also led efforts to tighten up travel procedures. Council voted 5-0 to direct staff to create a form for council members to seek advance permission for travel, which must be publicly agendized in the future.
“Anyone can comment on it and can ask ‘how is the travel germane?’ “Ewin told ECM. “Travel needs to be germane to city operations and safety.”
At the February 13 meeting, Madrid called Ewin’s actions “deeply troubling.” Madrid introduced a resolution to affirm the three January appointments and further, contended that “there has been no abuse, malfeasances or violations of travel approved budgeted resources by any council member of the Mayor.” He then moved that remaining council initiated items on the agenda be tabled, including the travel policy discussion.
The Mayor did not prevail. Council voted down the resolution, with Councilmember Ruth Sterling joining the Mayor in voting for it, while Ewin, Alessio, and Councilman Mark Arapostathos voted against it.
Ewin then brought up the travel resolution, which had previously been approved. Council reviewed the language crafted by the City Attorney and City Manager, then voted to ratify it.
Ewin then pulled the agenda items on the SANDAG and wastewater appointments.
Madrid says the Council needs to keep its focus on important issues, such as impacts that sequestering of the national budget may have on La Mesa and the upcoming expiration of Grossmont Center’s 50-year-lease. “The City and Council have more important issues to deal with in 2013 than to be mired in political games or personal vendettas,” the Mayor contends.
Ewin, considered by political insiders to be a likely candidate for Mayor in the next election, agrees on that point. “I do not have the time to focus on narcissistic speculative school yard banter,” he said of Madrid’s lengthy diatribe. “Time to lead from the front.”