Scroll down for highlights of our candidates forum, or click here to view video of the full forum.
By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left to right: Humbert Cabrera, Stephanie Harper, Juan Carlos "Charlie" Mercado, Michelle Metschel, and Martin Van Dinteren.
October 10, 2020 (El Cajon) – Housing and homelessness, racial relations, public safety, attracting businesses, the future of Parkway Plaza and the performing arts center were among the hot topics discussed at a virtual forum hosted by East County Magazine for five of the six candidates running for the El Cajon City Council District 2 seat, to represent the north central portion of the city.
Candidates also addressed controversies in the race, including a fake website set up to mislead voters about one candidate and serious residency questions raised regarding another.
The five candidates who participated are Humbert Cabrera, a planning commissioner and business owner, Stephanie Harper, a residential relief worker, Juan Carlos “Charlie” Mercado, an Iraq war veteran and veterans’ advocate, Michelle Metschel, a defense industry administrator, and Martin Van Dinteren, a general contractor and former city building inspector. (Update: View ECM's Zoom interview with Letitia Dickerson, the sixth candidate, who missed the forum due to an incorrect e-mail address provided by the city.)
ECM editor Miriam Raftery moderated the forum on Zoom, with cohost John Sepulvado. The Facebook Journalism Project funded ECM’s candidate forum series. Questions included some posed by the moderator and cohost, with others sent in by the public.
Cabrera emphasized, “I know how government works. I’m currently a planning commission and I’m ready to go.” He also cited his volunteerism in organizations including the East County Homeless Task Force, Chamber of Commerce, Salvation Army and his Citizen of the Year award. He said he’s helped bring in jobs and a food bank. “We’ve seen a lot of great things in El Cajon, and there’s a lot more to do,” he said.
Van Dinteren cited his experience as a builder for 40 years and a building inspector for the city until May cutbacks. “I love helping people get through their issues,” he said of the many people he’s met and helped on the job. “That’s the main reason I’m running.”
Metschel said, “I may be a rookie in politics but I’m not a rookie in life.” As an administrator for a government contractor, she said she’s interacted with people around the world and raised her family here, involved in the city’s friendship festival, community cleanup and homeless outreach. “I am fiscally conservative and socially moderate,” she said, adding that district 2 is a blue-collar community that needs to work with law enforcement and city government to clean up crime and drug problems so children can have safe spaces to play. “I bring common sense ethics,” she said.
Harper said as a young single mom, “it was tough and there were struggles” but she was able to survive on her own. But now she says the Valley of Opportunity, the city’s slogan, has become “a city of obstacles.” She lamented families struggling to keep homes or find a place for the night, seniors on fixed incomes having to choose between paying for medicine or shelter, children being raised in hotels or cars, and over 700 homeless, less than half sheltered. “I live in one of the poorest districts, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, adding that as a “proud Democrat…I am going to be your beacon…I have a passion for this city to be a voice to help people out.”
Mercado, an immigrant, said he started working in fields at age 5. “My father left me and my mother passed away.” He recalled his struggles as a young teen who didn’t speak English, yet he became a success, graduating first in his ROTC class and serving two combat tours of duty in the Army. More recently he retired as a deputy sheriff, working as a corrections officer. “I understand the immigrant population in El Cajon. We are proudly diverse,” he said, adding that he’s had top secret clearance working with embassies and believes he can also work closely with police. He’s been active in community work, particularly championing veterans issues as a founder of a group that helps deported immigrant veterans. He wants to address issues of homelessness, mental health and veterans.
Racial justice, police funding and public safety
Van Dinterin said as a building inspector, he went through training at the El Cajon Police Academy. He says police react as they are trained to do. “If you’re uncomfortable with police…compliance is your best weapon,” he contends. He says he experienced reverse discrimination as a white student in a predominantly black school, where he said he was laughed at. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he advises.
Metschel stated, “I oppose defunding of police. I fully support law enforcement officers.” As a former emergency medical technician, she relied on officers to protect her when aiding patients in situations such as stabbings. She encourage people to do a ride along before condemning police, but added, “We need to make sure the law applies equally and fairly. My family is multiracial. We have everybody come to our house.” She wants to add two police officers to each shift to protect all residents equally, fi says if there is overreach by officers, “they need to be held accountable – and officers need to be able to report excessive force by their fellow officers.”
Harper recalled the Alfred Olango shooting by an El Cajon police officer. Olango's sister had called police for help for her brother, who was having mental issues. Olango was kiled after he pointed a vaping pen at a police officer. (Photo, right: protest march on anniversary of Olango's death). She said she believes the police department handled the incident to the best of their ability, and believes everyone should be treated equally. “Our crime rate is the highest of any East County City and violent crime is escalating; property rates are going down. We have 1.4 officers for each 1,000 citizens and that’s a heavy load…We need to take a load off” police, such as having a PERT team available to go out with officers on mental illness calls such as the Olango case. She also wants citizens’ oversight of police and more outreach by police to youths. “We can always do better,” she stated.
Mercado says public safety is inadequate, with “too much focus on deadly force, not enough on nonlethal force.” He, too, mentioned the Olango incident. “The job is difficult. I was a deputy.” He says training is outdated and PERT Training inadequate. “Most officers are doing their job and doing it right, but when you see bad apples and say nothing, that’s a problem and needs to change. So many officers can’t even say Black Lives Matter.”
Cabrera said he’s experienced discrimination as a Latino and that he, along with Stephanie, were at events after the Olango shooting, talking to citizens. “As someone born here who lived in the 2nd district since I was four years old, I don’t like people who just move into the 2nd district to run here, he said, though ironically his own residency was later questioned. He emphasized that despite endorsements from prominent Republican politicians such as former State Senator Joel Anderson and Councilman Bob McClellan, “I have not taken money from the good old boys network…I’ve been told by some people they do not want a Latino in this seat, they said, “We do not like that you hired Chaldeans and we will not do business with you.” He referenced hate graffiti that defaced two local churches recently adding, “This still exists.” But he said,, “As far as police department officers, the training is there.”
A question from a reader noted President Donald Trump’s refusal during last week’s debate to denounce white supremacy, after which Trump mentioned Proud Boys, a racial hate group, then urged them to “Stand by and stand down” with later references to guarding polls on election day. So local candidates were asked, “Are you concerned about groups like this showing up at polls in El Cajon?”
Metschel said, “Racism has no place in El Cajon” and said she won’t take her family to visit relatives in Alabama because they are racist. She faulted Trump for failing to denounce white supremacists. She added that her family has taken in people from all walks of life and helped them. “I will denounce any white power being at the polls,” she added.
Harper stated, “I’m going to go walking into my poll no atter who is standing against me.” She acknowledged, “There is racism here in EL Cajon.” She added that her family has many ethnicities including Hispanic, Arabic and African-American. Racism “Is not how I am.” She added that voting at the polls is “my right and my freedom. Its very dear to my heart, just like my flag.”
Mercado said he has “zero tolerance for hate crimes, discrimination or racism” noting, “If anything we need to have a police presence at the polls. I’ve been a victim of racism throughout my life and even within the Sheriff’s department, I was told to go back to Mexico.” He voiced concern over counterprotesters and instigators at Black Lives Matter rallies in El Cajon, adding, “We should not tolerate that anywhere in America or the world.”
Cabrera said he’s had intimidation in his life but “when you’re an immigrant, you work harder. That’s what my parents said, both were legal immigrants from Mexico.” He said he became a valedictorian, while his brother and sister became a doctor and a scientist. She said he hasn’t just talked about racism, he’s hired minorities at his businesses. He says he wants a return to “citizen centere government” not top down, but added, “I give a little leeway to police adding that he’s been endorsed in the past by police groups and that El Cajon’s recent police chiefs have been minorities. He did not address the question on militia groups at polling places.
Van Dinteren calling intimidation of voters “very offensive” but likened this to being asked by a voter his party. “I’d say Republican and they’d walk away without asking where I stand…it’s so polarized its scary.” He said he agreed with Cabrera that there is discrimination “and it’s sad…I truly believe in diversity and being fair.”
Asked if they denounce white supremacy, which the President declined to do during the presidential debate, all candidates said yes, though Cabrera said he also wanted to see Joe Biden denounce Antifa and indicated Trump later tried to clarify his position. Mercado said he has “zero tolerance” for racism and that El Cajon should be proud of diversity and promote it. Metschel said there should be “no tolerance for racism, period.” Harper agreed that “racism has no part in our government,” adding, “When we turn off the lights, we are all the same.”
All candidates agreed that Black lives matter, though Van Denterin and Harpet indicated that everyone’s lives matter, too. Mercado wants police officers to believe Black lives matter, but said, “Right now that’s not happening.”
Priorities for district 2
Each candidate was asked how long they’ve lived in the district and what their priorities would be specifically for their neighborhood in district 2.
Harper said she’s lived in El Cajon her entire life and in district 2 for about a year. She voiced concern over noise and street racing, as well as homeless people she has met and got to know while walking streets in the area. “I know a lot of them that are struggling, and I see a lot of things we could be doing.” She also wants to see regular street cleaning in district 2.
Mercado says he’s lived five to six years in the district and in the region his entire life except his Army service. “I’ve been out almost daily on the street talking to people,” he says. He, too, wants to “clean up the city and make it look better,” as well as fill in potholes and fix lights, address homelessness and public safety in the district.
Cabrera stated, I want to speak about actually living and having a home in the district, not just a business. I’ve lived in the district since I was four years old,” he said. (This statement has been disputed by an opponent; see residency question below.)
His priorities for district 2 are to clean up streets and have “more regulation and more freedom.” He wants to bring jobs in and get people to spend money in El Cajon instead of elsewhere. He wants to improve the Bradley bridge, parking issues and build more single residency occupancy (SRO) dwellings. He also called for reducing code enforcement against businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Van Dinteren said he’s lived in the district only a year, but in El Cajon for 20 years. His priority is streamlining building department zoning. I want to eliminate fees,” he said. He cited a market owner who can’t afford to turn a vacant lot next door into a distribution center.
Metschel said she’s lived in the district for 20 years and within three miles since 1979. “My top three priorities for the district are public safety, homeless and crime,” she stated succinctly.
Controversies over residency and a fake candidate website
The purpose of El Cajon shifting to district elections is to assure that each section of the city can elect a representative from their neighborhood. Public officials who win election but don't live in the district have been forced to resign (as occurred when John Linden sued Joel Scalzitti over a residency dispute in Helix Water District). Worse, in Los Angeles, several officials faced prosecution and were imprisoned.
Cabrera has been registered to vote at a home on North Mollison Ave., his mother’s home in the district, since 2012. However his business license renewal in May listed his home address on Falcon, which is not in the district. His wife, Angela owns the home on Falcon and has claimed a homeowner exemption with the County Tax Assessor there, under penalty of perjury, a claim renewed in February of this year. She recently changed her voter registration to the Mollison address shortly before Cabrera announced his candidacy.
Asked to explain these discrepancies, particularly given his claim that he’s lived in the district since age 4, Cabrera said he and his wife are living in the North Mollison house, where they are caregiving for his mother. “We have documents to say we registered a business at…North Mollison, so I’m wondering who is trying to pull a fast one by saying we registered a business outside the district? We never did that.”
Fact check: This document obtained from the city shows Cabrera listed the Falcon Ave. address as his home when he renewed his Cabrera & Associates business license on May18, 2020.
Cabrera said he’s lived at the Mollison address “my whole life” but then clarified that his wife “does have a condo” (on Falcon).” Asked about her homeowners’ tax exemption there, he replied, "We did stay in that for the allotted time to be there when we first purchased the condo.”
Fact check: Jordan Marks at the County Tax Assessor’s office says Humbert’s wife has owned the home on Falcon since Dec. 2016 has filed a renewal on the homeowner’s tax exemption stating under penalty of perjury each year that it is her primary residence. “If she changed her voter registration, she could lose her homeowner exemption,” said Marks. Registrar of Voters Michael Vu has advised ECM that while Humbert Cabrera has been registered at the Mollison address since 2012, his wife just changed her voter registration from Falcon Street to the Mollison address on July 24, 2020, along with updating her name, Angela Grindley, to Angela Cabrera. Photo, right: The Cabreras with their daugheter.
Candidates were also asked if any of their campaigns were responsible for a fake website put up in the name of Metschel, with false information intended to deceive voters on her views, a fact covered in several media outlets.
Mercado said he didn’t know anything about it or who was behind it.
Harper called the action “wrong, mudslinging,” adding that if someone can’t win on their “own morals and standards and education, then they shouldn’t be in the race.”
Cabrera said he agreed with Mercado, and that he didn’t fully understand the article in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Van Demerin said he read the article but “I had no part in it. It’s a shame we live in a world where things like this can be done.”
Metcschel said the site was distressing but has been taken down.
El Cajon has the highest homeless rate among East County cities despite spending more money to help the homeless.
Candidates wee asked their approach to both help those who are homeless and protect the community from issued caused by homelessness, such as sanitation concerns.(photo, right: outreach to homless in an El Cajon park)
Mercado said the city needs a more proactive approach. “I talk to business owners and they say no one has approached them on how they can participate or what their opinion is; same thing with church-goers.” He voiced concern for the homeless and also the image of dirty streets and sidewalks. He wants sanitation done as it was during the Hepatitis outbreak where homeless congregate, but also supports more housing and help. When I meet with them…they don’t want a handout. They want a hand up,” he says.
Cabrera touted his work with the homeless task force from its inception, partnering with some 20 nonprofits to help veterans, the mentally ill and others as well as around 60 businesses that have helped donate to build a Salvation Army center with a food bank open every day. “I volunteered and spent nine years of my life on this,” he said. He also praised a city program that’s helped reunify 50 families, paying for bus tickets so homeless people can rejoin families in other locations, which includes sending a Salvation Army person on the bus and helping them find a job. Cabrera is endorsed by Pastor Harold Brown, who runs the East County Transitional Living Center, but says he’s also a proponent of single residency occupancy homes to help the homeless transition off the streets.
Van Dinteren said, “I do have a plan and it’s completely different.” He wants a property tax credit for homeowners who will bring a homeless person into their home, where they could get Zoom meetings to access things like job training or other help.
Metschel offered a personal perspective, since she was homeless as a young teen. “My mother made bad choices. We lived in motels and then we lived in a car. I’ve known the embarrassment of having to wear the same clothes and to have to shower at school, so I have a heart for the homeless to try and make their lives better.” She said as an EMT, she’s tried to show compassion for the homeless and has had a homeless person live with her family as an adult. “I also helped clean p homeless camps, and a couple of homeless people in town I’ve taken an active interest in and helped them.” She says what El Cajon needs most is one location that can serve as a “one stop shop” with housing and services such as medical and mental health, job training, clothing, dru and rehab help.
Harper temporarily lost her connection to the Zoom meeting and missed this question, however on her Facebook page she lists finding solutions to El Cajon’s growing homelessness crisis among her top priorities.
Bringing in businesses
Candidates were asked how they would attract new businesses to El Cajon, and which types of businesses they want to see here.
Van Denteren wants to close down Main Street to help business to “open up fully” during the COVID-19 crisis and suggested other districts may want to follow suit.
Metschel wants to keep Main open but is fine with letting restaurants move out into a portion of the street. “I’d like to see more specialty shops,” she said, citing card shops and clothing shops, as well as more ethnic stores, as examples.
Mercado said he has a passion for the arts and works with a lot of artists. “I believe we need art galleries,” he said, adding that this along with modernization would promote a better image of El Cajon and encourage more people to shop here.
Cabrera said, “Bring it all in.” He noted his companies deal with drafting, construction development and loans. “You talk to the CEOs, you take them out here and bring them to the desert, introduce them to the Chamber and the groups that I belong to,” he said. “Make them a family member and before you know it, they love it.”
Harper recalled going to Parkway Plaza mall in her youth and lamented the loss of family attractions such as Farrell’s ice cream parlor, the Family Fun Center, water slides and Boomer’s. “We’ve got to give people a reason to come into El Cajon,” she said. She wants attractions to bring people with children into the city, including reopening the performing arts center.
Parkway Plaza, the regional shopping mall in El Cajon, recently sold and a Wall Street Journal article suggested the new owner is considering housing on the site. Asked if they think the shopping mall should be converted to housing, here are the candidates’ replies.
Van Denterin said no, but added that “stores are too big..”
Harper said, “I definitely think we we should keep our mall” which she called “vital” for the community, though she would be open to adding a second story. She noted it’s also a place for people to go walking when it’s too hot outside.
Metschel agreed Parkway Plaza needs to remain as a mall and as a cool zone for seniors and moms with children. But she added, “If they want to add a second story or artists’ lofts or a recording studio or maybe a little section with higher end apartments, why not?”
Cabrera’s business is in Parkway Plaza. He said he’s talked to the old and new owners and got mixed information. “I would not allow a change in zoning, but would make zoning easier – something like UTC where we have mixed zoning…with some condos,” he said.
Mercado wants to “keep the mall” but reinvent it. “Bring in investors, community galleries, and make it a community center.” He called this a “golden opportunity” to provide an asset to the community.
Performing Arts Center
All candidates voiced support to continue city support of The Magnolia, formerly the East County Performing Arts Center, under management of Live Nation once they are allowed to reopen.
Mercado suggested that during the closure due to COVID-19,the theater might be opened up as gallery space for artists.
Harper suggested teaching kids how to run soundboards and lighting at the theater.
Cabrera said he’s raised his daughters in El Cajon and believes the arts are important. He wants to keep the theater and also supports the animal shelter.
Van Dinterin wants the name to revert back to the East County Performing Arts Center and wants to make it more affordable for outside groups to use the theater.
Metschel, who performed on the stage in the ‘80s, said she loves the Magnolia name and noted that under Live Nation the theater became profitable in just four months, instead of the year projected. She praised the “diverse” acts from Ranchero music to Chaldean to rock.
Housing and renters
How would candidates address the shortage of housing, particularly affordable homes?
Harper wants a rent cap “at least for seniors in mobile home parks so they don’t become the next homeless on our streets.” She wants the city to prioritize making homes affordable.
Cabrera reiterated his support for SROs as very low income transitional housing. He also called for eliminating some permitting and processing red tape to make it easier for homeowners and businesses to remodel or cleanup. He runs a company that does permitting and process and said “El Cajon is very difficult.” He added that some who wanted to donate complexes for the elderly or homeless couldn’t due to environmental ordinances that would force them to tear buildings down and start over.
Metschel proposed workshops with mortgage brokers and lenders “to teach people how to be a first time homeowner” and get the sense of pride that home ownership brings. “Yes, we do need apartments, but we also need good homes for people to raise a family and stay in for 20, 30 or 40 years,” she said.
Mercado said, “I disagree with Humbert. Deregulation is the wrong way to go…We need modern, energy efficient homes.” He wants to bring in builders to utilize empty lots.
Asked how to address problems of landlords in older rental housing with mold and bug infestation problems, the candidates differed in their approaches.
Cabrera said, “I’ve had people call without running water…I’d rather have code enforcement work on that instead of people putting up tents for COVID.” He added that some regulations go too far “when a shadow is considered a pollutant.”
Van Denterin talked about a program that’s been discontinued to inspect street by street, apartment by apartment.
Metschel said, “Landlords need to be held accountable for a house or apartments in bad condition. We already have laws. We need to enforce them.”
Mercado said he was a victim of mold and a leak in a rental unit but had to go to court, and even after a win it took nearly a year to get money. He wants landlords held accountable and the process made faster and more renter friendly.
Harper proposed inspections before occupancy to assure there are no bedbugs or roaches, and that water is running. She suggested a phone line for reporting violations. “Come do an inspection and if it’s not up to par, hit them where it hurts – in the pocketbook and they will start doing what’s right for tenants.”
Candidates were asked to name endorsements they are most proud of.
Mercado is endorsed by Estela de los Rios, candidate in district 4 and a leader in the Latino community.
Harper is endorsed by the Democratic Party, Run Women Run, and the San Diego Construction and Trades Building Council.
Cabrera is endorsed by former State Senator Joel Anderson, Councilman Bob McClellan, Pastor Harold Brown, a realtors association and a Latino Police Officers group but says he’s most proud of ordinary citizens’ endorsements such as from veterans and teachers.
Van Dinteren said he’s endorsed by former Congressman Darrell Issa.
Metschel said she is endorsed by the El Cajon Firefighters Association, El Cajon Police Officers Association, San Diego County Gun Owners, a mobile home owners association, and county assessor Ernest Dronenberg.
Each candidate was asked to summarize why they believe they should be elected – and what they like best about El Cajon.
Harper said she fights for what she believes is right and helps people. I like to listen and understand where they are coming from,” she said. “When you see someone in need, stop and help. And when I see something that’s not right in my city, I don’t back down.” She says the best thing about El Cajon is seeing the moon set over the valley, and the location midway between the mountains and the sea. “We’re a beautiful city – there’s no place like it,” she concluded.
Cabrera says he likes the people of El Cajon and his district, whom he praised as “har working people who put their heart into everything they do” and helping each other. He says that’s why he raised his family here. “I worked for small companies and big Fortune 500 companies and I always came back, because El Cajon is the best city that there is.” He said people in El Cajon opened their hearts to help his parents when the arrived. “I’ve actually done the work,” he said, adding, “My heart is with the citizen of the district, and my door is always open.”
Van Dinterin cited his experience adding, “I’ve really tried hard to help people.” He said he moved to East County when he was 21. “I was brought in for pure economics because it was all I could afford and I stayed because I love East County,” he said.
Metschel said, “I want to bring ethics and experience and hard work to the office of the City Council. I’m a problem solver.” She said she’s solved problems at work and in her neighborood, such as getting a drug house shut down and a street light put on her cul-de-sac. She said she helps pick up trash with an El Cajon clean up group. “What I love about El Cajon is it’s home – it’s where my children and grandchildren are…It’s got everything here.”
Mercado concluded, “El Cajon has enormous diversity. I love diversity, and we need to make sure our city council represents that diversity – not just those born here, but immigrants…We need to include everyone. Diversity is awesome. That’s where El Cajon needs to go.”
What district are you in? Click here to view the interactive El Cajon City Council District Map
Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.
East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and our series of virtual candidate forums. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.
You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.