DEVELOPMENT ISSUES DOMINATE LA MESA CANDIDATES’ FORUM

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Candidates Clash Over Their Visions for City’s Future

By Mark Gabrish Conlan

September 15, 2012 (La Mesa)--Five candidates for two seats on the La Mesa City Council — Kristine Alessio, Patrick Dean, Laura Lothian, Shannon O’Dunn and 20-year incumbent Ruth Sterling — met September 13 for the first candidates’ forum of the campaign. Held at the La Mesa Community Center on Memorial Drive and sponsored by the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, the 90-minute forum centered mostly around finances and development, specifically around downtown and the La Mesa Village area, but it also touched on issues like the city’s responsibility towards homeless people and whether it should declare itself a fair-trade zone.

“I’ve been on the La Mesa Planning Commission for almost 10 years and I’ve learned a lot about how the city works, about the issues — and the budget constraints,” said Kristine Alessio, the first candidate to speak. (Debate moderator Gary Clasen called the candidates to give both their opening and closing statements in alphabetical order.) “I’m a volunteer for the Adult Enrichment Center and the Pet Therapy Program, so I’m familiar with a lot of the needs facing seniors. I have also been on the board of the East County YMCA, the East County Boys’ and Girls Clubs, and the Lemon Avenue PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) back in the day. I volunteer one day a week at Parkway Middle School here in La Mesa, and I understand the needs that people with families and children have.”

“I woke up one morning not long ago to find there was a tree being knocked down outside my window,” said Patrick Dean. “It really affected me in a strong way, because that kind of thing can make you sick. Some very small things can make a difference, and that what makes city government important.” Dean said he routinely attends all the meetings of the La Mesa City Council, and called the Council position “the only job I’ve ever looked for in public life. We all hope our neighbors will get together and find solutions to make our city work better,” he added, “but we also know that there forces out there who will happily knock down that tree if it’s in their economic best interest.”

Lothian, who unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of La Mesa against incumbent Art Madrid two years ago, introduced herself as a change agent who would shake up La Mesa and challenge the city’s establishment. “Incumbents campaign on their records; a new candidate campaigns on who they are,” she said. “I’ve been a La Mesa realtor for the past 10 years. My living centers around property values, zoning, neighborhoods, crime and schools.” Lothian said the big challenge facing government — not only local but state and federal — is “how do you raise more money without raising revenues or fees, and how do you cut costs without cutting services.” She said her experience as president of a local PTA, during which “I increased our fundraising by tenfold,” was what La Mesa needs.

Art gallery owner Shannon O’Dunn focused on her background. “I’m a geologist by training, but my primary career was in public higher education,” she said. “I taught for 36 years before retiring and opening a business in the Village, so I’ve had a chance to look at both the public and private worlds.” Describing La Mesa as “a wonderful city … coming up on some tough times,” O’Dunn said, “We need to shelter in place economically, to keep the solvency that we have right now, the high level of public services, and to develop our remaining assets so they generate revenues to achieve those ends.”

Ruth Sterling, the only incumbent Councilmember seeking re-election, joked that she’d been on the Council so long that she was recycling her leftover 1996 campaign flyers for her current race — a fact confirmed by the absence of a Web address on them. Boasting that she was “born and raised in San Diego and have lived in La Mesa 50 years,” Sterling said, “I feel like I’ve done a good job and I hope you’ll mark the box that says I’m doing a good job.”

The format required audience members to submit their questions in writing so moderator Clasen could ask them, instead of allowing attendees to address the candidates directly. The first question Clasen raised concerned La Mesa’s $31 million pension debt, whether a part-time position like La Mesa City Councilmember really deserves a publicly funded pension, and if they would take one

“I don’t think it’s an excessive package,” said Dean. “We want a City Council devoted to doing a good job, with people who think it’s worth their while to take care of the city,” he said.

“The salary is $1,000 per month, which means if you serve for years, your pension will probably be $46 per month,” Lothian said. “I think the pensions the public is upset about are six-figure pensions and platinum health plans.”

O’Dunn pointed out that for a La Mesa City Councilmember to qualify for a pension at all, they’d have to be not only elected but re-elected because the period you have to serve to get a pension is five years — one year longer than the four-year term of office. She said she wouldn’t accept a La Mesa city pension because “I’m fine with my public pension [as a college teacher] and with Medicare.”

Sterling joked that after 20 years on the Council — 24 if she is re-elected this year — she’d probably get $200 per month, “which would help pay the increasing sewer bills.” She said she’d leave the current city pensions in place but wouldn’t take the health benefits because “I already have Medicare, Aetna and Tricare.”

Alessio said she didn’t think people should get a full-time pension from a part-time position, “but I don’t believe in running in and taking away people’s pensions. I believe in a Jeffersonian ideal of public service. I don’t even want to take a salary, let alone a pension.”

The next question was about the Helix water district’s upcoming rate increases and whether the city, as Helix’s largest customer, could or should do something about them. 

Lothian, who got first crack at this one, turned it into a slashing attack on Helix, saying it wastes a lot of the money it gets out of the city, private businesses and residents. “Every other year,” she said, “they do an employee satisfaction survey — not a customer satisfaction survey, but an employee satisfaction survey — which costs thousands of dollars. I understand that if you’re an employee there, not only do you get the medical [coverage] but so do your spouse and kids. They have so much money pouring in, I feel they’ve become very wasteful. The city should step up and say, ‘Hey, we are your biggest customer. We need to whittle this down.’”

“Municipalities have to work with a lot of overlapping jurisdictions,” said O’Dunn, “and in general I think we should strive to help one another and to understand one another, whether it’s the water district, the school district, the transportation entity or what have you. We are all in this together. That said, the city of La Mesa is not a revenue-generating entity. It keeps, collects and is the steward of taxpayers’ monies, and if the city itself believes that the rates or the rate structure is out of line, I don’t believe the city is doing the taxpayers a fair deal if they don’t make that known.”

“I’ve told Helix I think they’re charging too much — and I’ve also told them I oppose them putting fluoride in my water,” said Sterling. “I want my water as pure as I can have my water, without the fluoride and without them telling me they have to do it, it’s state law, because I know better.” But she conceded that the City Council couldn’t do anything about the rates beyond “complaining to them, or passing a resolution — and I don’t know whether we would do that.”

“La Mesa and Helix have to work together,” Alessio noted. “The city has looked at the water increases and commented about them. The City Council doesn’t have the right to tell Helix what to do. I don’t think we need to be managing what Helix does with their rates. The ratepayers need to voice their opinions — not the city.”

“We’ve got to have a way to reach out to the other jurisdictions and work together,” said Dean. “We represent people for whom the small things in life are very important. We need to make sure the interests of La Mesa residents are being taken care of.”

But most of the questions at the meeting centered around what’s traditionally the primary concern of local government in the U.S. — planning and land-use decisions, including how to attract revenue-generating businesses to the city, what kinds of development to allow and how to finance civic projects. One question that came up was about whether to raise the rates on La Mesa’s parking meters, and what to do with the extra money this would bring in.

“Raising parking meter prices is the worst way to raise revenues,” said O’Dunn. “What we need is a parking structure in the Village, where people can park safely for as long as they want and pay for what time they use.” She admitted that this won’t be a revenue-raiser for the city — whatever fees are charged to park in the structure would have to pay off the loans that built it — “but it’ll bring people to our city and help them feel secure.”

“We pay too much now for the parking meters,” said Sterling. “Businesses downtown want to survive, and when [their customers] have to worry about running back and forth to feed the meters, that hinders the consumer and keeps them from hanging around or dining a little longer.” She said that there’s currently $1 million in revenue from parking meters the city is holding, and she agrees with the decision of the current Council to spend all that money revitalizing downtown, including building the so-called Streetscape improvement project.

“I agree with Ruth that the money should stay downtown and be used for downtown projects,” said Alessio. “I don’t think you should increase the parking fees. I got a parking ticket yesterday, and it was a hefty chunk of change.”

“It was smart to designate parking fees for the capital reserve fund,” said Dean. “We want to build downtown and make it vibrant, and one way to do that is through mixed-use projects so people will live, work, bike and use the trolley. Eighty-five cents of every dollar spent by a driver leaves town; 85 cents of every dollar spent by a trolley rider stays here. I want people to be able to drive to and from La Mesa, but I also want people to have other options.”

Lothian, whose campaign brochure included a call to “beautify La Mesa Village … with parking meter money,” said she’s been on the La Mesa Parking Commission the last four years and thinks the current Council isn’t using the estimated $300,000 per year generated by the meters to do enough to revitalize downtown. “I’ve seen stores open and close since 2007,” Lothian said. “I’ve seen trash, litter and stained sidewalks. I thought there was so much revenue being generated by parking meters that we could use the money to preserve downtown and keep those businesses open, but we don’t.”

Another land-use related question concerned the fate of the proposed Property-Based Business Improvement District (PBID), which the City Council decided last July not to go through with until a majority of property owners in the district agreed. A PBID is a variant of a Business Improvement District (BID), in which property owners in a specific area vote themselves higher taxes, usually to finance improvements in the area. Most of the candidates seemed to feel the the proposed area for a PBID was too large and it included too many schools and churches that wouldn’t benefit from the PBID’s projects, as well as the commercial properties that would gain from it.

“That dog had fleas but I thought it could hunt,” said O’Dunn, who was on the formation committee that helped write the PBID proposal and was more sympathetic to it than her rivals. “I really thought that to focus on creating an identity in this essential corridor between development that’s going to happen in the west and the redevelopment of Grossmont Center to the east would pay dividends in the long run. I thought it was a good idea that would give us the opportunity to move forward. … I think by the time that Grossmont Center gets demo’d and you see 25 percent of your sales-tax revenue go away for two years, you’ll be very glad that you had a vibrant, revitalized downtown.”

Another hot topic was the proposed Park Station development on the old Kitzman property, currently in use for used car and camper sales. The developer’s proposal includes a 19-story building, far taller than anything that exists in La Mesa today, as part of a broader complex. 

“The first time I heard about it was a year ago,” said Lothian. She said she got suspicious when she heard the same developers “built Smart Corner, which was one of the most tenement[-like] buildings in downtown San Diego. It’s picked up a bit since then, but it’s a 19-story building on the trolley. In La Mesa what they’re proposing is a cluster of buildings, one of which would be 19 stories on the trolley.”

Lothian, who in an earlier candidates’ questionnaire from the La Mesa Today Web site had expressed fear that the 19-story building could end up being used for apartments instead of a luxury hotel, repeated that fear at the September 13 debate. She said the developer had admitted they don’t have a contract with a hotel chain, “and I said, ‘If you don’t get the luxury hotel, could it become apartments?’ And he said, ‘Possibly.’ That’s something I think you’d have to consider. Apartments done right are fine. Apartments done high-density and wrong devalue cities and properties, and can bring crime to your city.”

“I don’t think a 19-story building would fit, and I don’t think it would happen,” said Dean. “But I wouldn’t mind a number of high-density buildings a little taller than we’re used to so people can live right near the transit corridor. There’s a younger generation that doesn’t want to be chained to their cars. We have bicyclists who want to be part of the community, and who have more money to spend because they’re not putting it into their cars.”

“Because I’m on the Planning Commission, and I do expect to see this project brought before us, I don’t think I should offer an opinion on something that is basically conceptual at this time, without having an actual plan in front of us delineating what they’re going to do,” Alessio said. “I do believe that area needs to be developed, and I look forward to them presenting a formal application. At that point I will be able to have an opinion on it. But I think it’s very unwise to have an opinion on something that hasn’t been formally presented.”

Sterling agreed that just about any permanent building on the site would be preferable to keeping it as it is now, but “what I’ve heard is that folks don’t think a 19-story building fits in with the surrounding area.” She also said she thought the development would generate a lot more traffic than is indicated in its environmental impact statement.

“We agree [the land] needs to be developed according to the La Mesa general plan,” said O’Dunn. “That’s one of the two or three places that are starred to indicate ‘Gateway Opportunity.’ I’m not terrified by a multi-story building. I’d like to see it high enough so we could see the ocean.” She said that one condition she might impose on a high-rise developer would be that “our fire department would tell you what equipment they need to reach the top story, and you’ll buy it for them.”

Another question was about how to deal with La Mesa’s homeless population and whether the city should build, or allow a social-service agency to build, a homeless shelter. 

“I would like to know more about how shelters function and if they really take people off the street,” said O’Dunn. “The homeless person behind my business had a residence where he got SSI checks, and he chose to live on the street. La Mesa should look for the opportunity to help those folks, but first of all show me what happens to the people who get into the shelter.”

“The city manager told me you can’t solve the homeless problem, you can only manage it,” said Lothian. “My first response to the proposal for public toilets was it would only make the homeless problem worse. Father Joe Carroll, with the best of intentions, has built homeless facilities in east San Diego and they’ve brought in thousands of homeless people.” She said the best solution would be a region-wide one in which the cities in East County would pick out a location “where real-estate values are very depressed” and pool their resources to build a shelter there.

“I’d like to see us try to get the homeless into homes,” Dean said. “That isn’t going to happen without people in position to do that. There are different types of homelessness. Transitional homeless people” — i.e., those temporarily down on their luck and with histories of employment — “can be helped by shelters. We can’t pretend that they’re all just weak people we don’t want to have around.” Dean called homelessness “a symptom of inequality in our society. I don’t want my daughters to see people passed out on the street, but I don’t think they’re weak people.” He said people who end up homeless due to alcohol or drug abuse “have a disease” and need help — and so far, he reminded the audience, “we have no homeless services in La Mesa.”

“We do have a homeless problem, but it’s not a giant one,” said Alessio. “There is the issue of whether people choose to be homeless. The homeless problem started in 1973 with de-institutionalization” — the movement in the state of California to let mentally ill people live in society instead of keeping them in mental hospitals. “There are places for homeless people to do and places for retail establishments to be,”Alessio added, noting that she first got involved in community politics when she worked to block the building of a 7-Eleven store she thought would be a magnet for homeless people.

“No,” said Sterling to the idea of building a homeless shelter in La Mesa. “We have 487 assisted units for low-income housing, and we do work with San Diego with the homeless problem. Nobody likes to see a homeless person on the street. It’s sad, but we don’t have a place in this city for a homeless shelter.”

On the proposal of whether to make La Mesa a “fair trade city,” virtually all the candidates expressed sympathy with the idea but Dean was the only one who actually endorsed it. The rest of the candidates said it was none of the La Mesa City Council’s business to tell the city’s retailers what suppliers they should buy from, or the residents how they should spend their money.

Given a chance to make closing statements — for which, as in the opening, they were called in alphabetical order — Alessio said, “I hope I have answered questions on where I stand on the issues. My position is I am here for you, the citizens of La Mesa. I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UCSD and I’m an attorney, which means I can read through the legalese in city documents.” She also said that her and her father’s history in real estate development for years means they’ve suffered through economic downturns before and know how to deal with them.

“Everyone wants to have their voices heard,” said Dean. “My background as a chef and caterer has taught me hard work and teamwork, and my vision for the City Council is to look out for the working families and renters to make sure they have affordable housing opportunities. I won’t give up on [redeveloping] the old police station. I will work to improve our working relationships with the schools, especially the La Mesa-Spring Valley school district. I will maintain our fiscal responsibility and public safety of our very well-run city. I want to improve the choices we have of how to get around. I know bike lanes, walkability and public transit will reduce traffic, improve our economy and make us a more livable city.”

Lothian’s closing statement stressed her history as a realtor and how that affects her perception of La Mesa’s needs. “My profession has me driving through La Mesa every day of my life,” she said. “I see people who are thinking of buying homes in La Mesa seeing an abandoned lot with litter, and they say, ‘No. Next.’ I want to help our neighborhoods get better because that improves our city and decreases crime. I also want to help businesses. I see some of the ridiculous regulations our businesses have to go through. I want businesses to expand because they bring revenues to our city.”

“I see this event as a job interview,” said O’Dunn — who, like Dean, ran for La Mesa City Council before in 2008 and lost. “You’re going to be hiring two people. I’m still working, and I’d like to work for you. As a fiscal conservative, I believe that if you don’t have it, don’t spend it. I’m the only candidate who has the endorsement of the Lincoln Club of San Diego. I’m also the only candidate who stood up for Proposition L (a sales-tax increase sponsored by the previous City Council and passed by voters) to buy some stability to solve our long-term structural deficits.”

Sterling, the incumbent, got the last word. “Seventy-five percent of our sales taxes and property taxes go into the general fund,” she said. “It’s important to buy in La Mesa and keep our homes rented. I have been with you for 20 years and I’d like to serve you another four years. I’m healthy, vibrant and active. I don’t have anything to sell. I keep in touch with the folks when anybody calls me. I got a letter the other day from a gentleman who said that he didn’t win his appeal before the City Council, but he said there was one voice in the city government who really heard him. That’s why it feels good to help folks, and that’s why I want to keep my job.”

East County Magazine was there to video tape; you can view the Forum by question and topic here.

The League of Women Voters will host the next La Mesa Council candidate forum on September 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the La Mesa City Council Chambers, 8130 Allison Avenue, La Mesa. All candidates have been invited.

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