By Miriam Raftery
October 9, 2012 (El Cajon)—Councilman Bill Wells, a conservative who staunchly opposes new taxes and led efforts for El Cajon to become a charter city, seeks reelection to the El Cajon Council. He is one of seven candidates in the hotly contested race.
In an exclusive interview with East County Magazine, Councilman Wells discusses his accomplishments and plans for the future.
Asked to name his most significant accomplishments, Wells cites his support for Proposition D, which made El Cajon a charter city, as the most important overall for the City of El Cajon. “We’ll see a lot of financial gain,” he said, citing construction of a new animal shelter as one example. “We expect to save $1 million to $1.5 million.” He also wants to privatize some services, such as lawn maintenance, adding. ”I’m pleased we have more authority to rule on our own destiny.”
Critics have contended that the charter gives too much power to city leaders. But Charter cities have advantages beyond cost savings, the Councilman noted. For example, Wells, a career mental health services professional who has done psychiatric evaluations at a local hospital, sought to regulate synthetic drugs such as bath salts but quickly ran into roadblocks. “I see psychotic people under the influence of these,” noted Wells.
The State Legislature wouldn’t pass a law to increase jail time for synthetic drug offenders because the state is already under court order to reduce its prison population. The City of El Cajon couldn’t outlaw the drugs, but could make it a public nuisance for stores to sell them. As a general law city, fines would be minimal, said Wells. But since voters approved the charter city initiative, he noted, “As a charter city we can set them to whatever we want.” The city is now pushing forward a $2500 fine; violators may also find their conditional use permits in question.
As for the future, Wells outlines several goals. Although Council recently weighed a proposal to tear down the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC) and replace it with a hotel, Wells now says he is “committed to reopen the East County Performing Arts Center.” Asked if he supports a proposal by the ECPAC Foundation to run the theater, however, he replied, “We are seeking a solution from within.”
Wells recently visited a successful theater in Palm Springs while on vacation to get ideas that might be applied to ECPAC. “They are the same size, but have more wealthy endowments,” he observed. “But what I learned is that it can be done…What I really want to do is be realistic, and get past the political…I want to develop a public-private partnership.”
Wells has been meeting with representatives of the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD) in hopes of persuading them to use a portion of school bond monies to repair the roof of ECPAC, rather than build new performing arts centers on multiple campuses. “Why build new performing arts centers on every campus when you have crumbling infrastructure,” he said. While some have suggested using bond funds for a non-district project may be problematic, Wells, who chaired the GUHSD’s Proposition H Bond Oversight Committee, believes it could be done “but it will take some political will.”
He envisions not relying solely on ticket sales for revenues at ECPAC, but also wants to create an endowment fund., noting that the theater serves arts patrons across East County. “In Horizon Hills, Granite Hills and Fletcher Hills, we have as much per capita wealth as anywhere else,” he observes, then predicts, “I believe we will open up the theater before 2013 ends in a way that is viable.”
As for downtown redevelopment now that state redevelopment funds have gone away, Wells notes that a lot of work has already been done recently. “We reworked the Downtown Specific Plan 1 and 2 to be more realistic,” he said. “The CDC [El Cajon Center City Development Corporation, since dissolved] was driving the culture and development. I felt their vision was not realistic.” He described the CDC’s vision as “hat shops, art stores, and boutiques” as well as to “make a walking mall and shut of streets like in Carmel.” That visions pushed some businesses away, according to Wells.
Asked what types of businesses he might like to see instead, Wells noted, “Walmart wanted to come in where Motor World is. I would have supported that.” He also pointed to a new building at the corner of Magnolia and Main Streets built by Daryl Priest which still stands largely empty. Priest wanted to bring in a bank, but the CDC opposed it. Now the bank is set to move in, said Wells. “It will bring employees and customers here. Above it will be a new medical clinic with 40 physicians and over 100 staff…I think that will bring a lot of businesses to downtown.”
Wells opposes new taxes but does have ideas for growing revenues.
Wells also wants to ease up regulations and make it easier to open new businesses. ‘Let’s find what El Cajon is good at and exploit that,” he said. Recently, he noted, “I invited 11 car dealerships to a meeting and 10 came. There were some good ideas on how to make El Cajon a destination to buy cars….If we increase auto sales by 15 percent, it ups our taxable revenues by tens of millions of dollars.”
In the City’s centennial year, Wells wants to rebrand El Cajon by utilizing the “Valley of Opportunity” slogan coined by the centennial committee. He notes that some recent visitors have told him that “I thought El Cajon was a terrible, dangerous place” until seeing all of the recent changes. “We’ve done a lot of hard work and there is a lot left to do,” he observes. “But the next step is to rebrand and change those negative feelings.” He’d like to see family restaurants such as P.F. Chang come to downtown.
He also wants to actively pursue bringing Kaiser Permanente to town to build a new hospital and perhaps enticing Sam’s Club to move here as well. “I have high hopes for East Main Street, because Kaiser Permanente will build there.”
He voiced concerns over the Second Street and Broadway corridors beyond downtown.
“On Second Street, the problems have a lot to do with alcoholics,” said Wells, whose father, an alcoholic, died when Wells was 8 years old. “We’re trying to find legal ways to diminish alcoholism. Don’t say homeless; most there are not families down on their luck; 90% are alcoholics. I’m working with Dianne Jacob and (District Attorney) Bonnie Dumanis on a Serial Inebriated Program (SIP). After numerous citations, people will have a choice of jail or rehab. We have the mechanics in place, but we don’t have the money. We also have opportunities for churches. I met with church leaders at my house,” he adds. To combat alcoholism, the city is also considering restricting single sales of alcohol, such as banning purchase of a single beer can. “The Neighborhood Market Association asked for more time to police themselves,” he said.
Wells in endorsed by staunch conservative officials and groups including the Lincoln Club, State Senator Joel Anderson,and Pastor Jim Garlow as well as the Republican Party. He also takes pride in his endorsement by Father Joe Carroll. “I think of myself as a free thinker,” said Wells, who also supports family values. He and his wife, Bettie, have three children including a son who received a Medal of Valor in the Marines, a daughter married to a Marine, and a 15-year-old son enrolled at Heartland Christian School.
“’I’ve spent my entire life working in mental health,” said Wells, a registered nurse and Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology from California Coast University. He has experience in hospital administration and patient services. He has worked at Alvarado Parkway hospital, Univirsity Community Medical Center , and was director of Psychiatric Assessment for Paradise Valley Hospital. Those experiences have impacted his views on treatment of the mentally ill. “I’m a conservative, but I think we are spending way too little money on mental health,” he said.
El Cajon now has the highest poverty rate in San Diego County at nearly 30 percent. Wells voices empathy for those in need, noting that after his father’ s death, it was just me and my Mom. I started delivering papers at a young age…There were times we didn’t have enough to eat…I have tremendous compassion for the pain people feel.”
That said, he feel s that the cause of El Cajon’s poverty is rooted in the past. “I think the reason we have high poverty rates is the way the city was managed in the 1950s when people could build whatever they wanted…We have more low income housing, 15,000 apartments, than anywhere in California. There’s a high density of apartments to residents, so we’re kind of set up for failure.”
In addition, he noted, “One of the things we have to do is recognize that we have a large immigrant population from Iraq…People who came here 15 years ago have established themselves and are successful,” he noted, “but people coming now are much poorer, with less opportunity. There are several families living in one apartment, and young people with no jobs.”
Wells said he has been asking Congressman Duncan Hunter and Supervisor Dianne Jacob for some understanding of the situation and provide help. “Washington should take a look at what they’ve done.” He added, “If we have refugees, we have to have a way to integrate them…One of my jobs in the next four years will be to pressure the county and federal government to take responsibility.”
Two of the seven candidates seeking a seat on the Council are Iraqi Chaldeans who contend the Council needs diversity. Asked about this issue, Wells responded, “When you see my filings, about 50 percent of the money I raised is from Chaldeans. I have a reputation of being extremely fair.” Wells also helped resolve a conflict involving social clubs for card playing after Council initially banned them outright, he noted. “I believe the electoral system works best when people vote in the most qualified person who does the job.”
Wells noted that Council has appointed two Iraqi-born Chaldeans on its five-member Planning Commission, including a woman. He also defends Council’s controversial decision to appoint planner Tony Ambrose to fill the vacancy left by Councilwoman Jillian Hanson-Cox’s resignation without accepting applications from the public. “It’s simple. Tony is a civil engineer who served on the Planning Commission for 22 years. He’s not a crony…When I was on the Planning Commission he aws my mentor. Everything I learned about zoning I learned from hm.”
Asked his views on a current rezoning proposal to legalize chicken ownership in El Cajon, Wells replied, “I want to see the report and how people feel about it. My Uncle Merle had chickens in La Mesa when I was a kid,” he said, adding that he helped tend the flock. “I personally never want to touch another chicken….but I want to see a health report,” he added, citing the Mayor’s concerns over Newcastle disease. If people are not against the ordinance, he could consider supporting it, he indicated.
On crime, Wells said El Cajon is “not seeing a spike” and that “crime is going up everywhere.” He added that “unemployment breeds crime” and added that the state’s early release program for prisoners is increasing pressure on law enforcement.
“We haven’t given our police officers a raise in seven years. Our police are the lowest paid in the county and I’m ashamed of that,” he acknowledged. “I want to fix that. It will help with morale.”
Despite that lapse, he is proud of the fact that in the past year, Council finally balanced its budget. “We enacted pension reform and we’re paying off pension liability,” he added.
The campaign among seven candidates vying to fill seven seats on the Council has been among the most contentious on record. Other candidates are incumbents Tony Ambrose and Bob McClellan, as well as challengers Ben Kalasho, Chris Shamoon, Lily Schworm, Duane Swainston and Kathy Spacone.
Multiple challengers have complained of campaign signs taken down or merchants pressured to support incumbents. Kalasho’s campaign manager, a veteran and former Congressional candidate, has said she saw Wells in a vehicle that took down Kalasho signs and replaced them with Wells/Ambrose signs. But Wells flatly denies the allegation, and says he is troubled by the accusations, which he contends are fabricated.
Wells says he wants to focus on the issues—first and foremost, working to improve El Cajon’s economy.
“What we can do is continue to take every opportunity to build business and increase revenues,” he concludes, “so that we can reinvest in our community to make it better and more livable.”
For more information on Wells’ candidacy, visit his website at www.votebillwells.com.