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By Nadin Abbott

Photos by Tom Abbott

October 4, 2012 (El Cajon)--The candidate forum in El Cajon last night was moderated by Dona Bartlett-May, Co-President of the League of Women Voters.

Given the issues at stake, and the charges of sign stealing recently leveled by more than one candidate, I expected a charged atmosphere. Instead we were greeted by a very business-like and relaxed atmosphere—offering hope that winners in this race will find ways to set aside past conflicts and work together for the betterment of El Cajon.

The candidates-- three incumbents (Bill Wells, Bob McClellan and Tony Ambrose) and the challengers (Kathy Spacone, Ben Kalasho, Chris Shamoon, Lily Schworm and Duane Swainston) were ready for the task at hand.

During opening statements, McClellan reminded the crowd of about 40 that he has served the city for a long time and said he’d like to continue to serve. Ambrose reminded people that he was appointed to the job and aspires for reelection. Wells was emphatic; four years ago he came and made promises; now he is running on his record, including the fact that the city is now a Charter City, that he has been able to eliminate waste and balance a budget, as well as help create a $20 million reserve.

All three agreed that the city should be run like a business. On this point there was very little disagreement from any of the challengers.

Shamoon made a strong point of telling the people that he “was born and raised in El Cajon and I am second generation Chaldean.” He understands the challenges of the immigrant community and the fears of the community. He says he was asked to run by a group of businessmen in downtown El Cajon. He promised to “be a voice of the community.”

Wells stressed his experience in the medical field, both in emergency medicine and in private practice, while McClellan said that he was in the car business for 30 years and got out of it just in time; as a businessman you need to know when to do that.

Shworm promised the crowd that her top priorities were to cut taxes, to foster community and encourage private enterprise; this includes privatizing Parks and Rec and the IT Departments.

Kalasho started by reminding people that where he came from, northern Iraq, a meeting of the minds to see how the city is to be run does not happen. We should treasure this gift of America. He then emphasized that he wants to make El Cajon a good place for business to come and open their doors. He learned his business ways from his father, who was sitting in the audience.

 “Every time a business closes down it affects me,” he said,”because this is a close knit community.” Kalasho emphasized that this is a non partisan race, and that he wants to make things better in El Cajon, that this was his passion.

Swainston emphasized that he “shared the same values, Republican, moral and family values” as the incumbents. He said though that what he’d bring to the table is renewed energy, and that his experience in the aerospace industry would allow him to bring new ideas to improve efficiencies in the city.

Spacone said that she was a public educator for 32 years, and that if anybody asked her five years ago if she’d be a candidate, she’d jave told them they were crazy. She is running because she is concerned about what is going on in the country, the state and the city. She’d like to keep the East County Performing Arts (ECPA) open and reduce needless regulations. But most importantly. “I want to make sure we protect individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution.”

She emphasized that she is a fiscal conservative and a small limited government person.

When the General Plan came up, and how it is working, all candidates essentially agreed that the city needs more mixed use developments. Ambrose, who served on the planning commission before his appointment to the council, emphasized his work in the field and said that Second Street and Broadway need more mixed used to encourage businesses.

McClellan voiced support for the conversion from apartments to condos. This is good in his view since it raises the tax base, but also encourages home ownership. In his mind this “leads to a more stable economy.”

In Wells’ view the General plan allows the city to evolve, but it needs to adapt to the needs of the city. He gave the example of the new building on the corner of Main and Magnolia. Due to regulations nobody would move in easily. They were changed and now a bank is on its way.

Both Swainston and Kalasho cited issues of over-regulation on Main Street. These prevent people from moving in due to costs. Later on McClellan explained that some of those regulations are County Regulations and the city has no control over them.

Schworm emphasized that we “have too much commercial.” She’d like to see far more mixed use to encourage businesses to move in.

Shamoon went a little further then others in the business environment. In his mind not only do we have to lower regulations, but we also need to attract unique businesses to El Cajon that will attract traffic from outside the city. What is needed is a vibrant economy and foot traffic for local restaurants. This is why mixed use is important.

Spacone emphasized the idea that we need limited mixed use areas. As she put it, “We need to adapt to the environment.”

Business and regulations dominated the Forum. The other major item was Prop J and its sunset in 2015.  Prop J has helped fund the pay of fire and police, as well as other city services. http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/el_cajon_voters_to_decide_on_sales_tax_hike

The sunset of it, which now the city has to plan for, will mean the end of that half a cent tax hike to the sale tax. Kalasho explained that this has allowed the city to balance its budget “which is also the law” in El Cajon.  The end of Prop J will make that harder to accomplish. Swaintson also agreed that the city needs to plan for it.

Schworm said that this hike has cost the city a lot of money, since El Cajon residents will go outside of El Cajon to buy big ticket items. Kalasho agreed with her and gave the example of a car. McClellan corrected both of them, insofar as cars are concerned, you pay the tax rate prevalent in your zip code, not the one prevalent at the dealership.

Smoking and marijuana came up as well. Kalasho said that strict smoking regulations are costing the city, since the police have to enforce them. Ambrose corrected this by stating that “it was up to businesses.” This is not enforced by the police, he observed.

There was also consensus on medical marijuana. Neither the incumbents nor the challengers wanted to see any marijuana collectives in El Cajon.

The East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC) did come in the discussion. They all agreed that it was an asset to the community. But candidates differed on how to proceed. Ambrose would like to see this opened after it is fully refurbished and ready to go, including solar on the roof. Schworm took a more extreme view that “there is no role of the government to maintain it. It should be self funded.”

Shamoon wants it “opened as an events center.” It needs to be self reliant and have strong management. McClellan agreed that it cannot just be opened as it was before, but changes need to happen.

Kalasho emphasized that the programming needs to change, and that the businesses around it want to see it reopened. It will be good for them. 

For Wells this needs to be seen as a public-private partnership and the coming of Prop H to open more performing arts centers on high school campuses nearby makes no sense, when we have a performing arts center already.

Swaintson also added that ECPAC needed concessions as well, to help it survive in this new economy.

Spacone said that “it should be aggressively marketed.” She also wants it opened.

The pension and the health of the city also came up in the debate. Wells explained that while reform is on the way, the city still has a liability to cover. He also explained that city employees currently contribute 8% of their pay, while they used to contribute zero. The current liability is at $85,000 and they are paying it down.

The same went for Ambrose and McClellan. Though McClellan went so far as to state that he’d like to see a 401K system for future hires.

Swainston agreed with the incumbents that they have done a good job with pension reform.

For Kalasho, this is a matter of attracting quality employees. The current arrangements do not facilitate this.

Spacone said that while she likes what has been done, “It is unconscionable to have people make more when retired than when serving.” She likes the idea of a public pension, but employees should not expect a pension to sustain them. “There is a limit of how much a city can set aside.”

Schworm explained that she is opposed to pensions on principle. She also said that she has retired all her funds from CALPERS, since she does not believe this is the responsibility of the government. Retirement is purely a personal responsibility.

Shamoon explained that the El Cajon Police Department is underfunded, and we need to plan for the long term.

Term limits also came up. Predictably, the three incumbents opposed term limits for the city and said citizens can vote them out if need be. McClellan said the dysfunctional messes in San Diego and Sacramento as examples of what happens with term limits.

You would expect the challengers to be for term limits, but Shamoon agreed with the incumbents that the way to get rid of bad incumbents is to vote them out. 

Schworm emphasized that people are not getting involved in their local politics, and while “I am opposed to career politicians, voters need to take responsibility.”

Kalasho was the only one for term limits--and he would like to see more diversity in City Council. He also emphasized that with the same people, new ideas become less likely.

Spacone also said that she is not in favor of term limits either, and that “we need to do our due diligence” as voters. If they are not doing the job, vote them out.

The only near fireworks, if any, was with chickens, which have been running afowl, not just in El Cajon, but countywide.

Schworm explained that she was not running on the chicken plank, but rather she decided to run because of all the waste she saw while attending City Council meetings speaking on behalf of legalizing chicken ownership.

Kalasho said that this was not a top priority of his, period. McClellan was very smooth on this issue. He remarked that while this was not a top issue for him, if the people wanted to discuss chickens, so be it, it matters. He is willing to wait for the recommendations of the planning commission.

McClellan reminded people that he voted for the chicken measure early on. He views this as a good thing for children, since “they had to feed them twice a day, care for them, and if one gets ill, you may have to put it down.”

Finally, they were all asked about their business experience and budgets. All, except for Schworm and Spacone, have had experience in the private sector managing budgets. Both Schworm and Spacone emphasized that they had to manage a family budget.

As the forum came to a close some of the candidates shook hands, an amicable ending to the debate in this contentious debate.

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