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By Miriam Raftery

View full interview, recorded for the East County Magazine Radio Show on KNSJ, by clicking image at left

September 21, 2022 (El Cajon) – El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells has served as Mayor for nine years, and on the City Council and  Planning Commission before that.  A healthcare professional, he brings a unique perspective to issues such as homelessness. He’s running for eelection and this week, sat down for an exclusive interview in which he discussed his accomplishments, key challenges facing the city, and his goals if reelected. He also spoke out on the city’s conflicts with the county over a homeless motel voucher program.

He says his commitment is to "trying to do what’s right" while" listening to everyone's point of view."

Mayor Wells says the number one responsility as the city’s leader is public safety. He notes, “Per capita, we are the second busiest fire department in the nation, and one of the busiest police departments."  He’s pleased that the city’s police department is at full strength, whch is “unusual right now” – an accomplishment achieved by hiring 10 new officers after San Diego Police department imposed COVID-19 mask mandates. “This was a great thing for us. They’re all traind and seasoned officers,” says Wells.

He touts the city’s $53 million reserve. “We’re on a good footing financilally, which is super important,” says Wells, a fiscal conservative. “We have the highest rating you can get with paving of roads…and people care about potholes.”

On a more serious note, he observes, “I think we’ve dealth with crisises well. We had the Alfred Olango shooting,” he recalls, a reference to a black man shot by a white ECPD officer after Olango pointed a vaping pen resembling a gun at the officer at point-blank range.  “We were in the middle of riots, and we were able to deal with that without further loss of life or propeorties. It was right after Ferguson, so we were in the middle of that explosion across the country.  If you ask me about the hallmarks of my career, although that was probably the most difficult time, I believe we came back really well.”

He recalls taking criticism from conservatives for being empathetic toward Olango’s family, whlie also standing by the officer in the shooting that was found justified by the District Attorney. “To me, why would you not be empatheitc to someone wh lost a famliy member in the streets?” he says, adding that even if someone killed is acting erratically or on drugs, it doesn’t diminish the fact that someone lost a family member. Across the country today, he says empathy is “what’s missing.”  He says he’s still advocating to try and get more Psychiatrict Emergency Response Teams, or PERT teams, in El Cajon but that the county controls funding and PERT team assignments.


He calls El Cajon an “interesting city” noting that it has wealth in the suburbs, but also mid-city areas with blight and crime.

But the biggest issue, which he says takes up 75 to 80% of his “brain space” is homelessness.

“I have doctorate in psychology. I’ve worked with the chronically mental ill most of my adult life. I used to work with a lot of the population that is on streets, so I’m used to their mental health and addiction problems,” he says. “I’m now in a position of trying to help these people and a lot of them don’t want to get help, which is challenging.”

The city, during his tenure, has done a lot to yelp the homeless. The city provides financial support to the East County Transitional Living Center and Crisis House, as well as a program tor reunite homeless people with familes elsewhere and most recently, approving a pilot program with tiny homes on a church site to shelter homeless women.

But over the past couple of weeks, the city has found itself at odds with the County of Sna Diego for the County putting homeless people into eight motels in El Cajon without notifying the city – of whom at least 35% are from outside the city and possibly more. The Mayor has accused the County of “dumping” homeless in the city from elsewhere and the City Manager confirms that drug use and other crimes have escalated in the vicinity of the motels. But thus far, the County has stood by its actions.

To Mayor Wells, the conflict is about more than the homeless. “I really feel like the County does not value spending money and taking care of the people of East County nearly as much as they want to take care of people in the beach communities,” he says. He surmises this is due partly to political reasons but also an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Many of the decision makers at the  County level “don’t live in the E County so it’s not their priority. I want to do what I can to change that,” says Wells.

Wells says the city started noticing a “huge increase in calls for service” to the motels recently with more police activity, drug use including fentanyl overdosing, and residents calling to say they’d bene harassed or threatened by drug dealers outside the motels.  The city manager reported being threatened with “being beaten if he didn’t get out of there,” Wells says.

Of the eight motels participating in the homeless voucher program, one had 100% occupancv with homeless and some were at 70 to 80%, a violation of city regulations. The city has issued orders to hotels that are over the city’s 25% limit for homeless capacity.

But the main problem, as Wells sees it, is the county expecting the city to do more than its fair share, with deputies dropping off homeless people from as far away as Chula Vista at motels in El Cajon.  “We have 100,000 residents, but 8 of the 15 hotels in the county’s voucher program are here,” he says. “We are taking 45% of the homeless vouchers in the county…Why send them all to one municipality?”

He adds, “I see this as more of a pattern…We’ve seen 83% of sex offenders in San Diego County are placed [by the state] in East County.  My job as Mayor of El Cajon is to demand equity; that’s a phrase thrown out a lot these days.”

The Mayor, though Republican, supports the Care Court plan recently approved by Governor Gavin Newsom. It will enable courts to require mentally ill homeless people to go into facilities for treatment, under certain circumstances, with safeguards to allow periodic review and release potential.

“I’m often accused of being a hard core partisan, but I was first mayor to sign onto support this,” Wells says. “I helped talk other conservative mayors to buy into this because it’s a great program. I’ve been talking about something like this for years….There are a lot of people out there who need help,” he adds, adding that some don’t want or recognize that the need help due to mental illness – a situation he believes this program will address.

“I don’t work in emergency rooms anymore,but for 30 years I did.  I’ve written referrals (for 72 hour mental health holds). I’ve probably written 20,000 or 30,000, for years.  I’m very familiar with the system, but it doesn’t work.” He says hospitals and doctors often push to get people released the same day, and even 72 hours is “not enough time to effect significant change.”

The Mayor voted, along with the rest of the all-Republican City Council, to put a measure on the ballot that if approved by voters, would raise the city’s sales tax by a half-cent per dollar. This action came after he led successful efforts to grow tax revenues by bringing car dealers and hotels into the city. But now he says more money is needed to address the homelessness issues as well as making sure police and fire departments are adequately funded.

“Through my political career I’m been dogmatically against new taxes. I hate the waste and abuse…I think people are overtaxed,” he says. “But the new reality is that crime in Calif ha been decriminalized. It’s  almost impossible to arrest anybody,” adding that even those arrested are often released quickly, also due in part to no-bail laws and efforts to empty prisons, including two that were shut down by a court due to overcrowded. But mostly, he blames state laws aimed at reducing racist of inequitable justice – actions he believe have swung too far. “Criminality in California is at epidemic proportions in every city,” he says.

Despite having exceptionally busy police and fire departments, the city has run on a shoestring budget since Wells took the helm as Mayor, he says.  “We have 24 less employees than when I first got here. We’ve winnowed down our payroll as much as we can. We renegotiated pension obligations, and we saved $100 million there. We’ve done everything we can,” he says.  “But we finally got to a point where I had to admit that if we were going to keep up with the new reality of crime” as well as how busy the fire department is, “we would have to raise taxes or we would fall behind. We need to hire 20-25 more officers.”

In addition, increased sales tax revenues would be used to both clear homeless camps and add more services to help the homeless, he says.

“Per capita, El Cajon spends more money on the homeless than any other jurisdiction in the County,” Wells notes. “Per capita, we have the highest number of shelter beds—and we want to continue that…Frankly, we have more of a homeless problem than other cities in the county, so it’s incumbent on us to do more – and we get that.  I feel very strongly, and I think the rest of the City Council does, too, that compassion is very important.”

Though Wells has previously run for Congress and state legislature, he says he’s “not as partisan as people think.” Instead, he says he wants to “do what’s right for the city.”  He says his views on divisive matters such as gender issues or abortion aren’t relevant because they will never cross his desk as mayor. By contrast, he can make a difference on homelessness. He supports a measured approach; the city does take down tents that pop up, but also makes sure to provide shelter beds and services for its homeless residents.

Wells’ opponent in the mayoral race is Arnie Levine, a realtor and cancer survivor who has criticized the mayor for speaking unmasked at public rallies and not enforcing county shutdown mandates for businesses. The mayor has also voiced concern over mental health impacts of pandemic isolation and economic concerns tied to shutdowns.

Asked his response to his opponent’s criticisms, Wells says, “I feel very good about what we did. I think history has proven me right.” He notes that the arguments about COVID have shifted (as more facts emerged).  He quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci as saying “Vaccines don’t work as well as we wanted them to,’ though ECM’s editor pointed out that according to the Centers for Disease Control, while vaccines have not prevented people from getting COVID, they have reduced the chance of dying form COVID by 96% among those over age 50 who are vaccinated and boosted.

But Wells says that especially now that vaccines are available, he doesn’t believe the government should mandate mask wearing or vaccines to prevent others from becoming ill. “Certainly they shouldn’t be firing nurses and doctors and firemen” for opting against getting vaccinated, he says, citing concerns over vaccine side effects. “People feel strongly on both sides of issue. I stand by what I said, and by what I did. I never told people they should wear masks or shouldn’t, or that they should shut down their business or should not.” He opposed shutdowns because “I felt like they were destroying our economy,  and forced isolation was a little bit frightening.”

ECM asked Mayor Wells about two landmark locations in East County, the Magnolia performing arts center and Parkway Plaza regional shopping mall. Both endured pandemic shutdowns, and whether he supports keeping them accessible to the public.

Wells reports that the Magnolia, despite the pandemic, is now doing “unbelievably well – much better than we anticipated . We’re about three years ahead of where we wanted to be. They’re having several shows a week; most of them are sold out. It’s been a great venue.”  Wells recently headlined a concert there to benefit the East County Transitional Center helping homeless people . “We raised about $80,000,” says Wells, who plays both piano and saxophone.

He says he is “super committed” to keeping the theater open and praises former City Manager Doug Williford for bringing in Live Nation to manage the Magnolia and get it reopened after a decade-longclosure.  “He told me he wanted to get Live Nation, I said good luck!,” the Mayor recalls with a chuckle. “He hunted them down and badgered them until they said yes.”

As for Parkway Plaza, he says, “We’ll do everything to help Parkway Plaza survive and do well.”  He says around 12 million people visit the mall each year. “A  big part of our sales tax comes from Parkway Plaza, so we have vested interest,” he says.

Backing businesses is harder than in the past, since the state took away redevelopment money.  “I don’t think PP is going to go away;” he says, but adds, “ I’ think we’ll need to rethink it. Some of it may become houses. I don’t think retail is going away, but I think it’s going to look different than when we were younger. The big department stores are not around as much as they used to be…We have to adjust to new  technology and buying habits.” He would like to see more restaurants as well as some housing on the property, along with retail.  “We certainly need more housing, and we’re talking to them about incentives we could give them to do that,” Wells says.

Overall, Wells adds, “We’re rethinking our approach to housing. When I got on the City Council, there was basically a moratorium on new apartments, but lately we’ve been approving some apartments that make sense – senior housing, veterans housing,” he adds.

“I want to do everything I can to keep pushing for affordable housing,” he said, adding that some costs are too high to build or buy a house.  We got rid of all our building impact fees in El Cajon. We’re doing everything we can to make it more affordable and I want to keep fighting for that. “ He wants to take that fight to the county and state levels, adding, “There’s got to be a way to meet environmental needs without pushing people out,” adding that he hopes to see his children and grandchildren be able to buy homes here.  


Asked about the problem facing refugees with large families who can’t find affordable housing with six or eight children, Wells said, “More three and four-bedroom apartment homes – that’s not a bad idea,” though admitting he hadn’t considered the problem before. “You have to adjust and change…We can’t build and plan like it’s 1935.”

The city doesn’t build housing – the market drives that, he notes. But he adds that the city can help builders overcome obstacles. “If there are zoning problems, we have to be open to changing obstacles to fit modern life,” he says..

The mayor’s company, Broadwell Health, is  one of various companies that has contracted with Borrego Health.  Borrego Health is now under criminal investigation, has lost its MediCal funding and filed for bankruptcy earlier this month. Some of its contractors have been implicated, but asked if his company has been under any investigation tied to Borrego Health, Wells replied, “No.”  His company is owed money by Borrego, one of several health clinics that it contracts with to provide mental health services.  “We saw the writing on the wall and stopped doing business with them about a year ago,” he said, adding, “None of our billing was part of the problem that that state found problems with.”

Wells says his most important endorsements are from the city’s police and firefighters’ unions. “Even though historically I have been at odds with unions, the unions have decided to support me because they’ve seen I’ve supported them through the years. I’m a big law enforcemet and public service guy, and I’ve seen that they get what they need,” he says, adding that this includes not only equipment, but also addressing p[ost traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the city’s first responders.

“We launched an innovative program, very expensive, where dogs live at fire station,” he says of the emotional support canines. “Firefighters get to live with and pet the dogs; It’s significally helped morale. People who come back from a difficult thing that they’ve seen say they felt better when they came home and spent time with the dog,” Wells said, adding that the city is expanding this program.

The city also experimented with a program to let its animal shelter temporarily keep dogs belonging to homeless people, though City Manager Graham Mitchell later told ECM this program has been halted due to a state restriction that won’t allow animal shelters to keep pets temporarily for people.  Wells said of the effort, “I would have people come into the emergency room and I’d say, ‘Let’s get you into a shelter, but they would say `I don’t want to because I have a dog or cat….so we decided to develop program where they’d get dog back. I’m a big dog guy,” says Wells, pausing amid our Zoom interview to pet his own dog

Pet owners aren’t the only ones who experience trouble  finding shelter space. Asked about a gay homeless couple in Lakeside who recently told an ECM reporter they couldn’t find a shelter to accept them, Wells replied, “I think that couples in general have trouble finding places where they can be together in a homeless program. If that’s a barrier to getting treatment, I would be all in favor of taking that barrier away.”

He reiterated that his primary focus right now is “trying to make the homeless situation better,” but admits, “It’s a tough balance act” between compassion versus keeping streets clean and safe for residents, without fear of harassment, filthy streets or drug use. “I’m looking forward to possibliity of having more resources to work with,” he says, adding that he wants to both provide people with opportunities to get off streets and find help, while also clearing away tent camps.

“I think the most uncompassionate thing is to let people rot in an encampment on the street in their filth,” he says. “The women get raped on a regular basis. My wife was a therapist at the San Diego Rescue Mission for many years. She’s really explained  the rape culture that is endemic.”

Shockingly, he reveals, “She said every homeless woman she’s interviewed has been raped multiple times, sometimes on a daily basis.” Some of them have children.  “Children should not be in that situation; we’ve seen trafficking, we’ve seen sex abuse,” the Mayor states.  “At some point, someone has to be adult and say this is wrong and we’re not going to allow that….We need balance between keeping streets safe and clean, and respetcing people’s constitutional rights.”

As for the problems with the county over the homeless vouchers, he reflects, “I’d certaionly like to be not feuding with County, and to be sitting down together.” He adds that the County has a “massive amount of money” from grants to help the homeless. “We’d like to wrench some of that free” to help improve the homeless situation in El Cajon.

As for other goals if reelected, Mayor Wells says he wants to continue having police officers and firefighters feel supported “so they can do their job effectively , so they can keep people safe.”

He says he also wants to be careful “how we mind our money, and to be prepared for any financial storms that may come up” while avoiding any impulse to  “spend money wildfire. I’m pretty conservative so I will continue to push in that direction,” he pledged.

Mayor Wells says he reelection campaign website will be launching next week, but that constituents can always reach him through the city offices. “I answer every email I get personally, and every phone call I receive,” he told ECM.

Reflecting on his past nine years in office, he concludes, “It has been a great pleasure to be the Mayor.”  While some have told him they believe it must be a great burden, he says , “I love it. I’m having a great time. Every job I’ve ever been in has been in a helping profession.”

He says he’s not in the job for higher political ambitions, and won’t make decisions that compromise his principals. He’s not concerned whether he wins or loses an election, he says, adding, “I’m a man of faith. I believe that God put me here and can take me out whenever he’s ready. I’m really trying to do what’s right.”

“I’ll do this job as long as people want me to do it,” he concludes. “I promise you that I’ll do what I think is right, and be fair and honest,  not be dismissive, and listen to everyone’s point of view.”






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