By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Dave Myers, Bill Baber, Akilah Weber and Guy McWhirter
September 29, 2018 (La Mesa) – La Mesa Councilmembers Bill Baber and Guy McWhirter are running on their records. Their challengers, retired Sheriff’s commander Dave Myers and physician Akilah Weber, are running on the slogan “Elect a cop and a doc.” East County Magazine sat down with all four candidates on our radio show, originally aired on KNSJ.
Key issues in La Mesa include affordable housing and development vs. community character, downtown revitalization, crime and public safety, public health, marijuana regulations, the city’s climate action plan, and a potential new library.
You can click the audio links at the bottom of this story to hear each interview, and scroll down for highlights. Candidates are listed in the order that they scheduled their interviews.
La Mesa is unique locally in that no political party has a majority. Baber and McWhirter are Republicans and Councilman Colin Parent is a Democrat. Both Councilmember Kristine Alessio and Mayor Mark Arapostathis are former Republicans now affiliated with no party. The current council takes pride in working together, the incumbents say. The Mayor is running unopposed, remarkable in that neither party chose to run a challenger. Though city council races are officially nonpartisan, Weber and Myers are Democrats, so the race potentially could shift the power balance on the Council.
A 25-year resident of La Mesa who recently retired after 33 years with the Sheriff’s department as a deputy and later a commander, Myers says he wants to give back and can devote himself full time to the job. “What I can bring is over three decades of experience,” he says. That includes manager all 24 Sheriff’s stations in the county, overseeing budgets and working across party lines, according to Myers.
Public safety is the number one priority mentioned by residents he’s met walking precincts. He says La Mesa needs to be “smart on crime” by looking at public safety in conjunction with impacts on housing, the library, and downtown business development, for example.
He thinks La Mesa needs to do more to address homelessness, such as offering services instead of citing and arresting people solely for being homeless. He envisions a bridge shelter to transition people off the streets, for example. Budgeting for that would save money on policing the homeless, freeing up officers for other matters, suggests Myers, whose own home was recently burglarized.
“Affordable housing stock in La Mesa is two percent of what’s available,” Myers says. He wants La Mesa do have more affordable housing and envisions talking to MTS about building a five or six story residential development over the trolley lot at Spring Street with underground parking. Elsewhere, he suggests vacant industrial buildings on University between 70th and Park might accommodate two or three story buildings with residential on top , shops and restaurants below. He also wants solutions looked at to help house youths aged out of the foster care system, seniors and veterans.
As for the downtown district, he wants conversations with business owners and people that frequent the downtown district. “If downtown is to survive and thrive, those conversations need to be the priority,” he says, adding that creating “new highlights” to draw people to downtown and better utilize public transit should also occur.
On marijuana dispensaries, he believes the city should respect the will of California voters and create “safe access” to recreational as well as medical marijuana. His view stems from his experiences with the Sheriff, where he says cities that created safe access saw a drop in illegal activities, whereas those that didn’t contend with pop-up illegal dispensaries that increase crime rates, don’t provide safe products and sometimes sell illegal drugs besides marijuana as well as engaging in other illegal activities. “What I see occurring in La Mesa is quite frankly, a dragging of their feet,” he says. Myers also wants limits on where dispensaries could be located to keep them out of residential neighborhoods and away from parks, schools or churches.
He wants to see the long-promised new library be built. “I grew up frequenting a library,” says Myers, who adds that in visits to the current La Mesa Library, he’s seen that all the internet stations and desks around bookshelves are full, as is the kids’ area. He also notes that homeless people frequenting the library pose a potential public health problem, as occurred in downtown San Diego when library patrons had to get hepatitis shots after exposure.
Myers says he’s been on a “due diligence” walk in La Mesa neighborhoods and wants to improve infrastructure with sidewalks near places such as senior centers and schools. He saw an elderly woman forced to walk into the street and around trash cans on her way to the grocery store, and calls for a “close look to see where we need to prioritize” adding sidewalks.
Myers pledges to bring “true accountability and transparency,” citing his decades of public services, to assure public safety and leadership that is “solution driven, where we put the voices of the people first.”
Myers is endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party, the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club, and La Mesa Councilmember Colin Parent.
You can find more about his candidacy at www.DaveforLaMesa.com.
Councilman Baber is an attorney who was elected to the Council in 2014 and previously served on the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board, including as president. He’s served as chair of the La Mesa Environmental Sustainability Commission and has represented the San Diego Taxpayers Association on local school bond oversight committees. He’s also worked as a lobbyist and campaign consultant, and helped draft ethics ordinances and charters for cities across our region.
Baber says he’s most proud of serving on “a well-run Council” that is “very citizen-oriented. We like working together and helping the citizens.”
His top priority is public safety. “If you don’t keep people safe, nothing else matters,” he says. He praises La Mesa for having a “world class fire department that’s part of Heartland Fire and also praised the police department, but notes that recruiting and retaining good officers is a challenge.
On development issues, he notes tension between pro-growth forces and those who value community character. “We have to sort of grow while keeping out small town charm. It can be done,” he says. To meet affordable housing needs, he wants to site higher density development along transit corridors where possible.
He does not support waivers to La Mesa’s four-story height limit in most places barring “a very unique circumstanced,” adding pointedly, “We’re the jewel of the hills. We want to be able to see the hills.”
Homelessness is the most challenging issue facing the Council, says Baber. “It’s multi-faceted. I wish there was a quick solution, but there isn’t.” He says the city has two groups of homeless, those who are La Mesa residents, and those who are nomadic, merely passing through the area. Police work with homeless La Mesans to try and connect them with services or family, getting to know them by name, Baber says. The homeless are also divided between those who simply need a place to live or work, vs. those with severe mental illness, drug or alcohol issues.
“Our police have to spend 25% of their time with the homeless functioning as social workers,” says Baber. “I’m glad they care,” but he adds that homelessness is a regional problem too big for a small city like La Mesa to handle alone. “We really need the county to step in and manage the mental health component and probably some of the drug and alcohol [components] as well,” he notes.
Regarding a new library, Baber envisions it as part of a new civic center that would include “programmable” space for the community to use for reading and children’s activities as well as other community groups. “Our community center isn’t big enough,” he says, adding, “A library is much more than books.”
On marijuana, Baber is backing Proposition V, which would create a business tax on dispensaries that could raise $1.5 to $2 million dollars a year. Among other things that money could help fund police and fire, including enforcement against illegal dispensaries. Baber also supports an ordinance to legalize adult-use recreational dispensaries, which he hopes to see enacted in early 2019.
Asked about controversies over who should fund Oktoberfest, Baber quips, “Nothing says La Mesa like a discussion about Oktoberfest. It is the epitome of small town charm. Who should put on the beer festival?” He says that overall, Oktoberfest and the Farmer’s Market are “doing well” and he supports having the La Mesa Village Association, a merchant’s group, running the festival while the city provides police services and road closures.
Baber believes adoption of the city’s climate action plan was a “good thing” but acknowledges it was a challenge since “the state of California mandates it but they don’t give you any money to do it.” He praised staff for research efforts to determine how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “We’ve made the commitment to move toward 100% clean energy,” adding, “This could come from a community choice aggregation that we’re looking at” as an alternative to buying power from SDG&E, to name one option. The city is also working to get people to drive less by building along transit corridors and encouraging people to walk or ride bikes.
A new phenomenon is the arrival of electric rental Bird scooters that have “nested all over” the city in recent weeks. “We want people to have opportunities to move around…but you have to be a good neighbor,” says Baber, who supports regulations to prevent problems such as dropping off scooters that block disabled access.
“There’s never a dull moment in a small town,” he concludes, adding that residents “know where you live and if there’s a problem, they’ll knock on your door and say `Bill, what about those scooters?” He says the job isn’t glamorous, but he takes pride whenever a pot hole is fixed that someone complained about.
He and his wife raised four children in La Mesa, says Baber, who adds, “I would just like you to know that I’m working every day for you.”
He is endorsed by La Mesa’s police and firefighters’ associations and by La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, whom he praises as “probably the best small town mayor in California. He loves the city, spent his whole life there; he’s beloved.”
You can learn more about Bill Baber and his candidacy at https://baber4lamesa.com/ .
Dr. Akilah Weber is founder and director of the Pediatric & Adolescent Gynecology Division at Rady Children’s Hospital. She is also an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego in the OB/GYN department. She also serves as a mentor educating youth groups on health life choices and teaches science, technology, engineering and math to underrepresented kids on weekends. A La Mesa resident along with her husband and two young children, she’s a board member for La Mesa Conservations and La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club, as well as the daughter of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber.
She says she’s running because she believes residents “deserve to have someone who can represent all La Mesans, who can really be a voice for the future of La Mesa.” As a physician she’s an advocate for her patients and says her experience founding a major program at Rady Children’s hospital shows she can “think outside the box” and create something new when needed.
Her children go to school and participate in recreational activities in La Mesa; as a Mom she says she’s familiar with these services and needs.
Her priority is public safety. “As a mother I want my children to be raised in a very safe community.” She says police officers are doing “very well” but there’s always room for improvement.
Her next priority as a physician is health and wellness. She pledges to make sure the climate action plan goes into effect and supports partnerships with clinics and Grossmont Hospital for classing to help people lead healthy lifestyles. She also supports a smoke-free La Mesa. She notes that allergy and asthma are on the rise, and second-hand smoke impacts public health.
Her third priority is housing affordability. “I think that we can create affordable housing and continue our community appeal.” She says creating housing that’s affordable also helps businesses economically as well as schools. It’s important to work with all stakeholders “to make sure that what we are doing is a smart growth plan that’s good for La Mesa.” She supports focusing denser development along transit lines.
As for marijuana, she doesn’t prescribe it in her practice but says she recognizes that it can have medicinal benefits for some conditions such as epilepsy and cancer Voters have spoken on medicinal use, but as for recreational she says if voters are “interested” then council has an obligation to address it and make sure it’s done in a manner that is safest for the public. She wants distance limits from parks, schools and churches for any dispensaries.
Asked about a new library or civic center, Dr. Weber says “I believe the library is truly the heart of the city…We really need a modern library.” She would look to other cities to see what funding sources such as grants may be available. She notes some city offices are aging bungalows and suggests a mutli-use facility might include a library and civic center and potentially also affordable housing in the area.
On homelessness, she notes that some people are living in cars, hotels or friends’ homes, not on the streets. “For those individuals, the issue is really making sure that they have affordable housing, not only for low income but also middle income.” For those on the streets who may have health or mental issues, she says the Council hasn’t addressed it as a problem, sending homeless to downtown or El Cajon. “Once we recognize that it’s a growing issue” affecting businesses and the library, “we can really start to focus on it, work on creative solutions: including working with hospitals and also work to solve clogging of the emergency room, she adds.
Regarding the downtown village, Dr. Weber says, “Our village is absolutely amazing. It’s very diverse, I love it…the outfit I have on today I purchased in one of the village shops.” She supports keeping the farmer’s market in the village, but says she’s not sure that Friday night is the best option since it is impacting restaurants. “It would have been nice if the residents in that area and the businesses had been surveyed,” citing some questions raised about the authenticity of surveys done. “Discussions should be going on right now,” she states. “There may be farmers that can come on another night.”
She is endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party, Councilmember Colin Parent, Assemblymembers Shirley Weber, Todd Gloria and Elena Gonzalez-Fletcher, among others.
She concludes, “I want the voters of La Mesa to know that am running for City Council to be their voice – to ask the hard questions, to promote transparency and community engagement, and to continue to build on La Mesa’s wonderful legacy of family, community and economic opportunity.”
You can learn more about Dr. Akilah Weber and her candidacy at www.DrWeber4LaMesa.com.
Councilman Guy McWhirter has lived in La Mesa for 52 years, attending local public schools including Grossmont College. He and his wife have raised two daughters locally. He has owned his own business and now runs a Farmers Insurance agency. He’s been active in his church as a missionary and as a district commissioner for Boy Scots of America, also serving as a volunteer in I Love a Clean San Diego, San Diego Blood Bank, Red Cross, San Diego Food Bank and Kiwanis.
He says when he was elected four years ago, major concerns were police, fire, and his passion, the downtown village. “Our downtown was part of my life when I grew up…it kind of slipped into a little disarray, there were some vacancies…Once the city took care of remodeling and redoing downtown La Mesa Blvd., it invited other new businesses to move in….As a business owner, as businesses were opening, I went by, had a chance to meet them, and interview them, find out what their goals were and help them with any of the challenges they were facing. I also worked to develop the La Mesa merchants’ association…if you haven’t been to downtown La Mesa in a while, I hope you’ll take a look,” noting that the area is becoming “East County restaurant row.”
On the Farmer’s market, he says Council had the “very best of intentions” to help the market thrive by moving it downtown. “At first it was wonderful,” he says noting vendors’ business tripled and neighbors liked the idea. “However as time went by, some of the businesses were concerned about the lack of business on Friday night,” he admits. He says the man in charge of the market said changing the date wasn’t an option. Going back to the parking lot would “ be a retreat” in his view.
One option that is being looked at now is to “change the layout” to put vendors’ tents together in the middle of the street instead of in front of sidewalks, where they block views of stores and restaurants. “We have to be responsible and we have to have a listening ear going forward,” he resolves.
He says staff at the city doesn’t have time to run Oktoberfest or other events, so the merchants’ group was formed. The city is looking for a “large amount of cost recovery” but he says everyone on the council has also pitched in to help get sponsorships for the event.
Asked to name pressing issues, he cites safety and crime. A new report shows crime is down 27% over the last four years, the lowest in 50 years. McWhirter credits Chief Walt Vasquez. “We are paying our police officers and our firemen a good wage,” he adds, noting that this has helped to retain qualified officers. Before, he says the department was “hemorrhaging” but now, “We actually have people in line wanting to join the police department.”
On affordable housing vs. community character, he says, “It’s a catch 22.” For instance, the Little Flower Haven developer gets a housing density bonus from the state. “They could have built that seven stories. There is no limit,” due to state mandates, he says, voicing gratitude that the developer worked with the city to minimize parking impacts. “That’s a scary thought.” But he says so far developers coming in “want to be good partners with the city.”
On homelessness, he says he’s worked with homeless people for 30 years as a volunteer in various organizations. It’s a multi-faceted problem, he observes, adding, “There’s a group of people that do not want to change.” He says the city’s police officers do homeless counts and talk to the homeless, then contact to families but some don’t want reunification. Local churches are helping people who want to change, as is the East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon. But he faults the county for closing a mental health facility, which he calls, “tragic.” The city of La Mesa lacks funds for long-term programs, which are needed across the region and should be provided by the county in his view.
He calls the city’s climate action plan “great” and notes it was a 5-0 vote. He supports getting people out of cars and onto alternative transit. McWhirter says he’s been using a rechargeable electric scooter for campaigning, due to a bad ankle. He says when he goes door to door on his scooter, constituents say, “Guy, that’s cool!”
When Bird scooters popped up across the city, he says he reached out to the company and they were receptive, setting up a meeting to address concerns. “I paid a lot of attention to the Facebook pages, one of them is La Mesa Happenings.” He says a lot of people are using the scooters, and the fleet size has been cut in half to resolve issues “One of the goals that I want, since I’m on the MTS board, is docking some of these scooters at MTS stations,” says McWhirter. “La Mesa is a perfect city for the scooters for people to get around. I think it’s a great idea-- and I enjoy riding mine.”
On marijuana regulations, McWhirter says medical cannabis cards are “a farce; you can get one online.” The city has increased law enforcement costs due to illegal dispensaries, so he supports Prop V to tax dispensaries. Since recreational use is legal statement, he says, “I think there needs to be a recreational marijuana distribution” system to reduce crime involving illegal dispensaries.
As for a library or civic center, he says, “We have a wish list” but notes some funds for a new library were taken away by the county before he joined the council. He says he doesn’t mind where council meets, but would like to see staff be all in one building. He also says citizens want a new library to have meeting space. “Bill and Colin and working on that, seeing about the possibility to expand the current library” as well as look at partnerships, such as if a large company wanted headquarters in La Mesa.
His key endorsements are from Mayor Arapostathis as well as mayors of Santee and San Marcos, Supervisor Ron Roberts and various local councilmembers.
“I get kudos all the time from people who say you are probably one of the most effective councils in San Diego because you work well together, and we also have a sense of humor,” he says of the current La Mesa City Council.”We like being with each other.”
He says serving on the council the past four years has been “one of the rewarding experiences I’ve ever had,” working with people who “want to make a difference.” Noting that people tell him they moved to La Mesa because of the city’s reputation, he concludes, “We want to keep that reputation growing and shining.”
You can find more about Councilman McWhirter at his Facebook page, Guy McWhirter City of La Mesa, or his website www.guy4LaMesa.com.