View video of full debate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daR2Gmad0g4
By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left to right: Candidates Joel Anderson, Brian Sesko, Kenya Taylor, and Steve Vaus
February 6, 2020 (La Mesa) – Four candidates running to represent East County in the San Diego County Supervisors 2nd district seat participated in a lively forum on Jan. 29 at Murdock Elementary, hosted by the Grossmont Mount Helix Improvement Association and sponsored by East County Magazine.
Candidates fielded a broad range of in-depth questions provided by the public during the forum moderated by the League of Women Voters before a capacity crowd.
The four candidates are Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, former State Senator Joel Anderson, behavioral health consultant Kenya Taylor, and homebuilder/cattle rancher Brian Sesko. They are running to fill the vacancy soon to be left when long-serving Supervisor Dianne Jacob leaves office next January due to term limits.
Vaus touted Poway’s record as the “safest city in San Diego” under his leadership with “the best roads” and other amenities. He cited his endorsement by Supervisor Jacob and many mayors as well as all local law enforcement agencies. Vaus also invited the public to call his cell phone and said he’s available 24/7.
Taylor cited her experience “working in all communities” in the district. She noted that health and human service is a big part of the budget. “I am the only person with the qualifications to deal with the majority of issues in the budget,” she said, citing her credentials as a marriage and family counselor. A graduate of Valhalla High School and SDSU, she emphasized her East County roots and the importance of addressing wildfire and backcountry issues, as well as needs of seniors, veterans, and students being bullied.
Sesko, who chairs the Lakeside Community Planning Group, says he receives many calls from residents who are “very disappointed with the county” when it comes to housing affordability. The homebuilder wants to streamline “bueaucracy” and make it easier to build new homes. He wants to be known as “Brian One-Term Sesko” and does not plan to make a career out of serving long-term.
Anderson stated, “The best job ever is solving problems for you.” He said problems with roads, infrastructure and homelessness have grown but current leaders “have no political courage” to solve the issues. “I’m tired of being taxed for roads and having dollars shifted to trollies,” he said. Anderson indicated he has worked on 423 bills with Democrats in the Legislature and can reach across the aisle, yet had the “most conservative voting record.”
County’s general plan, housing, rural zoning and open space
The first question asked candidates' their stances on the county's general plan, housing, and how to protect unique rural zoning
Tayor, who has lived in the area since the 1980s, stated, “I don’t believei n sprawl.” She cited concerns over “fires that can kill us” and voiced concerns over evacuations if traffic is gridlocked. She said she regularly drives state route 67 through Ramona and has experienced long delays there and elsewhere. She believes in infill development instead of sprawl and building along transit centers close to jobs.
Sesko complained of “mandates out of Sacramento,” adding, “If the county and state have their say, we will have higher density in every neighborhood.” He wants to see Supervisors get together to work on solutions.
Anderson, who has lived in Alpine for 31 years, observed, “We keep seeing low income, high density being built in the backcountry. It makes no sense. He wants to streamline the approval process to get homes built faster near transit.
Vaus indicated that on housing, Supervisors must walk a “tightrope.” He noted that Poway recenly approved 200 housing units in the heart of town and expanded open space. “I’m always going to protect open space.”
During the forum, none specifically addressed Measure A, a countywide ballot measure that would allow voters to decide on large housing projects in rural areas that require waivers of the general plan. However in interviews with the San Diego Union Tribune, Taylor said she supports Measure A, while Anderson and Vaus oppose it. (The newspaper did not interview Sesko.)
In response to two later followup questions on housing isues, candidates elaborated on their views.
Anderson said he supported Senate Bill 35 and wants housing near transit, but that high density projects don’t make sense in Pine Valley or Ramona. “We just need planning and sticking to the plan,” he said. “We sent a man to the moon. We can accomplish this.”
Vaus noted, “Affordable housing doesn’t necessarily diminish character of a communty. Crime rates near ours (in Poway) are low.” Poway has low income housing for developmentally disabled adults, seniors and veterans, he added.
Taylor called for “housing first” but said, “Remember…we also need a plan for the middle class,” as well as those who are low income. She also supports accessory dweling units or granny flats, as well as investing in housing for veterans such as “in Campo where they used old barracks.”
Sesko said, “Everyone looks to government to solve problems,” but noted, “It takes three to five years to approve housing projects,” and sometimes environmental reviews expire and have to be done all over again.
Asked specifically if they would safeguard the general plan ad open space, water and soils, the candidates further clarified their stances.
Anderson said, “We need to start thinking about 2040. We don’t want to be stuck in traffic and pollution.” He noted buddies who have moved out of state due to unaffordability of h ousing. “We failed them. We need to be smarter. Putting density near transit makes sense.”
Vaus said, “The latest general plan cost millions. I take it seriously, but it didn’t come from Mount Sinai. I’m open to modifying it if there is extreme need.” Again emphasizing his appreciation of open space, he added, “Poway is known as the city in the country.”
Taylor stated, “We must protect our open space” incuding agricultural lands and clean water, as well as fire safety to “make sure we are not the next Paradise, Caifornia,” referring to the northern California community where 82 people died during a wildfire last year. “I’m against sprawl developments.” She also wants to work with experts to “make sure no one gets sick” from pollution.
Sesko said our county has a “pretty good general plan, but I do not agree that supervisors should be making changes.” He opposes efforts “trying to upzone residential neighborhoods” with apartments. “It’s wrong. Decisions need to be made by people in the community – not supervisors.”
What steps should the county take to address homelessness?
Sesko noted that tent cities did not come up overnight. “Give the Sheriffs the tools to stasrt arresting people and get them into housing,” he states, perhaps unaware of a recent court ruling making it illegal for authorities to arrest homeless people in public places if a city or county lacks shelter beds. “Our miitary can set up a whole city in a week,” he said, suggesting similar tent-shelters for the homeless. “I don’t want homeless peole with diseases threatening groundwater and quality of life,” he added.
Taylor sought to dispel stereotypes. “Everyone who is homeless does not have mental issues. The County just approved an opportunity for vouchers for hotels,” she stated, citing speciic dollar figures allocated. “We have a $2 billion health and human services budget.” She added, “People deserve dignity and respect.” She supports bringing good paying jobs to the region “so people can afford homes.”
Vaus stated, “You have a right to clean and safe streets,” but added, “We also have a moral obligation” to help the homeless. “This is personal,” he disclosed, noting that his sister has a mental health condition. He praised supervisors for taking “big steps” just one day before the forum to fund vouchers and a search for shelter locations, but said, “We need more.”
Anderson noted, “Homelessness is more than a two minute answer. See my website for my plan.” He added that when he was in the Leigslature, a bill passed that allocated more money to San Diego County, but that the County chose not to use it to address this problem. “WE need to triage the homeless,” said Anderson, who wants to assess individuals’ needs to “get some into jobs” and help others who need to solve issues such as healthcare, mental health or substance abuse.
Asked to name a defining moment in their career, candidates gave varied responses.
Vaus cited the Chabad of Poway synagogue attack. “As mayor you never expect something like that,” he said, but added that the response “spoke to the character of Poway.” In those “dark days…we put our arms around each other…I stepped in front of the media around the world that day.”
Anderson recalled the trauma his district suffered during the 2007 wildfires. “Our county didn’t provide diesel,” he said. As a state legislator, Anderson said he reached out to fast-track through a truck “so people would have communications.”
Sesko cited maintaining a “balanced budget” in his businses but added that the 2003 Cedar Fire “went right over my ranch.”
Taylor said the “most impacful” part of her journey has been working as a licensed children and family therapist helping chidren who are “afraid to go to school.” She says the trauma of bullying is not talked about enough.
Next, candidates were asked how they will work together with other supervisors.
Anderson, a Republican, was quick to point out that he worked on “453 bills with Democrats in the Legislature. It’s about getting the government to work for you.”
Sesko quipped, “I get along with cowboys and Indians, out at Barona…You’ve gotta put special interest groups aside.” He voiced concerned over pension debt, and said county supervisors “need to deal with us as people.”
Taylor stated, “I’m running to be the people’s supervisor. It’s important we addres the needs east of (highway) 125. I don’t tolerate mediocrity.” She noted that she has support of State Senate Pro Tem President Toni Atkins, which would help with county-state relations. Taylor added that she wants to move supervisors’ meetings to evenings or weekends instead of 9 a.m. so that working people can attend hearings.
Vaus replied, “The key to working with other folks is to first, listen. If you listena amd learn, then you can lead,” adding that too many politicians “don’t care much about listening.”
Marijuana and other drugs
The next question asked candidates views on the “sin” items – cannabis, opioids and vaping.
Taylor said, “I have a background working with people who are addicted to drugs.” She wants more regulation on cannabis, but says she has seen a lot of people who have used cannabis for medicial purposes; some were helped, while others became more anxious. If vaping is restricted, she also wants to “be sure vape shop owners are not homeless.”
Anderson noted, “Marijuana is still a schedule one drug” banned federally. Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana, which he did not vote for and is concerned it can be a “gateway drug.” He thinks medical cannabis should be available in drug stores, but that would require a change in federal law. “The cannabis today is very different than when we were in college,” he said, referencing higher potencies on the market today.
Sesko has concerns about these products but said he knows friends who were helped by cannabis.
Improving ambulance response times
Candidates were asked what can be done to shorten long ambulance response times in rural areas.
Sesko affirmed, “Without a doubt, we need more ambulances – and put them in areas closer to the backcountry.” He noted that currently there is reliance on helicopters, which is costly.
Vaus stated, “Public safety should always be our top priority. When people need an ambulance, we need to be sure it gets there. If we need to find more dollars, let’s do it.”
Anderson said this is a “deeper problem than ambulances, and complained of tax dollars “stolen” from road building to expand mass transit. “Does anybody here take the trolley to the doctor or emergency room?” he asked. No hands went up. “Everytime we take a lane out of service it hurts seniors,” he says, adding that bike lanes can block fire ladders, too.
Taylor said, “Yes, we should invest more.” She has worked in the healthcare field and believes we need more primary care clinics in rural communities. “People shouldn’t have to go to the hospital by ambulance,” for some conditions if we had clinics closer to where they live, she pointed out. “We also need apprenticeship programs for EMTs (emergency medical technicians).”
The next question asked if the county should regulate short-term vacation rentals such as air BnB to prevent party house problems.
Vaus acknowledged this as a “serious problem; we don’t want a commercial operation next to your house.” He would explore licensing and says we can preserve people’s property rights but also have rules, such as no parties late at night.
Taylor calls this a “tough discussion” since a number of people want AirBnBs but others don’t. “Some have ten acres and no close neighbors, so no disruption, but we need more regulation” to prevent illegal activities, she said.
Sesko notes that he has sold properties in the Bay Area, where some places accept and zone for short-term rentals. “If a neighbor decides to have a big party – go Aztecs,” he quipped, as a major Aztecs play-off game was in progress during the forum, then added, “Zonoing criteria is already in place to deal with party rentals.”
Anderson stated, “Your rights can’t encroach on others’ rights. I do believe in property rights.” He noted that with the Aztecs’ winning seaon, it’s been “an unusual year for SDSU – with a whole bunch of parties.”
Next, candidates were asked how they would expedite funding of the improvement project for state routs 94 and 125.
Taylor acknowledged “nightmare traffic” with “accidents all the time” due to traffic coming to a complete stop. “We need safe roads now. I know we want bike lanes and to go green, but we cannot tolerate anybody who short-changes East County.”
Sesko said, “125/94 needs to be fixed.” He complained of high salaries of SANDAG officials.
Anderson noted, “We passed a bond a decade ago for roads, but SANDAG stole $120 million to put toward the trolley.” He called this bait and switch” and said what’s needed is a plan, then “stick to it and be accountable.”
Vaus stated, “I agree, but the state dropped the ball. Those are state routes. I’ve been chair of SANDAG for nine months and within those nine months, I got the boar to prioritize highway 125, 94, 67 and 78. We got millions prioritized, and we’re not done yet.”
Developers donations and other special interest money
The next question asked candiates to disclose if they have taken donations from developers, real estate and energy industry interersts.
Sesko said, “I’m not taking any donations.” His campaign is self-funded and he’s turned down donations that were offered. “When you take money, they’ll ask for something.”
Taylor affirmed, “I have not taken any money from developers. I am unbought and unbossed.”
Vaus recalled buying his first home, a “piece of the American dream” and was thankful for builders. “I don’t have a litmus test, but if someone thinks they will buy my vote, they don’t know me very well,” he said.
Anderson acknowledged, “I’ve taken money from everybody who’s offered it,” but added, “I’ve voted with them—and against them.”
Gillespie Field area development
Will candidates support developing 70 acres around Gillespie Field airport?
Vaus replied, “Absolutely. Economic development means jobs.” But he noted that development requires money, and upgrades to the Bradley interchange off State Route 67.
Anderson noted, “Eight years ago I got money for that interchange and the county dropped the ball.” He supports Gillespie area development. “It’s the most precious land in East County.” He hopes to see satellite offices of clean tech and biotech businesses brought there to bring good jobs to East County residents.
Sesko said, “We need to change the system at the county, or my granddaughter wil have babies before this gets built.” He complained of environmental studie expiring due to long approval processes.
Taylor said, “I support the project but we need to be sure houses are safe.” She said she’s talked to residents near Gillespie concerned about “residue from planes overhead. We don’t want anyone to get sick.”
Jobs for East County
Next, candidates were asked about better paying jobs for our region.
Anderson said he supports more jobs especially enar the airport “so we don’t have to leave.” He noted that Santee and El Cajon are at the table for Gillespie development but that far, “The only partner not at the table is the county. If they don’t plan to build there, at least let us have our racetrack back, “ he quipped.
Sesko said he hopes buiding can be done there to start training people for jobs.
Taylor noted that she was involved in an early intervention program seven eyars go. “Let’s bring back apprenticeship programs in schools” as well as other support. “Let’s make a hub for wounded combat veterans andmake it easier for entrepreneurs. We need to support women veterans, who are paid less than the men, and support first responders with increased wages.”
Vaus said, “Those 70 acres can increase jobs….East County can be a strong incubator,” he noted, citing Deering Banjo and Taylor Guitars as two local examples. “Daryl Priest wants to teach trades in high schools,” he added.
Health, human services, and mental healthcare
Candidates next were asked their priorities in health and human services, a large part of the county budget.
Taylor noted that her focus is in health and wellness, and she wants to emphasize economic issues. “We need a piepline to jobs, not to prison, for foster kids,” she said, adding that she also wants more opportunities for seniors, veterans, and vulnerable adults.
Anderson notes that our county has only 100 mental health beds for 3.5 million people in the county. He said law enforcement officers too often have to drop mentally ill people back on the streets due to lack of beds. “I look forward to working with Nathan Fletcher on this issue,” he said. “We need benchmarks, goals. I will be going to Sacramento to get the money.”
Vaus said the county “needs to make a significant investment in mental health,” noting he’s seen the problem in his own family. He attributes “half the crime reports in Poway” to mental health issues. “We need to do more…We have a moral obligation to solve this problem.”
Sesko said 20 or 30 homeless peole are living in the river bottom in Lakeside. “These peole are not gonna go stay in a house,” he said. “We need more beds, mitary style housing with beds and medical care.” In Lakeside, he said, the Sheriff won’t pick up mentally ill people because “there is no place to take them anymore.”
Reducing deaths in county jails
How would candidates try to reduce the high number of deaths in county jails?
Sesko acknowledged he didn’t know about this problem. “If true, it sure needs to be looked at, but we can’t rush to judgment,” he said.
Vaus stated, “There is an investigation ongoing right now.” He mentioned an expert from Rykers Island. “We need higher railings so prisoners can’t fall or jump over” among other fixes. He praised Sheriff Bill Gore as a “good man” who he believes would take action if solutions are proposed.
Anderson revealed, “I was vice chair of public safety I Sacramento. What I thought as a citizen was not true. I worked with Democratic chairs” on solutions to problems in the criminal justice system. “Nobody sould be mistreated. All have rights,” he affirmed. “I’ll tour the jails and fix them.” He added that the first day a person goes to prison “should be the first day you start redeeming yourself.”
Taylor noted that the county’s largest mental health program is in the jails. “It is unacceptable that people are dying in our jails. If they are understaffed, we need to fix that. Safety is my number one priority. Too many people there are treated with the wrong medications. WE need to help now with priorities, so nobody else has to die.”
In closing statements, each candidate summed up why they believe they are best for the job of supervisor.
Anderson said succinctly, IF you’re content, don’t vote for me. I’m gonna change it all.”
Sesko said, IF I get elected I’m not gonna spend two years takign all the special interest money and the next two years working to get reeleced.” He also wants to get rid of pensions.
Taylor pledged, “I am the candidate who wants drastic change – no one left out.” She cited her experience working with youths and older people, rich and poor and heading up the county’s award-winning Live Well program in East County. She wants to assure “clean air, clean water, no sprawl, quality jobs, and access to quality medical care.”
Vaus urged voters to “judge us by what we’ve done- what we’ve delivered that touches lives. “I’ve delivered good roads, open space, housing, and a $10 million intergenerational center.”
For more information on this race and others on your ballot, you can visit the League of Women Voters nonpartisan website at www.votersedge.org.
Ballots are now in the mail for the March 3rd primary eleciton. The top two vote-getters will advance to a run-off race in November. For help with ballots or to find your polling place, contact the Registrar of Voters at www.SDVote.com.
Editor's note: Check back for full video of the candidates' forum, which is delayed due to a technical issue. We anticipate having full video available soon.