By Briana Gomez
File photo: Mike and Linda McWilliams have laid off two-thirds of the staff at their San Pasqual Winery tasting room in the La Mesa Village, according to testimony to the City Council on August 11.
August 20, 2020 (La Mesa) - The La Mesa City Council met on August 11 via teleconference, on hour after a trying virtual town hall the previous Thursday where notification of Police Chief Walt Vasquez’s resignation was announced publicly. The Council approved CARES Act funding to help local renters and businesses. Other highlights included approval to hire a consultant to prepare a report on the May 30-31 protest and riot, as well as moving forward on action to help the homeless.
CARES Act Aid for Renters and Businesses
The final agenda item determined how $1.8 million in funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act should be spent. That amount is La Mesa’s share, disseminating through the state and county governments. The funding from the county must be spent by Sept 30 and the funding from the state must be spent by Oct 30.
Although the amount may sound substantial, the needs of La Mesa actually outweigh funding availability. The proposed funding distributing called for $600,000 allocated to each of three different fields: rental assistance, business assistance, and city cost recovery.
However, the Council majority opted to instead allocate $1 million to businesses, $600,000 for residents to pay rent and utility bills, and $200,000 for the city’s COVID-19 related costs. Councilmembers Akilah Weber and Colin Parent voted against this, advocating to instead give equal amounts to renters and business owners, with the remainder used to offset city costs.
The change in priorities came after La Mesa Chamber President Mary England and local business owners testified to the dire economic impacts many local business owners have suffered after months of shutdowns and business disruptions.
Rent and utility relief for residents: Grants in the sum of $5,000 each will be available to eligible La Mesa residents to cover up to three months of rent expense and/or utilities. To be eligible, residents must earn less than 80% of the region’s median income. The funds will be distributed through a nonprofit on a first-come, first serve basis.
A medical assistance program would also be available to those with documented COVID impact. The city will select a qualified non-profit administrator to select and distribute funds to qualified candidates. The contract will be up to $80,000.
Business relief funds: The business assistance program will allow up to $5,000 each toward brick-and-mortar businesses in La Mesa impacted by COVID-19. The program will cover up to 90 days of business expenses, and be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Businesses must meet specific criteria which will be highlighted at the meeting on Aug 19.
An Informational Webinar will take place on Aug 19, 2020 for businesses that would like to submit an application.
Applications will be accepted August 24-28, with disbursements through the East County Economic Development Corporation through Sept. 30.
City cost recovery: City recovery of COVID costs include personal protective gear, salary costs related to the pandemic, COVID testing for city employees, medical leave pay, and cleaning/disinfection costs for parks and public buildings.
Moving businesses outdoors
At the start of the meeting, the City Manager reminded La Mesans of businesses which are not allowed to open indoors – restaurants, gyms and fitness centers, places of worship, hair and barber shops, and nail salons. The city will be allowing temporary outdoor services for these businesses. The city will also allow fitness centers to operate in public park space with a permit obtained from the community services department.
Relief for businesses impacted by civil unrest
An announcement was also made that the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce will be taking applications for business assistance on behalf of businesses damaged during the May 30 protest which led to riots and looting. Applications are due by August 31 and can be completed on the Chamber’s website.
Councilmember Baber thanked the East County Chamber of Commerce for its disaster relief funds distributed to businesses impacted by the May 30-31 civil unrest. A total of 35 businesses received $5,000 each and another 23 businesses received lesser amounts. Baber thanked El Cajon Councilmember Phil Ortiz for his role in organizing this relief, in addition to large donors such as SDG&E, EDCO, California Coast Credit Union, an enrichment fund through the San Diego Foundation, other teams and individuals.
Vice Mayor Weber gave accolades to the Community Relations and Veterans Commission, which hosted a discussion on inclusivity.
Council votes to create action plan for homeless
The community bulletin opened with a report from the Citizen Task Force on Homelessness, chaired by Bonnie Baranoff. The task force began in July 2019 and researched the issue contacting various local service providers for assistance.
Photo by Jake Zawlacki: Homeless man sleeps in front of a storefront in downtown La Mesa
Baranoff reported that San Diego has the fourth-highest homeless population, nationwide.
La Mesa has an especially unique climate for homelessness because it hosts Sharp Grossmont Hospital, the only emergency care in the area, has the most trolley stops countywide outside of the city of San Diego, and has 565 rent-restricted units. There are currently five projects for affordable housing to serve at least 60,000 residents.
East County has the second-highest homeless population countywide.
La Mesa’s unhoused residents are increasing – and this count excludes many of the hidden homeless who are staying with family or friends, in hospitals and jails, utilizing motels, or missing from counters’ views.
Baranoff mentioned various situational factors leading to homelessness, one of which is increasing evictions and foreclosures relating to COVID-19.
Goals include providing safe and affordable housing and strengthened community safety. The task force made overall recommendations on housing, outreach, prevention, coordination, safety, community, and resources.
The highlight was the housing recommendation to adopt a housing first policy position. This policy recognizes an ideology similar to Maslow’s hierarchy which advocates for meeting people’s basic needs with the goal that once these are met, other issues (like finding work or obtaining substance abuse treatment) are more easily navigated.
The task force proposed that state and federal grants be used as a primary source of funding to implement these recommendations.
On behalf of the task force, Baranoff asked the Council to take action on a step-by-step plan.
Public comments on this agenda item were read after this presentation.
Reverend Christian Dement said that he wanted to offer full support of this task force and that “adopting a housing first approach alongside building new or rehabilitating existing housing stock that is affordable for all is critical for a safe, healthy, and equitable community.”
Other comments reflected similar sentiments of support.
David Myers, a 27-year-resident of La Mesa and 35-year-veteran of law enforcement said he also supports this task force and that he “look[s] forward to La Mesa succeeding in its goal to provide affordable housing for all.”
Mike Williams pointed out the ethnic disparities in homelessness and thinks the budget should be reallocated away from law enforcement to find solutions for homelessness-
“Many of these individuals are black or Hispanic,” said Williams, “in SD County blacks represent 6 percent of the population but 22 percent of those who are unsheltered.”
Councilmember Baber issued a motion to accept the report and instruct the City Manager to take the report and formulate an action plan.
Mayor Araposthathis seconded the motion. All members voted yes.
Next came a presentation on the Budget Monitoring Report by new Director of Finance Tammi Royales. She noted that these figures would be subject to future monitoring due to recent closures.
The National Economy recently reflected a 5.2 percentage increase (Conference Board Leading Economic Index). This uptake followed a dramatic decline in April at the start of COVID.
The Consumer Price Index fell dramatically, but began an upward trend in June. There was also a dramatic decrease in energy use. which Royales anticipates will increase as people return to work.
The national unemployment rate increased dramatically since April. Unemployment comparisons are subjective because states and cities are opening at different rates.
According to data that Royales reported, sales tax revenue for the first quarter of 2020 decreased by 25.5 percent from the previous year—a key issue in La Mesa, that relies significantly on retail sales taxes, yet has many businesses that remain negatively impacted or shut down completely.
Councilmember Alessio asked for a forecast of upcoming retail revenue loss. While there is a plan to obtain this data, Royales did not have exact numbers.
Councilmember Baber mentioned the police budget, which he anticipates impacted overtime and other additional costs related to the May 30 incident and protests that followed over the past few months.
Royales said, “This is a close indication of where we are going to end up being [for the police budget].”
She did, however, mention a second report in progress for police overtime.
Vice Mayor Weber asked about obtaining revenue from sales tax for online orders, to which Royales replied, “we are actually benefiting quite nicely from that.” That is tracked by vendors who then in turn report sales tax as well as an honor system for individuals.
Following the Budget Report was the City Treasurer’s Quarterly Report.
Investment priorities are safety, liquidity, and earnings. As of June 30, 2020 (end-of-quarter) an investment in Federal Agencies with a par value of $9,000,000 matured.
A certificate of deposit for $496,000 was purchased at a rate of 1.33 percent with a five-year maturity.
Average portfolio value and earnings were slightly higher than 2019 (portfolio value approximately $3.3 million higher).
Public Comments: Concerns over armed “defend” groups, police actions, budget priorities and enforcement of COVID rules
Citizens were concerned about how city funds are being spent.
Angela Burke said, “The CARES act should be utilized for needy citizens’ rent relief and instead reallocate funds that would have been spent supporting events or parking meter revenue to assist businesses.”
Burke also asked, “At the protest on Aug 1 in downtown La Mesa, counter protesters came carrying weapons…Will the City Council and LMPD publicly denounce Defend East County and similar defender groups who target and harass people of color and peaceful protesters?”
Photo, right by Henri Migala: Defend East County group at Aug. 1 protest included some wearing knives
Other commentators spoke about issues in the school district and advocated for affordable rent.
Most of the public commenters were still dissatisfied with recent actions of the La Mesa Police Department, and more concern was being raised over the newly emerged group, Defend East County.
Sherry Robertson said, “August first, Chief Vasquez showed his support for Defend East County, team exile, civil defense as they carried machetes knives, tasers, baseball bats, guns pepper spray etc….the police deputies laughed or ignored [protesters]”
Emotions were running high following the May 30 and Aug 1 protests.
“The chief hides behind ongoing investigation, giving one officer a desk job, and the ability to take another job with another police department while the city remains silent and complicit. I understand that the city council is useless, has no power and is just warming seats,” Robertson added.
A fairly new issue is the lack of proper social distancing compliance measures by various businesses in La Mesa.
Alicia Stafford, a village resident said, “Most businesses are complying with health orders but some remain defiant and refuse to comply with state and local restrictions…Do we have a health office, or maybe [Councilmember] Dr. Weber could do a presentation on how the nose is connected to the lungs and your mask needs to cover the mouth and nose?”
Notable items on the consent calendar were a resolution authorizing the acceptance of the FY19 State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) Grant of $47,519 for Terrorism Preparedness.
Jeff McGreavy wrote in public comment in support of acceptance.
There was also a resolution adopting a five-year plan for use of permanent local housing for homeless services.
All motions on the usual consent calendar passed unanimously.
After-action report on law enforcement practices during protest and riot
Item 7 was a resolution authorizing consulting services for an after-action report on the May 30-31 events and recommendations on law enforcement practices. The contract will be issued to Hillard Heintze, LLC.
Photo, right by Henri Migala: Protesters were fired on with tear gas and pepper spray during a tense stand-off at the La Mesa Police Station on May 30.
Because the contract exceeds $50,000, the city has a different protocol for formalizing the outsourcing of this audit. They received three proposals on July 22, 2020 after which interviews were conducted and Hillard Heintze was selected.
Hillard Heintze has handled several reviews, including the Louisville Kentucky Police Department Review after the Breonna Taylor incident.
Councilmember Alessio raised concern; she claimed to want “everything” audited which, according to her includes Heartland Fire and Rescue and the La Mesa Fire Department.
Carlo Tomaino, the fairly new assistant City Manager, responded positively, affirming Alessio’s concern.
The group is also expected to audit the City Council’s response to the May 30 incident.
All Councilmembers voted in favor of hiring Hillard Heintze.
Hillard Heintze is a subsidiary of Jensen Hughes, formerly known as Hughes Associates, a privately backed provider of safety engineering and consulting services.
According to the platform Pitchbook, Jensen Hughes received an exorbitant financing round at the beginning of 2019.
Hillard Heintze was also hired last week by the U.S. Social Security Administration for an initiative to reduce workplace and domestic violence
Private equity firm, Gryphon investors have a majority investment share in Jensen Hughes.
Hillard Heintze will have to disclose any foreseeable conflicts of interest with their report.
Briana Gomez holds an MBA from the University of La Verne and a Bachelor of Science in International Business from Azusa Pacific University. A freelance journalist, she is originally from La Mesa and lived in Japan for five years in her youth. She later took an interest in travelling and learning about global cultures and cultural identities She taught English in Hungary in 2013 before obtaining her master’s degree, then returning to the U.S. to pursue journalism and research multicultural communication.
Gomez has written for online and local publications in Budapest and in her native San Diego, including coverage in East County Magazine on multicultural communities. She is passionate about human rights and minority issues, bringing awareness to ethnic groups in our region. She also sits on the committee for the Arab and Muslim Community Coalition and is an active member of the San Diego Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and San Diego House of Lebanon.
East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.
You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.