Four of the five candidates sat down for in-depth radio interviews with East County Magazine.
Hear their full interviews here (listed in the order they aired on KNSJ); or to read highlights click "read more" and scroll down:
Patrick Dean: http://kiwi6.com/file/bchwu7qbqx
Pete Gregorovic: http://kiwi6.com/file/78puh4vuq3
Bill Baber: http://kiwi6.com/file/t8a9fxd7io
Mary England: http://kiwi6.com/file/qn2jcyft15
Updated 11/1/14: Bill Baber has clarified his position on recusals and raised questions over possible conflicts of interests by Mary England. See his remarks in the text below.
Update October 31, 2014: Guy McWhirter, who was not available for a radio interview, provided written responses to our candidate questions today, after the story below was published. Read his responses here.
By Miriam Raftery
Photo: L. to R.: Bill Baber, Patrick Dean, Mary England, Pete Gregorovic, Guy McWhirter
October 30, 2014 (La Mesa) –La Mesa has two open seats on its City Council, since long-time Councliman Ernie Ewin is retiring and Councliman Mark Arpostathis is running for mayor. Five candidates are running—and the winners could swing the Council in new directions for the future. Overall, this year's pack of candidates brings extensive experience and enthusiasm to the contest to represent the citizens of La Mesa.
Now a century old, La Mesa faces many important issues moving forward, topped by growth and development issues such as whether or not high-rise projects should be allowed, a civic center built, parks and pedestrian-friendly planning fostered.
The race has spawned mud-slinging and has attracted big money –more than any past Council race in La Mesa—including large donations from developers and the pro-development Lincoln Club, as well as public employees’ unions. (see a spreadsheet of latest financial summaries and major special interest donors including developers, the Lincoln Club, a Job Creators entity under the Lincoln Club, public safety unions, and the Public Safety PAC that funded negative mailers targeting a candidate who was endorsed by public safety unions in La Mesa.) Three candidates (England, Baber and McWhirter) have taken modest contributions from the Kitzman family or other entities behind the Park Station high-rise. England says it won’t impact her vote. Baber says to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest, he will recuse himself from construction-related votes on public buildings and may also recuse himself from Park Station due to the Kitzman donation.
The nonpartisan race is also drawing partisan support, with Dean backed by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party lining up behind Baber and McWhirter, though England is also a long-time Republican party supporter.
Below are summaries of each candidate’s qualifications and goals, as well as detailed highlights of their responses to questions on the key issues in Mesa from our extended radio interviews.
Summary of qualifications (listed in alphabetical order)
Bill Baber is a La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board member who also chairs La Mesa’s Sustainability Commission. In addition he’s an attorney, a campaign consultant, and a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors. His platform calls for safe neighborhoods, smart streets and more parks. He was recruited by Councilmembers Ewin, Alessio and Arapostathis to run. He say that as a school board trustee, he’s been entrusted by voters to manage “their most prized possession, which is their children” and believes he can manage running La Mesa. Baber has by far the most financial backing of any candidate – over $43,000 in donations including large sums from developers, the development-backed Lincoln Club, and Republican officials. He is also backed by La Mesa's Firefighters, along with Mary England, though Baber is running on a slate with Guy McWhirter. Baber’s website is www.BaberForLaMesa.com.
Patrick Dean serves on the city’s Community Services Commission which oversees parks. He is also a chef and father of two. The only Democrat in the race, he says he is running to give a voice to citizens beyond the business community. He became involved in city politics by waging a successful battle to legalize chicken ownership and has attended Council meetings ever since. He is funded primarily by small individual donations and says he is “beholden to no one.” He adds, “I have not taken any money from developers.” He aims to make sure that La Mesa will provide a good quality of life for his daughters when they grow up, urging voters “if you want green, vote Dean.” His website is www.DeanForLaMesa.com.
Mary England is president of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce and served for 12 years as a Lemon Grove City Councilmember. She’s also on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs and Stoney’s Kids, raising funds to help children in need. “I have the experience, I know how to read a budget, and I can hit the ground running,” she says of her decision to run. England says her strengths include bringing people together and building public-private partnerships. She has the backing of La Mesa’s police and firefighters, as well as many in the business community. Her website is www.MaryForLaMesa.com.
Pete Gregorovic is a business attorney, father and grandfather who has lived in La Mesa for 33 years. He’s been president of La Mesa National Little League and vice president of the La Mesa Athletic Council. He first got involved in city politics when huge fees for improving sports fields threatened to decimate youth sports. An experienced negotiator, he wants to bring “a very fresh vision to this City Council.” His backing is primarily from small business owners and friends in La Mesa. His website is www.PeteG4CC.com.
The fifth candidate, Guy McWhirter, an insurance agent and former planning commissioner, cancelled his scheduled interview the day after admitting to La Mesa Today that he paid a PAC to fund negative mailers against one of his opponents, Mary England. He stated that he cancelled to help his pregnant daughter with her business, but has not responded to our requests to reschedule but did return responses to our written questions after the deadline and after this story was published. You can read more about McWhirter at his website: http://guy4lamesa.com/ and view his responses to our questions here.
We asked questions on key issues of all candidates running. Here are highlights of their responses, listed in alphabetical order.
Baber: “A leader has to have a vision, and he’s got to be able to motivate people. Leadership isn’t jumping in front of a parade and calling yourself the king. Leadership isn’t taking a poll and finding out what everyone else thinks and then agreeing with it. Leadership is sometimes standing alone and making a tough choice.”
Dean: “I think it’s looking out for what’s best for the community …There are times when you listen to what the people want, and times when you need to …say what’s best for everybody is to look to the future and make the right decision, even when that’s not popular.”
England: “There’s nothing that shows more the strength of a leader than being able to build partnerships.” England believes that being a leader requires “strong communication skills, a can-do spirit, being creative, and a passion to serve.”
Gregorovic: “Leadership is an innate ability to take charge, have a strong voice, roll up your sleeves and get the job done.” He adds that when he’s joined organizations such as the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) and Little League, he wound up as President. His definition of leadership including having “accomplishments attributed to you.”
Views on smart growth and community character
Baber: “I would agree with the classic definition on smart growth, which is high-density mixed use. He views the city’s general plan as a “planning tool” created by the community to “keep the character and community nature of La Mesa as it is. We’re not a big city. We’re a small town and how big buildings are and what they look like have to match the general plan.” But he adds that as time goes on plans can evolve, so there are systems in the general plan “to allow for variances and exceptions for unique pieces of property and unique circumstances.” Baber says he would recuse himself from all construction-related votes to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, since he is a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors. “Check my record on the school board…I abstain on anything related to construction,” he says. “I am the abstaining king of La Mesa-Spring Valley.”
(Update: Baber later clarified that he will abstain on awarding construction contracts by the city to construct public buildings because at the ABC, he represents construction companies that hire blue-collar workers such as carpenters and electricians. “I don't represent land planners or developers,” he adds. “I would not need to abstain on `development issues’: i.e. the land use decisions that determine the scope of development in a private parcel.”
Asked whether he would abstain from voting on Park Station, he noted that state law does not say that receiving a campaign donation is a direct conflict of interest. “However I want to avoid the appearance of a conflict and may abstain on Park Station based on those donations,” he added. “I still hope, perhaps naively, that the Kitzmans, the city staff, and the community can keep talking and working on finding a solution that improves that parcel in a way that harmonizes with the community. They all love La Mesa so maybe they can achieve consensus. We can dream can't we?”
Dean: “Smart growth is the big issue in this election, I believe. SANDAG predicts 9,000 more residents by 2030 and 21,000 by 2050 in La Mesa.” His vision is to create living spaces connected by bike paths with the ability to use public transportation. La Mesa’s “picturesque” downtown village is one reason he moved here from New York. “It’s a beautiful place. I’d strive to keep it much the same along La Mesa Boulevard…but outside of that there is a lot of under-used space that needs to be addressed as a whole.” He supports the planning commission’s decision to reject the Park Station plan because it was “giving a blank check to a developer” for a “bad plan” that put traffic up front on Baltimore and University.” Instead he wants to see the Planning Commission create a new zone separate from the village plan. He adds that he could support or six or eight story project or two in La Mesa to provide housing, citing The Springs project which provides homes for low-income seniors, if there are benefits such as parks, bike lanes and greenbelts for the community.
England: “The City obviously has to look at the General Plan, the zoning and the ordinances. Obviously we want projects that are good not only for the community, but that are also good for the City, pencil out for the developer, and make everyone happy.” As for whether height and density limits should be waived, she believes, “We need to look at every project case by case, listen to the community…let the planning commission due to their due diligences” and then try to come up with a plan that’s suitable for everyone.” She believes the downtown village is unique” and that with $6 million in redevelopment going into improving infrastructure and trees “it’s going to become even more of a destination. I think it’s very important to preserve what you have,” England says, but adds that it’s also important to “look at the retail mix and always preserve our character, but always look towards the future.”
As for Baber’s decision to recuse himself from development related votes, England notes that based on her experience on Lemon Grove’s Council, “I can tell you that approximately 30% of projects or agenda items, I believe, could be development related,”which could “absolutely” lead to a deadlock on some issues.
(Update: Baber has clarified that he would not recuse himself from all development projects, only public building construction projects, thus it would be a small percentage of total agenda items. He suggested that England could have a conflict of interest, however, with EDCO and AMR. "They pay her chamber salary and they have lucrative city contracts," he said. England previously told ECM that while serving on Lemon Grove's Council, she disclosed companies that were Chamber members but was advised that she did not have to recuse herself.)
Gregorovic: “Smart growth at the primary level means growth within the current specific plans, and there are three specific plans.” For the La Mesa Village plan, he believes “the four-story height limit fits within the character.” He has attended many meetings on Park Station, a proposed highrise. At one of the meetings, he says, “I actually turned to the Kitzman family and told them I didn’t know what they were thinking, taking advice of non-La Mesa companies” to propose an 18-story and later a scaled-back 10-story project. “By the number of people who turned up you can tell there is a groundswell against anything above four.” Gregorovic says he is the only candidate whose view would be impacted by Park Station from his property, but he adds, “You have to look for the greater good. La Mesa is desperate for revenue…There can be compromises to height limits that would be acceptable to residents as well as city officials.” But he adds, “I think the character of the village is paramount. People come to La Mesa because of the village…I still get that small town feel on La Mesa Boulevard and I don’t think that should ever go away.”
Priorities for sustainability
Baber: Baber currently chairs the city’s Sustainability Commission and supports planting more trees. “Trees are climate change mitigation devices,” he says, adding that the city is working to get cap and trade money from AB 32 to plant trees. “If California is going to make that money available, we in La Mesa need to go for it.”
Dean: “On the city level is the best opportunity to make changes that will drastically reduce our carbon footprint, as opposed to Sacramento or Washington D.C., where there is just a barrage of lobbyists trying to knock down whatever comes through,” says Dean. He wants to put more solar on public buildings, work on reducing water and energy use, and providing improved transit, pedestrian and bike-friendly environments.
England: “Energy and water are two very important issues that I believe need to be addressed…We need to look at ways that we can conserve as a city. We need to do everything that we can to be energy efficient.” She suggests replacing city vehicles with hybrids or electrical when they need to be replaced.
Gregorovic: “So much of sustainability and green efforts are beyond the control of the local level, but what we can do as a city is look at how we utilize city water... We’re in a three-year drought and we can’t predict the future…We can’t just mandate to residents how they use their water.” He wants to seek out grants to renovate parks and make them more drought resistant, while making sure there is water available for youth sports fields.
Views on a civic center for La Mesa
Baber: “You want the center of your community to be iconic. However we don’t have a sound fiscal base [to pay for that] so we’d have to look for creative ways.” A new city hall shouldn’t be a “palace for politicians. That’s excessive and nobody would support that. But we do have a really hard-working staff and they do deserve the best facilities possible,” he said, adding that workers do better in a pleasant environment. “Does that mean a new city hall? I don’t know, but I do care about our staff and I want them to be productive.”
Dean: “The whole community needs to sit down and say `this is what we need.’” Says Dean. He believes a civic center could include a park, new library location as originally agreed upon with the county and potentially a new city hall with mixed use development surrounding it, such as at Rio Vista in Mission Valley.
England: “Who’s going to pay for it?” she asks, adding that a civic center would likely need to be a public-private partnership. Where to locate it is another key question, she believes. “We have some vacant land that’s owned by the city, but are we going to take that land to build a city hall, or are we going to look to do mixed use projects that possibly would generate retail dollars and property taxes? That would be a question that I think we would need to put toward a vote for the voters.”
Gregorovic: “I would like to see a new city hall built. Perhaps it becomes a public-private partnership with the parcel that Park Station is planned for…One of the issues I would look at is whether the city could encourage that developer to participate with the city” to develop a city hall/civic plaza, particularly if the Park Station developer is seeking a variance.
Budget priorities, pensions and labor
Baber: Baber cites his experience at the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, where he chaired a budget committee. “I had to help navigate through really difficult times,” he recalls. “Our budget was cut dramatically.” Today the district is fiscally sounds, he says. “Number one, you have to be transparent.…Once we established that, when we had to go to our employees and say look, we need a pay cut from you…they knew it was true. You’ve got to bring your employees into the process and be straight with them. You need to have good, honest, up-front relations with your labor groups. My teachers union may not agree with me, but they know I kept my word and I was straight with them. We’re all in this together. I don’t like politicians who bash public employees. Public employees are note the problem,” says Baber, who is endorsed by La Mesa’s firefighters. As for pensions, he faults those who says the city must fix pensions. “You can’t cut a public employee’s pension – it’s a vested, contractual right.” He blames the state for pension problems adding that at candidate forums, “nobody except maybe the Mayor seemed to understand that it’s essentially a state problem.”
Dean: “I worry we’re not offering a very good plan to our police, firefighters, EMTs, our public employees,” he says, adding, “We are losing a lot of officers to the Sheriff’s department.”
England: “I think what’s important is public safety. No matter what you build… if your public isn’t safe, if they can’t shop in a safe environment, they’re not going to come to La Mesa and spend their dollars.” England, who is endorsed by La Mesa’s police and firefighters, adds, “We need to provide the tools that our safety personnel need to make sure that they’re safe. They need the training to do the job.” Pension reform is part of her platform. “I think that all sides need to roll up their sleeves and look at the current fiscal challenges, the unfunded pension liability. We need to sit down at the table and see how we can all work together towards the common goal, which in the end is the City continues to be fiscally solvent, everyone gets their paycheck, and everyone that’s working obviously is working towards a retirement and a pension. I believe we can all come together on that.”
Gregorovic: “Every since I was young, I’ve learned the value of a dollar. You don’t spend more than you have and that goes for a city as well.” As an attorney he’s dealt with trust money and adds, I’ve never had an issue handling other people’s money. I’ve never had an issue handling my own money.” He says the current council has done a good job paring down expenses and he doesn’t see room for much cutting of expenses. As for revenues, the primary new source would be redevelopment of existing properties. As for pension and labor agreements, he notes these can’t be changed without going back to the bargaining table. Employees in La Mesa recently got a small raise, he notes, “after they sacrificed for seven years.”
Should the City Council members fund travel for mayor and/or council members to attend key conferences such as the League of California Cities, U.S. Conference of mayors?
Baber: “I think the Mayor should attend those meetings and the City should pay for it. The League of California Cities and the Conference of Mayors are certainly quality programs. The Leagues makes lots of decisions that affect state government,” he says, adding that cities need to lobby the state on key issues.
Dean: “I believe they should. The Mayor and the City Council need to have a view of the bigger picture and in these conference the Mayor has been kept from going to, there might be opportunities to learn…A vocal minority has been looking to save every penny they can, but they are not saving the dollars.”
England: “I think it’s important when you are leading a city that you aren’t in a vacuum. How many meetings you attend, that would be up to the Council or the Mayor. A priority list needs to be made by the body…They need to see exactly as a group what’s important to the entire team…Once that priority is identified, then they identify who’s going to represent the City of La Mesa at these various functions.”
Gregorovic: “I believe these types of conferences are essential and I believe the city should reimburse or fund those expenses to the degree it’s feasible…When you go to a conference you learn a lot,” he says, noting that this can include what works and what doesn’t in other cities.” If you don’t go beyond La Mesa you miss opportunities for collaborative efforts and education from different sources…I think it’s essential that anyone in a professional position obtain continuing education…Councilmembers should be deemed professionals.”
Helping youths and seniors
Baber: “The city has to do the best it can to work with schools. That also includes park and rec opportunities. Seniors also need park and rec opportunities.” He adds that seniors also rely on the city to provide a “good fire department with paramedics that work and can get there on time.”
Dean: “Seniors need a better way to get around. With Councilman Ewin retiring, his seat on the MTS board should be filled with someone who will advocate for more shuttles for seniors or something to help seniors gte around.” Putting in a plaza with green space will benefit both seniors and youths, he adds.
England: “You’ve hit two of my favorite subjects. We have a youth leadership academy that’s done in conjunction with La Mesa Police Department. This program is not well known, but it is funded by businesses and of courses the Chamber.” Youths receive skills and training preparing them for leadership, she adds. “It’s a great program…..And of course my senior project, the RSVPs [Retired Seniors Volunteer Patrol]…We now adopt 22 seniors at the holidays; they’re screened by the La Mesa Police Department and the employee association, and we get things for them to make their holidays a bit better.”
Gregorovic: “I would like to see something in future plans for maybe another Boys and Girls Club north of I-8. It’s going to be difficult for those children to travel to the new Boys and Girls Club south of 8.” As for seniors, he says the city has good services but “I’m not sure the word gets out.” He wants to see the city do a better job of identifying seniors and getting information to them “as opposed to expecting a senior citizen to navigate to a website.
Baber: Our research found Baber had a 1996 foreclosure and default, as well as a $10,000 ethics fine for failing to report contributions from Sycuan to several ballot proposition campaigns. On the fine, Baber responds: “I’ve filed thousands of reports in my day. We interpreted it one way and the regulators another…Reasonable minds can disagree,” he says, adding that he decided to pay the fine and move on. He adds that if he heads an organization and mistakes are made, I’m accountable; that’s leadership.” As for the default and foreclosure, he says, “That was back when my wife and I were a relatively young coupole with two kids and the house went upside down ; we couldn’t afford it…Times were tough…There’s a lot of people who’ve had financial difficulties and I certainly have been one, so I have compassion for them.”
Dean: Our researcher found Dean, who has lived in La Mesa for 7 years, had a bankruptcy and owed back taxes years ago in New York. Dean responds: “That’s all been cleared up,” he says of the taxes.” I had a business that was relying on print advertising at a time when the magazine industry was declining. It got over-extended and I had to declare bankruptcy,” he says, noting that this occurred during tough economic times.
England: Our researcher found England had a foreclosure and two bankruptcies in the past. She responds that the most recent bankruptcy and foreclosure was due to divorce and “a sign of the times” during the recession. As for the older bankruptcy, she states, “In 1991 I lost my son [who died] and took care of my mother at that time, who never recovered. She was older; I had to get caregivers and take care of her in her final days…That was also a very emotional and financially draining time.”
Gregorovic: Our researcher found Gregorovic had a clean background check with no financial issues.
Note: McWhirter has also had a foreclosure, but did not respond to our request for comment on it.
Key endorsements and support
Baber: “Fifty elected officials have endorsed me.” That includes Councilmembers Ewin, Alessio and Arapostathis as well as Supervisor Dianne Jacob, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. He is also endorsed by La Mea Firefighters. His major contributors include friends in the political world, the construction industry (mostly outside of La Mesa), the Lincoln Club, and clients he has handled as an attorney. He defends his high level of funds raised, stating, “Despite what people think, it’s expensive to run campaigns and you have to raise a lot of money.”
Dean: San Diego Democratic Party, Congresswoman Susan Davis, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, Parking Commissioner Jim Wiebolt, Planning Commission Chairman Dexter Levy
England: England says all of her endorsements are important, but that she is “very proud” to have endorsements of Congressman Duncan Hunter, La Mesa Vice Mayor Ruth Sterling, Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Greg Cox, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer,and Assemblyman Brian Jones. “I’ve been funding the lion’s share of my campaign this cycle,” she says, adding, “I think it’s really important if you want people to invest in you that you need to invest in yourself.” Her largest donation has come from the La Mesa Police Officers Association, which has endorsed her. She also has donations from local business owners and the Kitzmans, owner of the Park Station site, but adds, “It’s going to be what the community wants, and what the City Council has a body wants.”
Gregorovic: “My endorsements have come from the families of La Mesa that have donated to my campaign and small businesses in La Mesa that I do business with…I’m proud of that…I’m a candidate who wants to represent the residents and businesses of La Mesa. I have no special interests backing me.”
Negative campaigning (reactions to negative mailers)
Baber: “I did not contribute any money to that PAC (Public Safety Advocates). Did I have any knowledge of it? I head rumors but I wasn’t responsible for it I didn’t control it. After I looked at it, it wasn’t that good. If I had been in charge of it, it would have been better.”
Dean: “It just turns my stomach.” He adds that he has not donated to support any of the negative mailers.
England: “It’s disturbing whenever we have a race that people don’t run on their merits or record,” says England, who was the target of three negative mailers funded by McWhirter through a political action committee (PAC) called the Public Safety PAC, even though England is endorsed by La Mesa’s public safety police and fire organizations. One mailer suggests England was partially responsible for depleting the city’s rainy day fund, citing a budget report for 2013-14. But England notes, “I wasn’t even on the Council then…I left in December 2012.” Moreover Lemon Grove lost redevelopment money from the state and lost sales tax revenues during the recession, factors that were beyond the control of the council. As for the mailer’s statement that she voted for a 40% raise for council members, England first voted against a raise, and in a later year voted to increase salaries from about $500 to $700 a month. She notes that it would not take effect, by law, until after she left the Council.
Gregorovic: “I have donated to no PACS. I am not affiliated with any negative pieces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in 33 years I’ve been in La Mesa and I’m a little bit shocked that anyone or any organization would be doing that in a little town like La Mesae…it’s unfortunate.”
First goal if elected and final thoughts
Baber: Baber says he would sit down with whoever wins the council and mayoral elections to work on teamwork and finding areas on which they can agree. “Probably I’d spend about six months studying the organization, figuring out where it’s inefficiencies are, what can be approved, and then coming back in six months” with recommendations, he says. He also aims to ask Council to fund a grant writer to go after AB 32 cap and trade money “because we believe you can use that to acquire park space.” These funds might also be able to speed up payments the city is making regarding a brown field site on Waite, he adds.
Baber also wants voters to know where he stands on the three La Mesa ballot initiatives: he opposes Prop J, the medical marijuana measure, and also opposes a measure to make the City Clerk an appointed non-elected position. He wrote Prop K, the term limits measure. “I 100% support term limits. I think if you’re in office 12 years and you can’t get the work done, we need to replace you with someone else…I think term limits is like a ticking clock. It makes you move quicker.”
Dean: “I think we should expand the wi-fi coverage we offer,” he says, adding that creating more transportation options for seniors will also be a priority. Overall, he concludes,”We really need to look to the future and find a way to have a great town square that will allow La Mesa to grow into the future and keep the quality of our life as good as it is now.”
England: England wants to improve technology to help employees, such as an app to help police avoid the need to write tedious reports and get back into the field sooner to protect citizens. After meeting with people at meet and greets on the campaign trail, she adds, “Many have mentioned they want to have a voice. ..have some community meetings and not just a roundtable…So I want to reach out to those groups I’ve been meeting with, set up some meetings and hear what they want,” as well as showing people the city’s budget, she adds.
Gregorovic: “I’d really like to have my ear to the ground on the hiring of a new Police Chief..It’s the most critically significant, impactful topic we face in the short term…I believe I’ve run a clean campaign. I’ve done a lot of walking throughout La Mesa…and I’ve met a lot of good people.”
Read more about all of the candidates in our article on a La Mesa candidates forum: http://eastcountymagazine.org/la-mesans-meet-candidates-chamber-debate