Updated January 17 with comments from Councilmember Lothian and clarification that the Council has been meeting virtually since the pandemic began and voted to extend virtual meetings.
By Eugenie Budnik
January 14, 2022 (La Mesa) - The La Mesa City Council held its first meeting of the new year on Tuesday. Mayor Mark Arapostathis opened with his State of the City speech, calling the city “strong.”
Later the Council addressed some contentious issues, including replacing its SANDAG representative and extending virtual meetings amid the latest COVID surge. With Council and staff in chambers, newly elected Councilmember Laura Lothian openly defied the state’s mask mandate.
State of the City highlights
Mayor Arapostathis, recounted the city’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the recovering economy, as well as sustainability issues, affordable housing and homelessness, among other key issues.
He thanked residents for helping reduce spread of the COVID-19 virus, noting that La Mesa has roughly a 67 percent vaccination rate. He noted that the city’s Mortgage Assistance Program has helped many residents with past due mortgage payments, adding, “We will soon expand the program to offer additional rental assistance.”
He praised the city’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement (HOME) team for helping nearly 60 people find housing. The city has also moved forward to approve new housing including the Allison Avenue project, a 147-unit “100% affordable housing development” slated to be built downtown.
He also noted the new Community Police Oversight Board has assured police oversight and accountability and that the new Arts and Culture Commission will promote the arts as a means of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion.
Mayor Arapostathis touched upon the city’s projects occurring during the new year, which include revamping city parks such as Collier Park and creation of a new park at Waite Drive and Murray Hill Road.
The city began providing clean, renewable power to local businesses and city facilities in 2021 as a founding member of San Diego Community Power, which will roll out this year to residents.
Mayor Arapostathis also assured residents that any concerns and issues highlighted by the public will be addressed by the city in a timely manner.
“At City Hall, we have stepped up the way we do business to be more responsive to businesses, residents and visitors. We want to create a culture of “YES” in order to streamline government services,” Arapostathis said.
Mayor Arapostathis explained that the city’s move to hire Perri Storey as its first communications director will help the city to remove any barriers that may be stopping businesses and residents from receiving help from the city.
Outsourcing animal services
Vice Mayor Jack Shu, Councilmember Bill Baber, and La Mesa Police Chief Ray Sweeney sought approval of an animal services contract with San Diego Humane Society. The council voted unanimously to approve the contract, which will make San Diego Humane Society the full animal services provider for La Mesa at an estimated fiscal impact of $325,000 for the first year.
The Council also held interviews with applicants for the city’s newly created Arts and Culture Commission. The Commission, which is a part of the city’s community outreach goals, will be responsible for promoting the visual and performing arts of the city. The Commission will also be responsible for identifying ways to integrate culture, technology, and art throughout the city.
Baber to replace Shu on SANDAG
As a part of the new year, the Council appointed and reappointed council members to outside boards, commissions and committees, and to the council ad hoc and standing committees.
Mayor Arapostathis heard public comments regarding outside appointments before hearing from the council members.
“I strongly support Jack Shu and recommend he continue on SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments). Consistency, especially in a time of strong conversations on climate change, is very important. We need to ensure that Jack stays on SANDAG,” said resident David Meyers in a live public comment.
However, not all residents who submitted public comments agreed with Meyer’s notion of keeping Shu as the primary representative on SANDAG. Most of the criticism of Vice Mayor Shu was related to his support of the mileage tax over the objection of many La Mesa residents.
“Jack Shu should no longer be the SANDAG rep because of his complete disregard for the people he supposedly represents. I support Laura Lothian in the role of SANDAG representative for the City of La Mesa,” wrote resident Peter Hoss in an email public comment.
Many of the public comments in support of removing Vice Mayor Shu as the primary representative on SANDAG offered support to newly elected Council Member Laura Lothian, who has been a vocal opponent of the milage tax.
Councilmember Colin Parent spoke in favor of reappointing Vice Mayor Shu to the SANDAG board. Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 to demote Vice Mayor Shu as the secondary SANDAG representative and to install Councilmember Bill Baber as the primary representative. Both Vice Mayor Shu and Councilmember Parent voted against this action.
Lothian defies mask mandate as Council debates COVID protocols
The Council revisited the probability of returning to in-person city council meetings in the next 30 days, and discussed possible safety protocol policy related to in-person meetings. City staff surveyed surrounding cities in the county to get a view of their in-person meeting protocols. Many of the surveyed cities had measures in place such as reduced seating, the recommendation of mask wearing regardless of vaccination status, and posting signage with guidance from the California Public Health Department.
The California Public Health Department currently has a statewide mask mandate in place for all individuals regardless of vaccination status which requires individuals to wear a mask when in an indoor public setting. The mandate, which was put in place in December, is in effect until Feb. 15, 2022.
Councilmember Lothian, who attended the city council meeting on Zoom that was located in City Hall, defied the state public health mandate by opting not to wear a face covering. Mayor Arapostathis and City Manager Greg Humora who were also attending the meeting from City Hall were wearing face coverings during the meeting. Councilmember Baber, also in attendance at City Hall, wore a mask for the majority of the meeting but did remove it for a large portion of the meeting.
The Council was in agreement that the city should uphold the availability of remote participation.
“I think that a lot of people have found that they prefer attending meetings remotely. Having remote participation, whether or not we as a Council meet in person, makes government more accessible,” Councilmember Parent said.
As for in-person Council meetings, Mayor Arapostathis pointed out that the logistics of in-person meetings would be incredibly hard on the city staff due to staff shortages.
Councilmember Lothian spoke in favor of returning to in-person meetings.
“I see these empty chairs, and people not being able to face their representatives. That is not right.” She said, adding, “Forty-two states do not have mask mandates. It seems to me that the masks are not stopping it [the virus]. We need to go back to normalcy, but also provide the virtual alternative.”
In a statement sent to ECM after the meeting, Lothian stated, "La Mesa City Council meetings have been exclusively virtual/remote for two years this March and continue to be exclusively virtual/remote, despite all of the other East County cities meeting in person and despite most of the rest of the cities in San Diego County meeting in person. Last Tuesday's vote to keep our meetings virtual had nothing to do with my not wearing a mask and was mostly due to staffing shortages. It is my hope the next time this comes up for a vote, the city will keep the virtual/remote option for those who do not want to participate live but brings back in-person meetings for those who feel they have a right to address their representatives directly and openly." She also clarified that the extension of virtual meetings was largely due to "staffing" issues, not her refusal to wear a mak.
Both Vice Mayor Shu and Councilmember Parent both poised questions about the city council’s responsibility and obligation to uphold current health mandates and safety protocols.
“The county health department guidelines are for everyone to be masked indoors regardless of vaccination status. I noticed that Councilmember Lothian is not being masked and we have other city staff members in the same room. We are breaking health rules,” Vice Mayor Shu said.
Lothian did not provide a response to Vice Mayor Shu’s comment.
“We have an obligation to reasonably make sure that our city staff is safe from any risk,” Mayor Arapostathis.
Contrary to this statement, no attempt was made to remove Lothian from the meeting regardless of her defiance of the public health mandate.
The Council voted unanimously for Council meetings to remain virtual for 30 days, and for the Council to revisit the topic in 30 days.
The next La Mesa City Council meeting is scheduled for January 25, 2022 at 6 p.m.