By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Mayoral candidate Mark Arapostathis and Mayor Art Madrid (top); City Council candidates (left to right) Bill Baber, Patrick Dean, Mary England, Pete Gregorovic, Guy McWhirter
September 25, 2014 (La Mesa)—Candidates for La Mesa’s mayoral and city council races made their cases to voters at a forum held by the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce last week, tackling issues ranging from future development to public safety, pensions, and homelessness.
Art Madrid, who has served as La Mesa’s Mayor for over 24 years, faces a challenge from Councilmember/teacher Mark Arapostathis. Five candidates are vying for two open seats on the La Mesa Council. They are Bill Baber, an attorney and La Mesa-Spring Valley school board member; Patrick Dean, a chef and member of La Mesa’s Community Services Commission; Mary England, president of La Mesa Chamber of Commerce; Pete Gregorovic, a business attorney and youth sports leader; and Guy McWhirter, an insurance agent.
For key points made by each candidate, as well as links to video opening statements and raw audio of the debate, click "read more" and scroll down.
Each candidate started by providing opening statements.
Arapostathis, a lifelong La Mesa resident, said the Council has collectively accomplished “great things” during his eight years in office, including building a new library, police station and fire station as well as the current downtown streetscape project. Noting that the city recently celebrated its centennial, he said he looks forward to the next 100 years. “There are a great many things that still need to get accomplished,” he said.
Mayor Madrid said this election has “two candidates for Mayor who couldn’t be more different.” He emphasized his “qualifications, integrity, experience, ability and courage,” adding that he learned his values from “my parents, the nuns [at parochial school] and the Marines.” Madrid said it’s important for political leaders to “make sure we have the interests of individuals more than their own interests.” He then challenged his opponent, Arapostathis, to two two-hour debates in order to discuss issues in depth. (Note: ECM has asked Araposthatis if he will agree to debate Madrid, but we have not yet received a response.)
Baber led off among the council candidates. He said he’s worked to make sure that “your schools are well run” and cited good test scores at La Mesa schools. He said his priorities will include an efficiently run government and public safety. “Those are the essentials.”
Dean said he’s attending many Council meetings and is also a father whose priorities will be “safe streets, green spaces and smart development.” He said he understands the struggles of business owners, having owned a business himself, but added, “I’ve noticed if you’re not a business owner, you don’t have a big voice…I’m going to be there looking out for the little guy.”
England notes that she is the only woman running and cited among her accomplishments her work for the community as well as the business community as Chamber president. “It’s fun, passionate and exciting,” she says of those experiences. She said her work has benefited all La Mesans, not just businesses, citing the Taste of La Mesa event she organized as an example. “That’s my baby.”
Gregorovic, a father and grandfather, has lived in La Mesa for 33 years. “I came here to go to law school from New York, fell in love and never left,” he said. He helped broker a deal with the city for an athletic field and funds for capital improvements to benefit young athletes. He’s served as president of La Mesa Little League and held other positions with youth athletic groups. He wants to make protecting youths a priority, along with quality of life, public safety and economic responsibility.
McWhirter, a 50-year La Mesa resident, touted his civic involvement with Boy Scouts, the food bank, local churches and other organizations. “We have a wonderful police and fire department,” he said, adding that’s important to assure continued funding to assure fast response times.
The first question asked candidates to name their three top priorities if elected.
McWhirter led off. He wants to be sure La Mesa is a safe, viable place for everyone with parks, fire and police funding as priorities. Noting that La Mesa has many retirees, he added that he wants to increase volunteer opportunities in the city.
Gregorovic’s priorities include “sensible development and redevelopment.” That includes sensible mixed use to generate revenues, but he made clear he also aims to “preserve the character of the La Mesa that we’ve come to love.” Economic responsibility will also be a priority for Gregorovic, along with providing youth activities. “We have to consider what’s north of I-8,” he added.
England would place priority on “public service and safety, number one,” which includes use of technology and Neighborhood Watch programs, as well as being sure police have tools and training to stay on the job. Her second priority will be fiscal responsibility to “keep the engine running” including making sure there are adequate sales tax revenues from retailers. She adds, “You need to be able to come to us when you have a problem.”
Dean cites public safety and infrastructure, fiscal responsibility and “green” priorities including waling and biking trails as well as green spaces. Like England, he wants to be sure the city doesn’t lose police officers to other agencies. He noted that La Mesa is on track to add 21,000 more people by 2050. “We should invest in bike paths and better development, make sure we have a place for these people and have housing,” he said. Dean added that Council also needs to assure that the city will have adequate water supplies in the drought and that properties are kept free of weeds to lessen fire danger.
Baber wants to make public safety a priority including adequate resources for firefighters and emergency medical technicians, as well as improving safety at trolley stops. “I agree we need to focus on more parks and they might be smaller parks,” he said, adding that he also wants more community gardens. In addition Baber would emphasize “smart streets” to encourage traffic flow, safety, and fixing potholes.
Madrid praised the city’s public works department for keeping streets paved and in good repair, noting that public safety is about more than fire and police. His second priority is fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget. “The word `expense’ is not in our vocabulary at city hall. “We make investments,” he said, citing investing in firefighting equipment as an example. Third, he believes ”civic engagement” should be a priority. The Mayor cited his accomplishments starting up numerous boards and commissions as well as the farmer’s market in the past. He also wants more recreation for seniors and youths.
Arapostathis said, “Quality of life is number one for me.” That includes public safety, he says, adding it’s important for people to feel safe. Second, he stated, “Infill development must follow guidelines so that overnight there isn’t a monolith built, blocking out the sun,” a possible reference to the proposed Park Station high-rise project. Third, he will prioritize access to public services including better communications through technology to keep citizens informed about what’s happening in La Mesa.
The next question noted that La Mesa is on the threshhold of several major projects including Park Station, Grossmont Center (where a lease is up for renewal soon), a proposed new City Hall, infrastructure and roads, making La Mesa friendly for biking and walking, solar and more.
Dean said he sees the property Park Station is proposed at as an “area of opportunity…We will need development that is bigger but it doesn’t need to be a monolith.” He would like to see a park in that area and to have the developer “give back to the community.” He stressed his support for more green spaces and wider bike lanes. As for a new city hall, Dean said, “I don’t think that will happen for a while.”
England said the Cushman family is taking over Grossmont Center management. “We have Chamber members there signing leases,” she disclosed, adding that it’s important to make sure retail money stays in La Mesa. As for Park Station, which goes back to the Planning Commission October 1 with a new design that excludes the American Legion, which pulled out as co-applicant) England stated, “It’s a work in progress. The property is under-utilized. It needs to go forward, be developed…but what happens will be up to all of you.” She also voiced support for bike lanes and reducing youth obesity.
Gregorovic said his views have shifted on Park Station. While development is needed to generate revenue for La Mesa, he wants to see “sensible stories. Asking for 10 stories is not for La Mesa. The property owners need to follow our rules,” he added, referring to a waiver sought by the developer on height limit. As for Grossmont Center, he wants a campaign to encourage La Mesa residents to “shop in La Mesa” and keep sales tax revenues local. As for getting kids out biking, he quipped, “I’m not sure they’ll ride bikes, but let’s get them on skateboards and let them ride skateboards in the bicycle lanes.”
McWhirter remarked, “We all want to keep La Mesa like it is,” but added, “I think we need development, to allow more areas for La Mesa to have shops. I want to see more opportunities for business, mixed use.” He said Grossmont Center is signing leases and has no big plans for redevelopment. As for a new city hall, McWhirter stated, “I don’t see a big need.” He does want to see more bicycle riding opportunities for La Mesa kids and seniors, as he saw on a visit to Lexington, Kentucky recently, he added.
Arapostathis observed, “Park Station is on everyone’s mind. The first draft was excessive Development needs to fit into La Mesa and fit with our small town feel and look.” He called Grossmont Center a “landmark” that needs to remain as a retail center, despite speculation that the property could be converted to condos or even a stadium, he quipped. He also supports improved bike routes to ease congestion and keep kids safer.
Mayor Madrid chided his opponent. “It’s inappropriate for any member of the Council to discuss Park Station,” he said. Madrid cited the importance of protecting “the unique character we’ve had for 100 years” and acknowledged that some projects would negatively impact that. He notes that Grossmont Center was the second regional mall in the country and predicts the Cushmans will wait to see what the economy does before making a final decision on the future of Grossmont Center.
Baber says his campaign team walked every neighborhood in La Mesa and found “some are unwalkable.” He wants more opportunities for walking and biking. He thanked Madrid and Arapostathis for the city’s Safe Routes to School initiative. He noted that Grossmont Center is an economic hub that the city needs to keep profitable. On Park Station, “height needs to be reasonable for the community,” he added. Baber said he would encourage solar but does not want to invest money in a new city hall.
Candidates were then asked if they foresee adjustments that the city pays to its city employees’ pensions.
Baber responded, “No, unless we can change things in Sacramento.” He noted that the state, not local governments, have control over public pensions. “We have very little leeway and the city has already made good choices where it can.”
Madrid noted, “Our city was the first to ask its employees to contribute and they have,” noting that employees now pay 8.5 to 9% . “I agree PERS needs to be restructured,” he said, citing bad investments PERS has made with pensioners’ money in hedge funds and real estate, which in turn prompted the state to ask cities to increase their share of benefits. He said he sees progress. “They are getting the message at PERS, starting with getting out of the risky hedge fund market…We have dialogued with PERS to create a level playing field.”
Arapostathis said the state has caused the city problems with pensions as well as taking redevelopment money away. “We did ask employees to share the burden with us and it hasn’t been easy. Thre is a two-tiered system now, it’s different for new hires.” He praised the city’s professional staff and said, “There’s also a human side. Some want us just to wipe out pensions. But most of our budget goes to employees; we are a human organization.”
McWhirter said he met with city employees. “They feel they were demonized, asked to take less,” he said. “No, we don’t change the pension and we support those people who have determined to work for La Mesa.”
Gregorovic also met with employees and was “impressed” that many genuinely care for La Mesa. He admits to being “a little bit jealous” of their pensions and recalls his father, a New York City police officer, relying on his pension after retirement. “It really is a Sacramento problem,” he said, echoing others on the pension issue. “Small cities are handcuffed by Sacramento.”
England agreed and said there must be partnership between the city and its workers. “No one wants to give up anything…are we ever going to get to the middle? Probably not.” Despite concerns over unfunded pension liabilities, she added that workers take pride in their jobs. “Let’s make them feel valued, so they don’t go somewhere else.”
Dean noted that CALPERS turned over a 16.2% return on investment and that “in six years, I’ve never heard a docket item from our treasurer saying we have an emergency…” although he hopes to see the pension liability reduced someday, he added, “I’m okay with trusting PERS, that it will get where it needs to go.”
While the candidates were largely like-minded on pension issues, they showed clear differences when asked how they plan to address homeless people and panhandlers at intersections, as well as what services they would provide for the homeless.
Arapostathis noted that La Mesa relies on County services. “There has been an explosion of homeless” downtown in San Diego, he said. As for La Mesa, “We need to bring in other resources.” He suggested that schools could set up food banks and clothing banks to help the homeless. As for panhandlers, he said the city tried to get a bill passed in the State Legislature to restrict panhandling on medians which is “dangerous but not illegal.” The city has narrowed some medians and put in rocks to attempt to dissuade panhandlers. “Sad news…what made it go away was there was a death,” he said. “This is a safety issue for drivers and panhandlers.”
Madrid noted that “Sixty percent of the homeless need to be institutionalized,” but added that currently the biggest institution taking in the homeless is the county jail. He calls the way the government at all levels treats homeless veterans “offensive” and treatment of vets with PTSD “an embarrassment to society.” He agrees that panhandling on medians puts people in danger and wants to see more done to help the homeless . “Current policies are to deny they exist or ignore them…the President and the Governor have set up task forces, but they haven’t really been effective. We need to tell people they can get other services,” he said, adding that La Mesa Police are doing “a fine job of that.”
Baber agrees that we need to “honor and work with” homeless veterans. But he added, “What about homeless widows and orphans?” He added that how we care for the weakest among us is a reflection on us all. “There is no one who is homeless, widowed, or orphaned in LA Mesa who we wouldn’t want to do something for in a reasonable way…When you help someone who is weaker, it is good for the giver, too…We need an attitude adjustment.”
Dean lays fault at the county’s doorstep. “La Mesa can’t do it alone. We need to be pounding on the Board of Supervisors that has the money to get services out here.” Dean said he has volunteer to work with the homeless at a local charity and has seen some “transitional homeless” people get helped and moved off the streets, services which he believes are needed in East County.
England agreed, “The buck does stop at the Board of Supervisors to make sure we get money for services.” She voiced supposed for veterans and called Father Joe Carroll “a legacy” for his work with the homeless. But she recalled seeing a street magician flash a wad of cash, then expressed the view that giving panhandlers money means “they’re going to stay out there.” She said she has tried telling some homeless people about services and “they weren’t interested, but I believe some are desperate and are looking for help.”
Gregorovic says the challenge is knowing how many homeless are “truly in need and how many are making this their job.” He notes that the homeless have First Amendment rights, though ordinances such as limiting aggressive panhandling or panhandling near ATM machines have been passed in some areas.”Maybe we need this,” he said, but added, “I didn’t see this before tough economic times here.” He wants to bring help to those in need, including going to churches in La Mesa to “create a groundswell of help for veterans, widows and orphans.”
McWhirter said he’d rather deal with the budget than with homeless issues. “There are different reasons they are on the streets, but it’s their choice.” As for panhandlers, he said, “I’ve tried so hard to avoid looking them in the eye that I nearly had an accident.” But he added, “I do feel sorry for them,” noting that some have no address to receive Society Security. “Maybe merchants can go together to give them clothing.”
The candidates wrapped up with closing statements and were also asked to list one thing they would do right away if elected to change La Mesa.
McWhirter said he wants a wonderful place for his children and grandchildren, and for shopkeepers to be successful. He also wants a safe community and safe trolley stops. The first thing he would do is “I would do everything I can to get people to volunteer to serve the city.”
Gergorovic wants to address the drought. “We have to look forward, go to Phoenix, look to the future and use our water wisely,” he observed. “It’s only going to get more expensive and we don’t have control over where it comes from.” He encouraged the public to “get to know me…feel free to call me; I’m available anytime.”
England says the first thing she wants to do is to get more seniors to volunteer, citing the You Are Never Alone (YANA) program as a positive example, where volunteers check up on homebound seniors. In addition, she said, “I want to make sure we promote merchants in the streetscape area, that they are open for business….Shop La Mesa.” She pledged to “be open, honest, and dedicated to serve you.”
Dean said he wants to move Council meetings from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to make it easier for working people to attend. He also aims to partner with Metropolitan Transit to augment shuttle service and increase transportation for seniors. His vision is a La Mesa where it’s safe to ride bikes and walk even at night, and he wants to encourage smart growth. “Dean is the green candidate,” he concluded.
Baber said the first thing he would do is elected is to sit down with the winners in the council and mayoral races. “We don’t need to agree on everything, but we need to agree to move forward. City councils that bicker don’t get anything done.” He also wants to work on making trolley stops safer and working with Helix Water on water issues. In closing, he said, “We need city government that works for all of us, from the oldest senior to the youngest baby. We work for you. We work for the taxpayers.”
Madrid again called for a debate with Arapostathis on specific issues. If reelected, the Mayor sees opportunity in technology, citing the addition of computers in police patrol vehicles as an example of positive use of technology. He noted that La Mesa has “three desirable, major properties” that offer potential for the future. Of all the candidates, Madrid was the only one who voiced strong support for creating a new civic center that could be a win-win for the community and the city. “There are examples galore of a private-public partnership,” he said, adding that the city should seek to find a private entity to build a new city hall in exchange for other considerations. “It can be the best possible thing we can do,” he said.
Arapostathis alluded to the the sometimes testy atmosphere in council chambers lately. “We are a council of five, not four. Being civil to each other, as citizens if you watch Channel 24, you want to see that.” He said he would seek to change communications to avoid miscommunications and help assure that citizens are better informed. “We can make our city smaller as we made the world smaller.” He says it’s important to volunteer and be out in the community. “Integrity isn’t what you say, it’s what you do,” said Arapostathis, who will lose his Council seat if he does not win his mayoral race. But he assured, “I will continue serving the city, whether I’m on the council or not.”
For more information on the candidates, you can visit their websites at:
Bill Baber: http://www.baberforlamesa.com/
Patrick Dean: http://deanforlamesa.com/
Mary England: http://mary4lamesa.com/about
Pete Gregorovic: http://www.peteg4cc.com/about_pete
Guy McWhirter: http://www.guy4lamesa.com/
View Video of candidates opening statements: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1_yyAxs5Kc&list=UUPFDNB3EwJ6Oe_gfnFpiFcw