By John Sepulvado
View full video of ECM’s forum for Lemon Grove candidates: click here.
Scroll down for highlights and analysis of the forum.
October 9, 2020 (Lemon Grove) -- In the past 25 years, Lemon Grove has been battered. Revenues for the city have plummeted as businesses have fled. Currently the city is experiencing a $1.5 million budget shortfall. Major thoroughfares are in disrepair, while major civic investments like the Lemon Grove Recreation Center sit underused as the city continues to struggle financially.
Many of the buildings - including prime real estate on Broadway, sit empty and under-utilized. Many of the unhoused neighbors suffer from extreme health conditions that go untreated. Residents complain about policing from the Sheriff’s office. The Council spends most of its budget on policing through the Sheriff, yet some businesses and residents complain of crime and say more law enforcement protection is needed. (This year’s crime stats have not yet been released.)
These problems are compounded by a lawsuit in which a candidate for Mayor - Christopher WIlliams - is suing the city over a meeting on his proposed marijuana dispensaries followed by a pool party with alcohol that ended in an alleged assault. The spectacular suit is driving a deep wedge among current and aspiring council members.
And we haven’t even talked about the impact of COVID-19 on the community.
In a virtual town hall for Lemon Grove City Council candidates moderated by East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery, candidates offered some real differences on the environment, density, luring businesses to the city, and new development. But the candidates largely lacked compelling visions for how to improve the city’s perpetual state of fiscal crisis.
For example, when candidates were asked about how to improve business development downtown, they offered stock answers with solutions that have been suggested since the 1990’s.
Liana LeBaron, a member of the city’s planning commission, called downtown Lemon Grove “extremely dirty,” and said she began picking up trash during her nightly walks. She said that has turned into a more organized event that now cleans graffiti each month in affiliation with the Lemon Grove Lions Club. She also emphasized partnerships with other communities and private sector businesses to grow the economy. She also called on volunteers to step up and help clean Lemon Grove.
“Something that is extremely important is to note our business community is the backbone of the city. Those sales tax dollars are the funds to pay for our public works…”
Similar remarks were made by all of the other candidates, including George Gastil, a college professor who previously served on the Council.
Gastil - like many of the other candidates - suggested that “high quality housing” would help boost tax revenues as well. Yet, no detail of what the housing looks like, where or who would build it, or the effects of gentrification on long-time Lemon Grove residents were mentioned. The closest Gastil came to offering how to build “high quality” housing was to state that it “looks nice and that people want to stay in,” which implicitly suggests that the people who have for years weathered the continual crisis in Lemon Grove do not aspire to such accommodations.
As for the homeless population - which businesses routinely cite as the number one barrier to attracting foot traffic downtown - Gastil indicated it’s the County’s fault for not taking action.
“We need to go to the Board of Supervisors and SANDAG to be very focused on the homeless, and work with them,” said Gastil. “We can’t really tackle it on our own.”
Every other Council candidate agreed that the County was to blame for the town’s unhoused population.
Another recent idea injected to Lemon Grove’s development to help with residency and business development is to increase building height limits downtown. Gastil said he didn’t want to say where he stood on the issue until he “heard the argument and heard what citizens would think about it.”
Sitting Council member David Arambula, who is accused of assault following the poolside party that led to a lawsuit against the city and Arambula, discussed the need to improve traffic along Massachusetts Ave. (Asked about the allegations raised in the lawsuit, Arambula said he is “working” on some issues. He has previously claimed he acted in self defense. Some opponents cited the incident as a reason for change on the Council.)
“We are applying for a grant that will finalize Linear Park,” Arambula said. “Every city in the entire county has been impacted by COVID. Our city hasn’t been impacted as much because we don’t rely on tourism as much. Our city is more meat and potatoes.”
“[But] great things are about to happen, so hang in there,” Arambula predicted.
Teresa Rosiak - who once headed the now defunct Lemon Grove Chamber of Commerce - offered similar hopes that new housing, decreasing number of unhoused residents, and revitalized businesses would help bring Lemon Grove’s economy from the abyss. Yet - as was the case with the other candidates - she failed to offer specific policy recommendations to improve it, instead focusing on the importance of grants, collaboration, and volunteerism - particularly cleaning up downtown.
“We have developed the Lemon Grove Improvement Council, which does clean-ups,” Rosiak said. “We need volunteers. These things can all be accomplished with volunteers. We can turn it around. We can make it great again.”
But the question remains where these volunteers will come from. It also ignores the fact that Lemon Grove city leaders have been suggesting cures as volunteerism, grants, and county coordination since Bob Burns was mayor in the 1990’s.
At the center of the debate was the sales tax issue. Lemon Grove offered a sales tax increase in a ballot measure led by Gastil in 2020, but it was rejected by the voters. The city was hoping to generate $3 million dollars in new revenues as a result of the tax. However, the city leadership is perceived to have royally botched the rollout of the measure, resulting in allegations of wrongdoing.
Only one Council candidate took a definitive stand on the issue, as Teresa Rosiak stated she opposes a sales tax increase. As for the other candidates, they again all said a version of “let the voters decide.”
While Rosiak’s stance is admirable in that she at least has the courage to take a stance, it is notable how overall the candidates offered little vision for how to improve the long-struggling community.
But more importantly, when asked how they were going to make their visions work - as limited as those visions are - the candidates responded with answers that have been around since the 1990s. These ideas have clearly not worked out for the city thus far. When asked on specifics - whether it’s cleaning up downtown with volunteers, or a sales tax increase, or expanding building heights downtown, the candidates provided no clear solutions for voters.
The candidate forum, hosted on Zoom by the nonprofit East County Magazine, was supported with funds from the Facebook Journalism Project.
John Sepulvado has won many major broadcast journalism awards including the 2011 Peabody Award for coordinating coverage of CNN’s BP oil spill coverage. He is also the recipient of seven Edward R. Murrow awards, numerous PRNDI Awards for Investigative Journalism and Writing, and the ONA Award for National Excellence in Journalism.
He has done production of East County Magazine’s radio show as well as script writing and on-air vocal talent. His experience includes serving as California Bureau Chief and report host for KQED radio in San Francisco, Weekend Edition host at Oregon Public Radio, and co-founding KXRY-FM in Portland, Oregon. He holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M. Currently the communications consultant for Better World Group, Sepulvado devises media strategies promoting a healthier environment for Californians.