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By Ana Nita

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October 11, 2018 (Santee) -- In April, the City of Santee ended the “at large” election system by adopting an ordinance that divided the city into four election districts. The electoral battle on November 6 now has seven candidates from three districts. Registered to run in District 1 are Evlyn Andrade-Heymsfield and current Vice Mayor Rob McNelis; in District 2, Council Member Ronn Hall and Rudy Reyes; in District 3: Zach Gianino, Laura Koval and Lynda Marrokal.

(The seat in District 4 currently represented by Council Member Stephen Houlahan will be up for election in 2020. The mayor remains an at-large seat elected by all Santee residents.) 

On October 4, all candidates participated in a public forum organized by the Santee Chamber of Commerce and answered questions from the voters regarding the economic growth of the city, traffic issues, marijuana, urban development, among others.  The meeting went smoothly, with no heated moments. Only the question about allowing marijuana dispensaries in town caused some passionate responses, but for the most part, the forum gave the opportunity to the candidates to present their credos on multiple issues through monologues and no interaction with the public. The audience was advised not to use the candidates’ time with ovations and applauses.

All candidates started with an opening statement mentioning their backgrounds and what connects them to Santee.

Lynda Marrokal lived in Santee for 61 years and worked on multiple projects while elected on the Santee Redevelopment Project Area Committee from 2001 to 2015. Marrokal’s bio mentions how she followed “in my mother Mildred’s footsteps, who was heavily involved with the incorporation project that placed Santee on the map” and “instilled in me the importance of serving the community.” Marrokal is endorsed by the Democratic Party and leads the way with the slogan “Citizen, Not Politician.” During the forum, Marrokal proclaimed her mission to bring the community “together as humans, not as Republicans or Democrats. That’s how it was in old Santee and I am old Santee.” Marrokal added, “What you see is what you get. I don’t have a fancy title or anything. I am just a citizen, just like all of you.”

Zach Gianino is running under the slogan “Zach G. for D 3,” Gianino said he moved to Santee in 2005 and worked in the state Assembly office. “I started following Santee politics very closely when I was 17 years old, which was eight years go,” he said. Gianino professed, “My philosophy is, I think globally, I act locally.” Gianino mentioned his experience in advocacy in Sacramento and Washington, DC and his degree in Political Science, International Relationships from UCSD. Gianino observed a disconnect between the community and the City Council while Santee transitions from a small town to a big city and is experiencing a cultural change that requires “a new type of leadership.” Gianino said, “I want to give District 3 that opportunity for transition which means more transparency, holding more town halls, having a live streaming from our council meeting and making sure our city is ready for the 21st century.”

Evlyn Andrade-Heymsfield was born in Southern California, went to school in the Bay Area, and then moved back to El Cajon. She became a Santee resident this year while “looking for a safe community to raise our family.” Andrade-Heymsfield wants “innovative ideas to solve the city current problems” and said she brings in management experience as a software engineer and business owner. “I want to stand for what’s important to you and bring change to our community,” she said. Andrade-Heymsfield pointed out that she “went door to door almost in the entire district. I hear the current voices, I hear what’s going on and many of you want change.”

Vice Mayor Rob McNelis started with a joke, explaining why he decided to stand: “I am standing up because I am not much taller than sitting down.” McNelis moved to Santee with his wife in 1994 and felt “since day one that this is the place where I want to have a home and raise children.” He served on the City Council since 2010 and said that prior of running, “I started showing up at the City Council meetings for six years. I listened to the budget meetings and I found out the things I was upset about, we could not afford to fix them.” McNelis stated, “I was upset that our law enforcement didn’t know our community very well and the deputies would move to another community as soon as they will get to know ours, so I said I want our own PD.”

Councilman Ronn Hall confessed, “I am married to Santee,” counting how his wife lived here for 20 years and that he had his business in the city for the past 23 years. Hall said he is always active on Facebook and available to answer the phone because “That’s what you do, help people, you answer questions, it’s your job.” Hall said, “I worked hard to meet the needs of the people. I came here in 200, immediately got into the Chamber [of Commerce], I am past Chamber president. We got into the community to help out, Santee Santa, from day one.”

Rudy Reyes mentioned he is a Cedar Fire survivor from Barona. He said, “The only way I can figure to give back to these doctors, these firemen, is to run to be in service.” Reyes said, “The real reason why I run in this election is that you have a problem with the council not listening to the voice of the people.” Reyes mentioned scholarships he received from different organizations in Santee and his work for the environment and anti-SDG&E stances.

Laura Koval grew up in Lakeside and lived in Santee for the past 26 years. Koval graduated from El Capitan High School and San Diego State University.  Her first full time job was with the Boys & Girls Club of East County, being promoted after a year to the Santee branch, “when I fell in love with Santee.” Koval said, “I run because I looked at the financials and I am very concerned. I actually have the experience to fix the budget.” Koval mentioned she worked for the Padre Dam Municipal Water District as Customer Manager and now is the Director of Park and Recreation at the Santee Lakes and on the board with Santee and East County chambers of commerce. 

The questions for the candidates touched important subjects including new businesses coming to Santee, such as Karl Strauss, a movie theatre, a four-star hotel and a full-service grocery store. Andrade-Heymsfield said, I think those projects will definitely bring new revenue to the city, high paying jobs very much needed. You are ready especially for a movie theatre.”

Gianino agreed with Andrade-Heymsfield, adding, “I am all for maximizing our industrial and commercial parcel because we really have an amazing city and companies want to come here.”

Hall said, “When I first ran four years ago I walked up to the first house and asked, what is your biggest problem? Traffic, and we want a movie theatre. So, for the past four years I worked very hard to bring a movie theater here. It’s not quite here yet, but by next month we should have a movie theatre here. Brian Jones brought in Karl Strauss.” 

Koval said that as a board member with the Santee Chamber of Commerce, “I am in favor of all. Bringing businesses is very important to us. We need businesses to come to the region, that’s actually one of the resolutions to the traffic issue--that we have is to bring high paying jobs out to East County.”

Marrokal pointed out, “I wouldn’t enjoy the traffic though, but our infrastructure needs to be improved if we want these businesses in.”

McNelis said he is in favor as well and pointed out that the Council brought in these businesses “kicking and screaming.” McNelis also mentioned “the battle for Las Colinas” that is the detention center for women in Santee, a state of the art imprisonment center designed as a rehabilitation campus.

Reyes agreed this is “something we need, we need jobs. The issue is how we bring them in, how to build the transit. We need to build the streets and the lights. If we bring a hotel, we need a really nice convention center that will bring the real money.”

Moving on to the question about bringing manufacturing jobs to Santee, Gianino said the traditional Mom and Pop shops changed and are now tech companies, while Hall pointed out that Santee does not have space and “it’s hard to bring new businesses in here.” Koval supported the idea to partner with colleges that have IT programs. Marrokal was skeptical; “Where is it gonna go? Where are we gonna put these high-tech businesses? I have no idea how we are gonna achieve that with our roads.”  McNelis agreed to the idea of a partnership with “high schools to provide skilled labor to these organizations,” while Andrade-Heymsfield reminded everyone, “One of the things nobody mentioned is that manufacturing jobs are leaving our country. They are going to other countries where they could find cheaper labor and so I think it’s time to keep up with the times and tech is our new industry.” She added, “We have the highest educated people in the county,” proposing the idea of working with businesses to bring the jobs to Santee. “That would reduce the amount of commuter that we have as well as increase revenue for our city and retain their employees.” Reyes advanced the idea that “We need to reinvest in ourselves first. Businesses may not like what they see in Santee now and may not want to come here.”

Then came the question about the traffic in Santee and especially on Highway 52. Hall said he created “Coalition 52” with other cities, adding, “We can’t wait for SANDAG to get their act together.” Hall thinks that in order to fix Highway 52, “we need to get CALTRANS and the rest of the cities in East County” together and find a solution.  Koval said, “I commuted for a long time, so I know….I would bring jobs to East County, top priority, that would change the flow of traffic.” Reyes urged people to send letters to SANDAG because “every voice counts. They have a list of projects and our 52 is not set to be completed until 2050. I need each of you to send a letter. Because until that happens, we have nothing to do.” Marrokal said, “We can’t stop development, but we can develop smart.” Andrade-Heymsfield said, “There’s no ultimate fix to the traffic. We just cannot make it worse. I am opposed to the 3,000 units at Fanita Ranch project. I think adding at least 6,000 cars on the road every single day would absolutely make the problem worst.” Andrade-Heymsfield proposed to sync all lights on Mast Blvd to “alleviate just a little bit.” Gianino agreed with Andrade-Heymsfield, saying Santee doesn’t need “a rapid development that can’t keep up with the infrastructure. How can we prevent Santee to become Los Angeles? We need to follow the General Plan.”

The discussion moved on to ways to bring revenue to the city. Koval said she redesigned the pricing scale at Santee Lakes that brought in millions and also helped increase the revenue for the city through the TOT tax in consensus with McNelis. Marrokal said, “We need growth, we feel we have a bad situation with the budget; we will face a bad situation next year, we need somebody to get the bull by the horns.” Reyes pushed for the convention center again and for “reinvesting in Santee by upgrading the industrial zone to attract giants.” Andrade-Heymsfield proposed to think outside the box to bring in revenue.

The opinions were split about opening Mast Blvd to Lakeside and Hall concluded, “It’s $8 million, we don’t have the money. If San Diego county wants to open it up, hey, it’s all yours, man, open it up.” 

Permitting for marijuana dispensaries was a hot topic with the younger candidates Gianino, Andrade-Heymsfield and Reyes being favorable to creating local revenue from local dispensaries. Currently, Santee does not allow any marijuana sales.

 Everybody agreed with the need to bring big businesses in Santee, such as Karl Strauss, a movie theatre, a four stars hotel along with an entertainment center. However, Marrokall pointed out that it would compound the traffic issue and that “our infrastructure needs to be improved if we want to bring these businesses in.” 

All candidates were on the same page about the economical growth of Santee and bringing high paying job to town as a way to reduce the traffic by reducing the need for commuting and to increase the city revenue. Andrade-Heymsfield said she would bring some competition in town to Cox Cable to “generate millions of dollars in revenue” by building a “high speed gigabyte internet” owned by the city. Gianino praised the city manager and staff, saying, “I’d like to see more of their ideas pass. We should work literally side by side with our financial departments and utilize more grants.” All candidates ended the forum with their vision for the city and their hopes to see it materialize in the near future.

After the meeting, Van Collinsworth with Preserve Wild Santee said, “I thought the candidates did a great job tonight. I was especially impressed with Evlyn and Zach and I think they are going to be great additions to the Santee City Council. I was somehow disappointed that not all of the candidates were willing to take a position on the Fanita Ranch.  They all performed well tonight and we are lucky to have them.” Collinsworth added, “The Council doesn’t go by the General Plan and it’s moving project after project [that] does not comply. “

Council Member for District 4 Stephen Houlahan stated, “I think all the candidates did a wonderful job. Although we all have our favorites and there are various endorsements out there, the fact that the community is coming together and had this forum is positive all around.” Houlahan’s main concern besides the traffic issue is, “The initiative Save Our Santee. I really want to bring a voice to the people, so when we have large developments and big changes in the city, they would be able to vote on it. My number two thing is the term limits.” Houlahan said his number three priority is to break the SDG&E monopoly. 

Sandy Kuntz with Save Mission Trails noted, “I always think it’s great to have a forum like this when we can hear everybody’s position, some of them more open than others.” Kuntz appreciated all the candidates running for office “because it’s not an easy job.”

ECM emailed others for comment/reactions to the forum but did not receive a reply.

The election day is November 6th.

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