By Mike Allen
Photo: Santee Mayor John Minto, mayoral candidate and Councilman Stephen Houlahan, City Council candidates Samm Hurst and Dustin Trotter,
October 14, 2020 (Santee) -- The conflict between slow-growth proponents and those who support the continued expansion of Santee has been going on for decades but is crystallized in this election.
While both mayoral candidates, Mayor John Minto and Councilman Stephen Houlahan, espouse a moderate growth strategy for the 40-year old city, there are significant differences in how to accomplish that.
Minto said his main message to voters is stay with the guy who has steered the city through a period of growth that came with some issues, heavy traffic being the biggest, in a planned, balanced way.
“There’s a lot of work to be done here and we need to make sure it’s done correctly,” Minto said.
Last month, Minto and three other councilmembers voted to approve the Fanita Ranch project, which will add about 3,000 houses along with about 8,000 residents over a projected 10-year build-out.
At the six-hour meeting where he gave approval on the project, Minto said he was satisfied by all the mitigation efforts developer HomeFed Corp. provided, including the promise of significant improvements to Highway 52 being made before any resident moves in.
He was also fine with the fire prevention and evacuation plans that were detailed in the environmental report.
Houlahan, a registered nurse with Sharp Healthcare, was critical of most of Fanita Ranch’s mitigation plans, particularly the last-minute exclusion of building a road extension from the development to Magnolia Avenue. During a city-wide emergency, Houlahan said that lack of another exit road could produce a major bottleneck on the remaining exits, Fanita Parkway and Cuyamaca Street, and could lead to the loss of lives.
Houlahan led the charge for the city to join a community choice energy coalition that would provide residents with alternative for its power that could yield significant savings. Minto and the council majority said the risks were unclear, and delayed the vote until more data is evident.
Houlahan, along with Preserve Wild Santee, a local environmental advocacy group, gathered sufficient signatures for a Santee General Plan Initiative in 2018, but because of an economic study had to wait to this election to see it on the ballot as Measure N. If adopted, any project that doesn’t conform to the current General Plan must go to a public vote.
Houlahan said he was confident Measure N would pass because the average person in Santee is tired of all the up-zoning and higher density approvals that have occurred, and “don’t want drastic changes unless they have a say.”
Minto has been on the Santee council for 18 years, the last four as mayor, and is an unabashed cheerleader for a city that sometimes gets bad publicity because of its past history involving racist groups. In June, during a raft of protests over the death of George Floyd, Minto initially lauded a group of local residents formed to prevent looting called the East County Defenders. However, when the group was infiltrated by overt white supremacists, he backed away from that support.
Minto said the initial response by the Sheriff’s Department was lacking. Asked to rate his performance during that period, which included altercations and some vandalism, Minto said it was exceptional. “Not many mayors understood what was going on,” said the now retired San Diego Police detective.
Afterwards Minto expanded the city’s police advisory committee to include several people of color and experts on racial issues as a way to confront racial intolerance, and foster harmony.
While several other cities are in difficult financial shape due to the pandemic, Minto says Santee has been able to weather the storm due to the increases it’s had in property, commercial, and retail taxes it collects.
Houlahan says Santee is near the point where it will be spending more money than it takes in and has a growing debt load tied to its pension liabilities. “We need to restructure this debt, and develop a solid fiscal policy,” he said.
When it comes to financial backing for campaigns, the two men are at opposite poles. Minto accepts contributions from developers, saying it’s legal and does not influence his decisions. Through the end of September, documents filed with the state show he’s received $10,492, and had a cash balance of $18,103.
Houlahan said he doesn’t accept contributions from developers, and it doesn’t look right when officials do take contributions from people with projects seeking council approval. He collected $15,262 at the end of September, and reported a cash balance of $8,036.
COUNCIL DISTRICT 4
District 4 is the only contested council race. (Laura Koval is running unopposed in District 3.)
Because Houlahan is running for mayor, his seat in the northwestern part of the city is up for grabs. Two candidates are vying for it: Dustin Trotter, a local contractor who was defeated for council seat in 2016, and Samm Hurst, a UCSD professor.
Trotter said as a small business owner (general contractor), he’ll work to make the city more business friendly, “cut red tape and get government out of the way of small business.”
The key issue facing most residents is the awful traffic congestion on Highway 52. He said one of the benefits from the Fanita Ranch project is the company’s promise to install improvements to the highway as a part of its plan.
“I was born and raised in Santee so I have a lot of institutional knowledge about the city, how it has changed, and how it has grown,” he said.
According to the most recent campaign contribution documents, two top officers of HomeFed Corp. gave Trotter’s campaign a combined $1,050. When this was noted, he said, “Donations to my campaign does not buy my vote. Donations to campaigns are needed because campaigns are very expensive.”
As of the latest filing for the three months from June to Sept. 19, Trotter reported $7,650 in contributions and a cash balance of $14,869.
Hurst, a resident of the fairly new community of Weston next to West Hills High School, said she was motivated to jump into a political race because she wasn’t seeing the type of leadership she and her neighbors expected with all the escalating development and increased traffic.
“A lot of my neighbors tell me that they don’t feel that their voices are being heard and acknowledged,” she said.
Hurst said she is opposed to both the Fanita Ranch and the Carlton Oaks Golf Course expansion, but is not against growth. If done carefully, new development can work, particularly when speaking about needed affordable housing, she said.
However, Fanita Ranch comes with a series of risks and vulnerabilities that aren’t adequately addressed in the environmental report, she said.
Hurst says she is a third generation East County resident, having grown up in Lakeside, and a graduate of Helix High School, and SDSU. She obtained her doctorate in biological and medical anthropology from the University of Tennessee.
Her latest campaign report shows she received $14,529 and had a cash balance of $8,861. The largest contribution was her own of $5,154; she said she won’t accept donations from special interests.