District 1 City Council candidates Sherri Lightner, Ray Ellis square off during ‘La Jolla Light’ debate at MCASD
• VIDEO: Watch the entire debate between San Diego City Council District 1 candidates Sherri Lightner and Ray Ellis by clicking on the image above, or go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW29jenXZ-Y
By Pat Sherman
Incumbent District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner faced challenger Ray Ellis Wednesday night, Sept. 19, during a debate hosted by the La Jolla Light at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla.
Moderated by UC San Diego associate professor of political science, Thad Kousser, the candidates fielded questions from the editorial staff of the Light, Del Mar Times and Carmel Valley News, as well as those from some of the nearly 200 people in attendance.
Questions involved everything from pension reform and economic development to the renewed interest in the Belvedere Promenade project, which would replace a one-way section of Prospect Street between Girard and Herschel avenues with an ocean-view, pedestrian plaza.
Both candidates said they support the Belvedere project, which is part of the La Jolla Community Plan and is currently moving forward with guidance and oversight from the La Jolla Village Merchants Association.
“It’s about time it’s going to come to fruition,” Lightner said.
Ellis said the project could benefit local businesses, though he believes the community should have a chance to weigh in on it again.
The candidates were next asked what they would do to ease traffic congestion along Torrey Pines Road, heading in and out of La Jolla, and whether they supported a proposed bridge over Torrey Pines Road connecting north and south sections of La Jolla Scenic Drive, as well as the Regents Road bridge, which has been proposed to relieve congestion on Genesee Avenue.
Lightner said she does not support a bridge connecting the two sections of La Jolla Scenic Drive, which was removed from the community plan and is “not possible with today’s environmental concerns,” she said.
She also said she does not support the Regents Road bridge or widening of Genesee Avenue.
“I would much rather see traffic in University City be emptied through north University City than treat south University City as a freeway onramp to highway 52,” she said, noting $1.2 million in grants that has been allocated to get an initial segment of the Torrey Pines Road Corridor Project underway, including projects on the north and south sides of the road.
“We look forward to just slowing it down a little bit,” she said.
Ellis, who has long eschewed the question of whether or not he supports the Regents Road Bridge, did not mention whether he supports that or the Scenic Drive connector bridge, only stating that city officials must first address the looming infrastructure problems it can’t currently pay for, such as water, sewer and road projects.
Ellis, who questioned what results have come of the $1.2 million slated for Torrey Pines Road improvements, said he favors adding a pedestrian crosswalk and crossing signal at Princess Street, as well as narrowing traffic lanes along Torrey Pines Road, which would having a traffic-calming effect (the latter of which Lightner assured was part of the $26.5 million Torrey Pines Road Corridor Project).
Regarding the pervasive stench emanating from the bluff at La Jolla Cove, Ellis said he “absolutely” believes the city and the District 1 council representative should take a proactive role in the solution.
“Is there a way to allow people to safely have access to that area again, and then the birds will move along?” Ellis asked. “ Is there a way that we can do pressure washing of that area? … That would be the same as rainfall, so why can’t we have that discussion before we know for sure that we need to use a chemical product?”
Lightner said her office is currently working on a solution to the problem, in concert with the California Coastal Commission, Regional Water Quality Control Board and a company that makes a biodegradable product that could be sprayed on the bluff to cleanse the bird excrement.
“We envision having this meeting with everyone around the table so we get an answer right away, and then move forward,” Lightner said, adding that use of such a product “has never been done in California.
“It has been done on the east coast, but as you are well aware with the coastal area we have additional environmental constraints due to the area of special biologic significance off the coast there.
“Pressure washing,” she added, “would be a violation of the storm water best management practices and I would not encourage that at all.”
Asked about the city’s seeming reluctance to take advantage of public-private partnerships to tackle unaddressed infrastructure and beautification projects — such as the La Jolla Community Foundation’s recent repaving of the “Teardrop” median on La Jolla Parkway, Lightner said she shared the foundation’s frustration with the red tape its volunteer board encountered.
“I do applaud their patience and note that the Village Merchants Association, when they did step up to sign that agreement, was huge — and I do appreciate that,” she said. “As far as working with the city in the future, I know that the city has strict requirements on liability.”
Ellis answered by touting his “extensive track record” advocating for public-private partnerships, including his stint on the Balboa Park Conservancy.
“Government has clearly demonstrated that it can’t tackle a lot of issues in our community as it relates to quality of life, as it relates to the environment,” he said. “We’ve got to partner with willing philanthropists. We’ve got to partner with business organizations and individual companies so we can get things done. …
“When donors and individuals in our community step up like this, we have to make it easy for them — and we have to make it work,” Ellis said, noting that the La Jolla Community Foundation was able to obtain a private bid for its median beautification project that was nearly one-tenth the cost of what the city proposed to do the same work.
“Something is wrong with that equation and we need to have a council member who’s willing to … ask serious questions,” he said.
Regarding the passage of Proposition B — the city’s voter-approved pension reform initiative — the candidates were asked what principles they would follow to make pension decisions until the measure was implemented.
As president of the city’s pension board, Ellis said he was championing pension reform before Lightner joined the City Council.
“Ms. Lightner, on the other hand, participates in the most expensive pension of any city employee,” he said. “I don’t know how you can sit across from a young policeman or a young firefighter and have a powerful discussion about pension reform, when you have the best deal going,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear that I will not take a city pension if I’m fortunate enough to be elected.
“The City Council could have implemented 80 percent of what’s in the (pension reform initiative),” Ellis said, stating that Lightner also could have worked to put the initiative on the ballot.
“When asked by the Union-Tribune (U-T San Diego), ‘Did you think about that?,’ she responded, ‘Well, nobody asked me to.’ That is not the type of proactive, engaged leadership we need on a big issue here,” Ellis said, adding that the city’s $2.1 billion pension deficit “eats up” roughly 25 percent of its general fund.
Lightner responded by stating that she was “the one up here whose actually implemented pension reform — and it was in concert with my colleagues and the mayor. It is why we have saved the city $1 billion since I’ve been elected.
“We have capped salaries of the city employees by 6 percent; my staff and I took that cut as well,” Lightner said, adding that she would transition from a pension to a 401K-style retirement plan “as soon as I’m able to do that.”
“We had a historic retiree healthcare agreement … (that) saved us the most of any contract in the city of San Diego with $800 million,” she added.
Ellis characterized Lightner’s vote to deny City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s request for outside legal counsel to defend Prop. B as part of the labor union’s veiled attempts to “gum up” the process and delay implementation of Prop. B.
Lightner said she voted against outside counsel due to the vague nature of Goldsmith’s request.
“He wouldn’t tell us what it was for, what the depositions were for, how long they were going to be entitled by this, and who was covered by it,” she said, noting that it would have cost “more than $250,000 of taxpayer money without any explanation of what it was for.
“Of course I didn’t vote for it! “ she said.
Asked whom the candidates favor in the mayoral race, Lightner said she “has had the pleasure” of working with Republican Carl DeMaio, but would be supporting fellow Democrat Bob Filner instead.
“I believe he has a very fine understanding of the city and the region as a whole,” Lightner said. “He is very supportive of cross-border and port economic development, which I think is a key to our future in the region.”
Though Ellis, a Republican, said he “purposely stayed out of the endorsement process,” he went on to state that he was “more in line” with fellow Republican Carl DeMaio on fiscal issues and pension reform.
“I think I could help Carl with some other elements that the community faces,” he said. “I’m very concerned with Bob, and it doesn’t have anything to do with (his political) party or anything like that. When you have someone that says that Proposition B is a fraud, and then … now says that he’s the only one that can implement it, I have a hard time squaring that.”
The candidates will square of for a final time in La Jolla prior to the election, during the Oct. 2 meeting of the Rotary Club of La Jolla, 12 p.m. at La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect Street. For more information, visit rotarycluboflajolla.com
• VIDEO: Watch the entire debate between Sherri Lightner and Ray Ellis from Sept. 19 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW29jenXZ-Y
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