La Jolla Rotarians host District 1 City Council debate

• VIDEO: Watch an entire debate between San Diego City Council District 1 candidates Sherri Lightner and Ray Ellis from a previous Sept. 19 debate, presented by La Jolla Light, at

City Council candidates Ray Ellis (left) and Sherri Lightner fielded Rotarians questions Oct. 2 at La Valencia Hotel. Pat Stouffer (center) served as moderator of the debate.

By Pat Sherman

Incumbent District 1 City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner and businessman and challenger Ray Ellis squared off again in La Jolla, this time during the Rotary Club of La Jolla’s weekly luncheon, Oct. 2 at La Valencia Hotel.

The candidates conveyed the strongest disagreement on the $45 million Plaza de Panama project in Balboa Park, which is aimed at removing vehicles from the plaza by constructing a bypass expanse from the Cabrillo Bridge to a proposed 797-space parking garage behind the Organ Pavilion. Ellis has been a vocal supporter of the project, while Lightner was the lone vote on the city council opposing it.

Ellis, who serves on the Balboa Park Conservancy and previously served on the mayor-appointed Balboa Park Task Force, said the cash-strapped city cannot take on such large-scale civic projects without the assistance of the business community and philanthropists such as Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, who is funding the project and has endorsed Ellis’ candidacy.

“With the Plaza de Panama, we are increasing park space, restoring the historical beauty of the plaza and increasing parking,” Ellis said. “This is a good project for San Diegans, and it takes some vision to see this thing come to fruition.”

Though Lightner supports removing vehicles from the Plaza de Panama, she strongly opposes erecting a parking garage in the middle of the park.

“It’s a violation of the original master plan for Balboa Park,” she said. “It is paying homage to the car, which may not be here for all that long, and it’s a 30-year (financial) commitment on the part of the city of San Diego to pay a bond for that.”

Lightner said visitors will not pay to park in the garage when there is free parking in other areas of the park and on adjacent neighborhood streets, where she predicts parking will become more congested.

Sherri Lightner discusses the controversial Plaza de Panama project in Balboa Park. Pat Sherman photos

“This project as proposed has been denied by community planning groups, the Balboa Park Committee (which advises the mayor), and another park and rec board,” she said.

Moderator Pat Stouffer noted that San Diego police officers will retain their city pensions under Proposition B, while firefighters will move to a 401(k) retirement plan.

Asked for their views on the disparate retirement scenario for San Diego’s public safety employees, Ellis said the change was a difficult decision, but “the right decision,” based on market forces and what is happening in other cities.

“We have a tougher time recruiting police officers,” he said. “That’s why, to remain competitive, we have to keep them in a defined benefit program.

“On the other hand,” he added, “There is a long, long line of people … willing to step up and be firefighters.”

Noting that lifeguards also will be transitioning to a 401(K) plan, Lightner said police officers were “very strong in negotiating” to retain pensions.

The city has not filled vacant posts created over the past few years by officers leaving for other cities or opportunities, she said.

“We may need to be making other adjustments to benefits in the near (future) so that we can actually attract and retain our police officers,” she said. “They’re waiting for the other shoe to fall …with respect to the pension reform that has been ongoing in the city.”

If elected, Ellis said he hopes to further the discussion on retirement benefits.

“We are seeing pensions just continue to escalate,” he said. “Mortality rates are dropping, people are living longer, and this is going to drive the pension costs up. There’s downward pressure on the assumed rate of return, which is the amount of money that the portfolio is gaining each year and we need to come up with some alternatives.”

Addressing the economic forecast in the city, Ellis took aim at San Diego’s newly formed Economic Development and Strategies committee, which is chaired by Lightner, stating that it has done “very little” since its formation beyond holding meetings and giving PowerPoint presentations.

Ray Ellis said he believes private businesses and city employees should have an equal opportunity to bid for jobs under the city's managed competition program.

Lightner said the committee has received the “buy-in” of the city attorney, mayor and independent budget analyst.

“Since we have started we have created the Connecting Careers (job training fair), where over 300 folks showed up to connect to careers.  We have done the regulatory relief; we have implemented a Hire-A-Youth program. … If you look at the other committees and you see what they’ve done, you will be astounded at how much we’ve achieved.”

Asked what their three key issues would be in their first 12 months in office, Ellis said: the “proper” implementation of Proposition B (pension reform); economic growth; and a review of the guidelines for the city’s managed competition program, which he said, “are somewhat favorable to the city employees.

“We want to make it a level playing ground,” Ellis said, adding that the city “should be working with (the business community) to solve their problems, so they can be healthier and we can have more job creation in San Diego.”

Lightner said her priorities would be to finish pension reform; implementing her comprehensive overhaul of the city’s water conservation policies; and assuring that the Economic Development and Strategies committee releases information on a “strategic plan for the city of San Diego to grow jobs in this region, to close the job skills gap and to see how we’re going to partner with our institutions, private companies and the government going forward.”

Asked if La Jolla should become its own city, independent of San Diego, neither candidate directly answered the question.

“That’s why I ran (for office); I thought the neighborhoods were being neglected by city hall,” said Lightner, an engineer who previously served as president of the La Jolla Town Council and La Jolla Shores Association. “I know right now Independent La Jolla is working on their feasibility studies. If it’s going to happen it needs to be a good deal for La Jollans, as well as for the city of San Diego. I don’t know what your alimony payment will be, but I have a feeling it might be up there.”

Ellis said he shared the frustrations that are the root cause of some La Jollans wanting to secede from San Diego.

“La Jollans don’t think they’re getting a good deal, and, quite frankly, I don’t think they are either,” he said. “We are one of the most pristine communities in the world, but it just doesn’t feel pristine. We are not trimming our trees; we are not taking care of our roads. … We need to have a strong councilperson, like myself, who is going to represent this district and be aggressive about the needs of this district and the communities within the district.”

Related posts:

  1. District 1 City Council candidates Sherri Lightner, Ray Ellis square off during ‘La Jolla Light’ debate at MCASD
  2. District 1 City Council candidates gather for their first debate
  3. Proposed power plant near UTC and La Jolla raises residents’ ire
  4. Election 2012: City Council District 1
  5. Incumbent La Jolla city council rep challenged for seat

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Posted by Pat Sherman on Oct 3, 2012. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “La Jolla Rotarians host District 1 City Council debate”

  1. Kristen Byrne

    As the director of communications for the Plaza de Panama project, I'd like to correct some misinformation about the project stated by Councilmember Sherri Lightner, as quoted in the article.
    1. Councilwoman Lightner states that the parking structure is a"violation of the original master plan for Balboa Park." This is false. In fact, the Balboa Park Master Plan includes an underground parking structure at the same location, so the Plaza de Panama project is implementing this element of the master plan.

    2. She also states that the project has been denied by community planning groups and the Balboa Park Committee. The truth is that the Balboa Park Committee, which advises the City on matters related to Balboa Park, voted to support the project, and two of the four community planning groups that border the park also voted to support the project. The majority of museums and institutions in Balboa Park are also in full support of the project.

    To learn more about the project and see images of what the park will look like when the project is complete, visit <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  2. Kristen Byrne

    As the director of communications for the Plaza de Panama project, I'd like to correct some misinformation about the project stated by Councilmember Sherri Lightner, as quoted in the article.
    1. Councilmember Lightner claims that the underground parking structure is a "violation of the original Balboa Park master plan." This is false. In fact, the underground parking structure has been a part of the approved Balboa Park Master Plan for 20 years, and the Plaza de Panama project will finally implement it.
    2. Her claims about opposition to the project are misleading. She states that the project was "denied" by the Balboa Park Committee and community planning groups. The Balboa Park Committee – the advisory group to the city on Balboa Park matters – voted to support the project, as did two of the four planning groups that border the park. The majority of institutions that call Balboa Park home are also strongly supportive.

    For more information about the project, please visit <a href="” target=”_blank”>

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