Election 2012: Former pension board president seeks to unseat Sherri Lightner in Dist. 1
City Council member base salary:
Council District 1:
La Jolla, University City, Torrey Hills, Torrey Pines, Carmel Valley, Del Mar Mesa, Rancho Peñasquitos, Torrey Highlands, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Black Mountain Ranch
By Pat Sherman
La Jolla Light
recently met with District 1 City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner (Democrat), and her challenger, businessman and philanthropist, Ray Ellis (Republican). Interviews with the candidates follow. An interview with attorney and animal rights activist Bryan Pease, who is also seeking the District 1 seat, will appear in the Feb. 23 edition of the
La Jolla Shores resident and UC San Diego graduate Sherri Lightner got her start in politics as a community activist, serving as president of the La Jolla Shores Association and the La Jolla Town Council, among other organizations.
Her campaign has been endorsed by a bevvy of local leaders, as well as the San Diego City Firefighters, San Diego Lifeguards, former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, and Port Commissioner Bob Nelson.
Following an engineering career that began at General Atomics and ended with a consulting business she ran with her husband, Bruce, Lightner was elected to the city council, replacing Democrat Scott Peters in 2008.
Among her achievements since joining the city council, Lightner cites her work instituting a ranger program to monitor seal fracas at the Children’s Pool, breaking ground on a new lifeguard station at La Jolla Shores, helping to secure money from UCSD to reinstate lifeguard service at Black’s Beach, and reviving the La Jolla Village Merchants Association. Lightner has also joined efforts to help save La Jolla’s Wall Street post office.
If elected to a second term, Lightner said she’ll continue to focus her efforts on the council’s newly formed Economic Development and Strategies Committee, for which she serves as chair.
The committee is tasked with development of a long-term, strategic vision for San Diego’s economy and workforce, as well as finding ways to cut through bureaucratic red tape at city hall (including streamlining the permitting process and allowing business owners to pay fees and fill out forms via the city’s website).
“You shouldn’t have to come down to city hall to fill out a form,” Lightner said. “We need to move forward with that (committee) and really come up with a roadmap for economic development here in the city of San Diego.”
Lightner also touted her work to help fix the city’s pension crisis, helping enact a plan that provides an estimated long-term savings of as much as $17 million in 2030 and $28 million in 2040, as well as a citywide salary freeze that reduced San Diego’s unfunded pension liability by $100 million.
“We’ve made huge strides,” Lightner said. “Our budget deficit is supposedly going to be (about) $12 million this year, which is amazing … and our reserves are quite good.
“There is still more to do, and I want to help finish the job. That means looking at all our options, including pension freezes and working to eliminate pension-spiking practices to eliminate costly loopholes.”
Lightner said she’d also push for an update to her district’s community plans, in a manner that minimizes excess environmental hurdles, and work to get construction of the Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project underway. The long-delayed project would extend light rail service from Old Town to University City and UCSD.
Lightner believes her history of engagement with the La Jolla community makes her the best candidate for the job.
“From working with the city and the community the last 20 years, I know how to get things done,” she said. “I get accused of caring too much for the details of things, but that’s my background as an engineer. Engineers are interested in making sure things work right.”
Asked if she favors the Comprehensive Pension Reform (CPR) initiative being championed by opponent Ray Ellis, which would replace pensions with a 401(k)-style retirement plan for most new city hires, Lightner said she needs more information before making a decision.
“I am waiting for the legal analysis and for the independent budget analyst to weigh-in on the issue,” she said. “I want to make sure it passes legal muster and that it will provide the type of savings it promises.”
(CRP proponents, including Councilman Carl DeMaio and Mayor Jerry Sanders, claim it would save taxpayers $2.1 billion.)
Opponent Ray Ellis is running on a pro-business platform that calls for more fully utilizing San Diego’s voter-approved managed competition measure, which has caused some city departments, including printing, fleet services and street sweeping, to streamline operations and cut costs, in order to prevent their jobs from being outsourced.
“Mayor Sanders has singled me out for my leadership on this issue, citing how my ‘independence and policy knowledge’ has improved the process,” Lightner said. “But we still need to ask tough questions so that we can improve service levels and provide adequate oversight for city contracts.”
Ray Ellis resides in Carmel Valley with his wife, Gina, and 10-year-old son, Jake. He moved to San Diego from Los Angeles in 1987 to start a direct-mail marketing business, which employed more than 250 people in San Diego and Virginia.
He later became involved in philanthropic organizations, and currently serves on the boards of the Balboa Park Conservancy and San Diego Venture Partners, which recruits and connects volunteers with non-profit organizations. He also serves on the board of The Parker Foundation, an endowment funding charitable efforts benefiting residents of the region.
In 2008, Ellis was appointed by the mayor to serve on the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System Board, a post that he said made him realize he could do more to effect change serving on the city council. He stepped down from the pension board last year to run for office.
Ellis faces challenges in his bid for the seat. In San Diego, an incumbent city council representative has not lost a bid for reelection in more than two decades.
Yet, Ellis has raised an impressive amount for his campaign — $151,105 compared with $117,808 for Lightner, according to a Jan. 31 filing.
Ellis ratcheted up the campaign rhetoric last week, declaring that, if elected, he would not accept a city pension, retirement benefits or salary. To offset the amount of Lightner’s pension, which she may begin collecting as soon as she leaves office, Ellis said he would give an equivalent amount to the city from his salary, and donate the rest of his salary to charity.
“Mayor Sanders, Carl DeMaio, Lorie Zapf and Kevin Faulconer don’t participate in the pension plan, but Sherri Lightner does,” Ellis said. “No matter what the pension plan looks like after pension reform, I will not participate in it. I don’t believe that you can be a fiscal conservative on the city council and participate in such an egregious plan.
“When I became a (retirement board) trustee, I was appalled to find out what the deal was that the elected officials had. It’s a lack of leadership and it creates the wrong culture.’”
Based on his experience with the Balboa Park Conservancy and retirement board, Ellis said he can offer a fresh perspective on reform—first and foremost as a champion of managed competition.
“I feel like we can address some of the critical issues, like pension reform, like better fiscal management, by aggressively and thoughtfully implementing managed competition, and by having a pro-business, pro-economic growth agenda at city council,” he said. “If we do those things, then we can get money back into our communities.
“I’ve got 30 years of business experience and 20 years of community and civic service leading volunteer boards. I know how to get things done and I know how to grow a business.”
Ellis said the city saw investment returns of almost 25 percent during his tenure last year as president of the retirement board.
In addition to replacing pensions with a 401(k)-type plan, the Comprehensive Pension Reform measure would also freeze pensionable pay for city employees for the next five years, a freeze that proponents say would save taxpayers $1.1 billion over a 30-year period.
“I’ve reached out to labor,” on this issue, Ellis said. “I think you have to have everybody at the table when you’re having these complex discussions. If you’re making $48,000 as a young firefighter and you’ve got a wife and maybe a child or two — it’s a tough deal to put 15 percent of your gross pay into a pension.”
As a solution, Ellis suggests increasing the retirement age for city employees.
“I think some of these young safety members are open to those kinds of ideas, because it will lower their cost and lower the taxpayers’ cost,” he said.
As with Lightner, Ellis said he would focus on reducing regulation.
“First and foremost, we should take a look at our fees and freeze those, for maybe up to 36 months … so we can give clarity to small businesses, on whether to grow and hire new people,” Ellis said.
“Having built (business) facilities in San Diego and in Virginia, I can tell you it was a much easier, simpler and streamlined in Virginia. We definitely need oversight, but we don’t need overkill.”
Though Ellis is careful not to characterize himself as part of a concerted trio of Republican council candidates, including Mark Kersey in District 5 and Scott Sherman in District 7, if all were elected, it would create a Republican majority that Ellis said would help him accomplish many of his goals. DeMaio and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, both Republicans running for mayor, have endorsed all three candidates.
“Mayor Sanders has done a wonderful job leading the city through a very difficult time, but had he had more fiscal conservatives on the council I think he would have been able to accomplish a lot more,” Ellis said.