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.
“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.