San Diego City Council District 1 candidates discuss La Jolla issues: Hillel student center, taxes, infrastrcture


During the Wednesday, May 18 Meet the Candidates dinner forum at Congregation Beth Israel, the four candidates who’ve consistently attended public meetings with voters (Ray Ellis, Barbara Bry, Kyle Heiskala and Lou Rodolico) got a final chance to interface with La Jollans before the June 7 election. The fifth name on the ballot, Bruce Lightner, was not present.

The questions covered issues of concern to the District 1 Jewish community, like the construction of the Hillel Student Center on La Jolla Village Drive. The long-proposed project for UCSD students has confronted the opposition of neighbors and city planners for years.

Bry was first to answer. “If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m Jewish,” she started. She explained that since this is a “land use” decision, it is considereded a “quasi-judicial” proceeding. “This means that if a candidate takes a formal position for or against the project, they would likely have to recuse themselves from voting on the project on the City Council. So, I will not take a formal position,” she said.

Heiskala said he’s in favor of all student groups at UC San Diego having their own centers, and he would review their concerns with the stakeholders.

Ellis said he would wait for further assessments before expressing an opinion. Rodolico seemed not to have an opinion on the issue.

The cross atop Mt. Soledad was also on attendee’s minds. The Jewish community expressed its concerns for a publicly-funded Christian symbol. Rodolico said, in his opinion, the cross is not a symbol of religion, but sacrifice. “I would like to see that the cross remain outdoors,” he said. Ellis agreed with him.

Heiskala reminded the crowd that the cross is no longer operated by the city (it’s under the auspices of the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial Association), so it’s not a concern of the San Diego City Council.

Bry said that millions of dollar have been spent already in the memorial. “I don’t think additional government resources should be spent on any further litigation.”

Cory Briggs, taxes and infrastructure

The meeting had a recognizable face among its attendees: Cory Briggs, the lawyer and driver of the Citizens Plan (also called the Briggs Initiative) that calls for a hotel tax increase to build an extension of the convention center downtown (but not on the waterfront), and which prohibits taxpayer money from being used to pay for a Chargers Stadium. Briggs listened attentively to what the candidates had to say.

Asked if they would raise taxes for any reason, Heiskala and Rodolico were quick to say that a tax increase would be part of their plans, Ellis said he would refuse to increase taxes (calling himself a “steward” for the taxpayers), and Bry said she does not want to raise taxes, but supports the Citizen’s Plan to raise the hotel tax rate to 15 percent. “At the same level as other cities,” she remarked.

Briggs joined the line of people waiting to ask questions, and when it was his turn, he inquired: “Do you understand that the $1.7 billion backlog is not to fix our infrastructure going forward, but just to bring us to today’s standards? That’s a yes or no question. Also, if going forward the estimates of $5 billion to $10 billion is what we need to plan for our capital improvements for the next 20, 30, 40 years — assuming properties are stable and you don’t raise your taxes — how are you going to pay for that?”

The $1.7 billion figure is the total cost of all the infrastructure projects needed in San Diego, as determined by a city investigation that came out in August, 2015. Councilmember Mark Kersey, chair of the Infrastructure Committee is behind Proposition H, a bond measure that will be up for vote on the June 7 ballot, and that would separate funds for the exclusive purpose of catching up with the infrastructure deficit. The proposal, which has been rejected by groups of citizens, received the support of Bry, Ellis and Heiskal, as reported in the May 19 issue of La Jolla Light.

All four responded that they understood the $1.7 billion infrastructure deficit. As for part two of Briggs’ query, although they had already stated their positions on a tax increase, Briggs’ premise was how would they get the infrastructure funds without raising taxes.

Ellis said, “What we need to do is make sure that we are using our money as wisely as possible.” He advocated creating an “economic environment” where San Diego companies can thrive.

Bry’s solution was to improve the contract awarding system at City Hall. “My business office has been in La Jolla Shores for the last 10 years, and I have watched our streets being torn up a few times to have the same work done over and over again … We need to make sure that the work gets done properly the first time,” she said.

Heiskala stated his intention to revise the public contract awarding process in a previous question, and reaffirmed the notion. However, he continued describing how he would indeed raise taxes. “We need to provide a concrete list of projects that we can educate the voters about, and then say: this is what you will get if your taxes increase,” he said.

“This is the issue that faces all cities of age,” started Rodolico. He proposed alternative ways to increase the city’s revenue, like legalizing marijuana and reaping the taxes from sales.

PACs and campaign finances

One questioner confronted Ray Ellis about the recent mailer sent by a Political Action Committee (PAC) on his behalf asserting that Bry supported a Chargers Stadium funded with taxpayers’ money. “What would you do if someone with a PAC puts out a false statements about you? What do you think about money in politics?” he said.

Ellis responded, “A candidate is not allowed to talk to those independent expenditure groups, so there’s no conversation between me with any groups ... I want to point out that there’s also a tremendous amount of money spent in this district by labor unions, and they are putting a lot of money in this district for their candidate. ”

Bry highlighted that she’s very proud to be running a “grassroots, volunteer-based campaign.” Heiskala said that he believes money in politics discourages voter participation, and Rodolico agreed with him, adding that “It makes sense to have public funding for election money going forward.”