District 1 City Council candidates gather for their first debate
By Pat ShermanMore than 100 people filled the community room of the La Jolla Village Square mall to hear candidates in the Dist. 1 City Council race pitch their platforms and field questions on everything from ballot initiatives and infrastructure funding to bicycle safety.
The debate, sponsored by the La Jolla Village Community Council, grew toasty from the heat of those assembled in the at-capacity room, many of whom stood or sat on the floor. At times, the discussion became equally heated as the candidates traded barbs on their performance and positions.
During his opening statement, progressive Democrat and pro-seal attorney Bryan Pease took a shot at incumbent Councilwoman and fellow Democrat Sherri Lightner for her reluctance to participate in debates with her rivals.
“This is the first and only debate, from my understanding, that all four candidates will be at,” Pease said.
During a question about library funding, Republican businessman and former city pension board president Ray Ellis also took aim at Lightner. An audience member asked whether the candidates would support reinstating a library ordinance endorsed by former mayor Dick Murphy in 2000. It would have used 4 percent from the city’s general fund for libraries, though the idea was nixed after the city’s pension underfunding scandal came to light.
Ellis cited Mayor Sanders’ managed competition mandate as a tool to save taxpayer dollars that could be used to fund libraries and other city services. He criticized Lightner and some of her council colleagues for not taking full advantage of managed competition, in which city workers bid against the private sector for jobs.
“Ms. Lightner was on the city council for over two years before they even did one (project),” Ellis said. “Thank goodness (Republic Councilwoman) Lorie Zapf joined the team and started to move that forward.”
Ellis noted that San Diego’s in-house fleet maintenance crew was required to bid for their jobs through managed competition last fall, resulting in a projected $4.4 million in taxpayer savings.
“Why in the world did it take so long?” Ellis said. “That would have been $20 million in our general fund if we had done that sooner.”
Lightner said she did “nothing to hold up managed comp.”
“We implemented it as fast as the mayor’s office brought things forward for it and we’ve been very successful with it,” she said. “I’ve been called a leader on managed comp.”
Lightner said she supports reinstating the library ordinance, adding, “It will have to be done carefully. … We have spent a lot of time with pension reform and getting managed comp going … but we can’t go hog wild with our savings.”
Republican candidate Dennis Ridz, who serves as chair of the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board, said he is concerned that library hours have not been restored yet.
“I don’t think those should have ever been cut to start with,” he said. “The library, particularly during the recession, was an important place. It’s a resource for this community, just like the rec centers.”
One UTC resident, who said she often goes walking in the canyon near the site of the proposed Regents Road Bridge, asked whether the candidates support the project.
The long forestalled bridge, which environmentalists say would damage wildlife in Rose Canyon, would provide emergency access and relieve congestion on Genesee Avenue.
Pease, Ridz and Lightner said they do not support the bridge.
“I also do not support the widening of Genesee,” Lightner said. “We know that with the coming of mass transit, including the trolley and direct access ramps at UCSD, we will be able to facilitate north UC (traffic) out of north UC, instead of through south UC.”
Ellis would not say whether he supports the Regents Road Bridge, instead saying the project is “off the table right now,” and that the city’s $800 million in deferred maintenance should take precedence over new construction.
Pushing Ellis on the issue, an audience member said, “You (could) be in office for eight years. I’m presuming you would find the time for it, because I do see the pro-bridge people supporting you and putting up your yard signs.”
Asked whether the candidates support “developer-backed Proposition A,” also referred to as the “Fair and Open Competition” initiative, Ridz admitted that he was not familiar with the measure, which would limit so-called Project Labor Agreements. Lightner said she does not support it “at this time.”
“I believe it will jeopardize about $125 million in state and federal funding we could use for development in the city for public improvements,” she said. “Had we had it in place, we would not have been able, as a council, to negotiate the very good contract deals we got for Petco Park and the expansion of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.”
Ellis said he “strongly” supports Prop. A. “It creates a level playing field for competition — and that’s the way that we’re going to produce a better value for taxpayers,” he said. “It’s very open and transparent. All contracts have to be posted online, so we, the taxpayers, can take a good hard look at these things, and there aren’t any deals made behind closed doors.”
Pease said that, in general, managed competition and Prop. A have been “overrated.”
“The theory is that, well, because we implemented this managed competition, now the bids are coming in lower,” Pease said. “A number of factors could be contributing to that. … Proposition A, I think, is flawed, because it is backed by developers and I stand for the public interest.”
Questioned about their support for a new downtown stadium to house the San Diego Chargers, Ridz said he doesn’t support spending public money on the project.
“It’s not as if the Spanos family and the NFL doesn’t have some money,” he said. “If we could look at some proposition where we would have a small bond and could get this paid off in a very short amount of time, I might support it,” he said.
Ellis, who touted the Chargers as “part of our San Diego brand,” said the stadium should be a “multi-use sports/entertainment” facility to be used for other sporting and large-scale events when the Chargers aren’t playing.
“If Indianapolis can use their facility for over 200 days a year, surely San Diego with our climate and environment can do so,” he said. “I would not support any across-the-board sales tax increase on something like this, nor would I allow it just to move forward. It would have to go before a vote of the people.”
Pease also said he supports the multi-use concept, though neither he nor Lightner support using taxpayer money to build a stadium.
Steve Quinn asked whether the candidates would accept a city pension if elected (three Republican city council members and the mayor currently do not take a city pension.)
Ellis, who has been endorsed by Republican Councilman and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, said he will not accept a pension if elected, and will donate his salary to community charities. DeMaio is championing a measure on the June ballot, Proposition B, which would replace city employee pensions with a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
Taking a jab at the independently wealthy Ellis, Pease said he is “certainly not in a financial position, as some are, to not accept a salary” if elected. “And sure,” he added, “why wouldn’t I take a pension?”
Lightner said that after four years of service she is eligible to begin collecting $10,000 a year from her pension.
Prop. B would change some of that,” she said. “As soon as Prop. B is implemented I will transfer everything to the 401K.”
Ridz added, “If there’s a 401K involved I will take that, but if (Prop. B) is not passed, I will not take a pension.”
UCSD political science major Arshya Sharifian asked what role students can play in helping solve city issues.
Ridz suggested students apply for seats on community boards and volunteer their time with nonprofit organizations.
“We need to bring up a generation that is civically minded and is well aware of the topics that are before the city council, and issues within the county,” he said.
Lightner suggested students get involved with a local planning group or town council, or intern with a local business.
Ellis used his answer as an opportunity to press Lightner on her reluctance to engage in debates.
“Our campaign staff is made up of a bunch of college students,” he said. “We actually connected with a students’ group at UCSD and came up with the idea of a debate, and we’ve been trying to move this along for weeks now. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any response affirmatively from the Lightner camp. We think it’s very important to get our young folks involved in these civic discussions.”
La Jolla Village Community Council member Lorraine Stein asked what the candidates would do to increase fire protection coverage in the under-served UTC area.
Sticking to his platform of pension reform and managed competition as a method of funding city services, Ellis urged for the passage of Prop. B on June 5.
“We need to make sure that we’re aggressively implementing managed competition,” he said. “This talk about our financial situation being somewhat solved is just not accurate. You need to understand that.”
Ridz said the city would need to find money to staff new fire stations, and should prioritize to first build those that are “endangering the public most.”
Noting her work to help end fire station brownouts in University City, Bird Rock and Rancho Peñasquitos, Lightner said negotiations are underway with UC San Diego to build a fire station on campus that also will serve the UTC area.
“We are in the final negotiations,” she said. “That fire station’s coming.”
At the conclusion of the debate, 52nd District congressional candidates Scott Peters (a former Dist. 1 city councilman) and Lori Saldaña (a former state assemblywoman) spoke about their qualifications for office.