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District One Candidates Meet in Debate

The three candidates for San Diego City Council’s District One seat jostled for more than an hour, April 22, over issues from paid parking to the Children’s Pool and City bond ratings in a debate co-sponsored by the La Jolla Light and the La Jolla Town Council.

Gloria Penner served as moderator for the Tuesday evening debate, which was attended by roughly 70 people. Penner mixed in questions of her own with questions that had been submitted to the La Jolla Light in the weeks leading up to the debate.

The three candidates – Sherri Lightner, Marshall Merrifield and Phil Thalheimer expressed agreement on several hot-button La Jolla issues. All three vowed to oppose paid on-street parking, for example, and said they believed that court orders to dredge the Children’s Pool should be followed.

They differed somewhat on city-wide issues such as restoring the city’s bond rating and balancing the city budget.

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Thalheimer said the most critical issue facing the city is “transparency” so that trust can be restored in local government. Merrifield listed restoring the bond rating as his top priority, followed by improving the quality of services offered by the City. Lightner offered inclusion of the neighborhoods in building a better San Diego as her top priority.

In his opening statement, Thalheimer touted his community involvement, especially his work on behalf of the Mt. Soledad cross and his work to keep sex offenders in prison.

Merrifield stressed the need of District One to have a good advocate. He reviewed his record as a financial expert and business founder and said these were qualifications that would make him a good advocate.

Lightner talked of wanting to restore neighborhood confidence in city government and of getting “the people” more involved in city hall. She stressed the need for restoring hope and working together.

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The first major disagreement came on the question of outsourcing city jobs.

Lightner came out strongly opposed to outsourcing. “How many of you would like to have your children at the Rec Center being supervised by a low wage, no benefit, part-time employee?” she asked.

Thalheimer, who said he favors increased outsourcing, objected to Lightner’s characterization, saying the city could ensure the quality of employees in the contracting process.

Merrifield stressed a “managed competition” approach, in which city workers would be permitted to compete for work with outside sources.

All three candidates opposed pay raises for the city council and opposed the current system of travel reimbursement for council members

Merrifield drew the first applause of the night when he said somewhat sardonically, “you usually give pay raises for performance.”

On the question of paid on-street parking all three candidates made strong statements against the idea.

All three candidates also expressed varying degrees of support for the idea of making La Jolla its own city. However, all three also expressed skepticism that such a move could be passed. Lightner said that there is some possibility that San Diego could “divorce” La Jolla, so long as a proper “alimony” is paid. She said that if La Jolla can prove itself financially viable, it should be its own city.

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Merrifield said that the important thing is to preserve the “nature and character” of La Jolla.

Thalheimer said if the idea “pencils out” and it is what the citizens want, he would support cityhood for La Jolla.

The three candidates were in agreement again in opposing the “mansion-ization” of La Jolla. Lightner touted her ten years of working against mansion-ization. Merrifield called for a stronger role for local planning boards. And Thalheimer stressed the need to do a better job following the current building code rules.

As the topic turned to city finances, the conversation took a sober tone.

Thalheimer again stressed that contracting city services out could be a huge money saver. He said that outsourcing the city’s information technology needs would be his first priority, a process that he said would save $30-$60 million “right away.” He said he would then look at other city services that could be outsourced.

Thalheimer added that he thought Mayor Jerry Sanders was on the right track with pension reform and that there was still overlap in city departments that should be addressed.

Merrifield began by saying he hoped this year’s budget projections would hold up, calling this a “wild card” in the budget debate.

He then said his first priority would be to straighten out the city’s bond rating so that the city could immediately start saving money on the service of its debts. “We can do this,” he said, as he walked the audience through a step by step plan for getting the bond rating to AAA.

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Lightner said her first priority would be to recover funds from former city officials whose legal fees had been paid by the City. She said that would amount to $4 million. She said managed competition would not produce budget benefits quickly enough to matter this year. She added that she would ask the neighborhoods to make choices about what services they would like to cut.

The three candidates took quite different tacks in answering a question about traffic in La Jolla. Merrifield stressed that development of very large projects in the UCSD and UTC areas look likely to contribute heavy traffic flows. He said that while he supports the development, more community input is needed on how to deal with the increased traffic.

Lightner stressed the need for more public transit into and out of La Jolla, and Thalheimer suggested small and reliable shuttle services, possibly provided by the business district.

Differences were also obvious in their answers about development with Lightner advocating a reduction in development in La Jolla, Thalheimer suggesting that some taller buildings might be needed in La Jolla and Merrifield drawing applause again when he said, “we’re not going up in La Jolla.”

Lightner also said clearly that the Regent’s Road Bridge should not be built. Merrifield, said the bridge is already underway and should be built, and Thalheimer said that the bridge is not being built at the moment and that it should only be built if other options are tried and do not work.

At the conclusion of the debate, Penner told an obviously appreciative crowd that District One is lucky to have three clearly well-qualified and intelligent people running for the local city council seat.

Two more debates are scheduled during this political season. On May 9, the Light will co-sponsor a mayoral debate and May 13 the Light will co-sponsor a City Attorney debate.