La Jolla Rotarians host District 1 City Council debate

• VIDEO: Watch an entire debate between San Diego City Council District 1 candidates Sherri Lightner and Ray Ellis from a previous Sept. 19 debate, presented by

La Jolla Light

, at

By Pat Sherman

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.

The city has not filled vacant posts created over the past few years by officers leaving for other cities or opportunities, she said.

“We may need to be making other adjustments to benefits in the near (future) so that we can actually attract and retain our police officers,” she said. “They’re waiting for the other shoe to fall …with respect to the pension reform that has been ongoing in the city.”

If elected, Ellis said he hopes to further the discussion on retirement benefits.

“We are seeing pensions just continue to escalate,” he said. “Mortality rates are dropping, people are living longer, and this is going to drive the pension costs up. There’s downward pressure on the assumed rate of return, which is the amount of money that the portfolio is gaining each year and we need to come up with some alternatives.”

Addressing the economic forecast in the city, Ellis took aim at San Diego’s newly formed Economic Development and Strategies committee, which is chaired by Lightner, stating that it has done “very little” since its formation beyond holding meetings and giving PowerPoint presentations.

Lightner said the committee has received the “buy-in” of the city attorney, mayor and independent budget analyst.

“Since we have started we have created the Connecting Careers (job training fair), where over 300 folks showed up to connect to careers. We have done the regulatory relief; we have implemented a Hire-A-Youth program. … If you look at the other committees and you see what they’ve done, you will be astounded at how much we’ve achieved.”

Asked what their three key issues would be in their first 12 months in office, Ellis said: the “proper” implementation of Proposition B (pension reform); economic growth; and a review of the guidelines for the city’s managed competition program, which he said, “are somewhat favorable to the city employees.

“We want to make it a level playing ground,” Ellis said, adding that the city “should be working with (the business community) to solve their problems, so they can be healthier and we can have more job creation in San Diego.”

Lightner said her priorities would be to finish pension reform; implementing her comprehensive overhaul of the city’s water conservation policies; and assuring that the Economic Development and Strategies committee releases information on a “strategic plan for the city of San Diego to grow jobs in this region, to close the job skills gap and to see how we’re going to partner with our institutions, private companies and the government going forward.”

Asked if La Jolla should become its own city, independent of San Diego, neither candidate directly answered the question.

“That’s why I ran (for office); I thought the neighborhoods were being neglected by city hall,” said Lightner, an engineer who previously served as president of the La Jolla Town Council and La Jolla Shores Association. “I know right now Independent La Jolla is working on their feasibility studies. If it’s going to happen it needs to be a good deal for La Jollans, as well as for the city of San Diego. I don’t know what your alimony payment will be, but I have a feeling it might be up there.”

Ellis said he shared the frustrations that are the root cause of some La Jollans wanting to secede from San Diego.

“La Jollans don’t think they’re getting a good deal, and, quite frankly, I don’t think they are either,” he said. “We are one of the most pristine communities in the world, but it just doesn’t feel pristine. We are not trimming our trees; we are not taking care of our roads. … We need to have a strong councilperson, like myself, who is going to represent this district and be aggressive about the needs of this district and the communities within the district.”