About two dozen people attended the second in a series of public forums for the five candidates for two open seats on the La Mesa City Council on Thursday night in the council chambers.
Hosted by the League of Women Voters, candidates Kristine Alessio, Patrick Dean, Laura Lothian, Shannon O'Dunn, and incumbent Ruth Sterling answered a series of questions submitted by audience members.
The discussion was moderated by a representative from the League of Women Voters, and topics discussed included usual hot-button La Mesa issues like pension liability, the PBID, parking fees, and the homeless issue. Below are each candidate's responses to certain questions:
Roughly 80 percent of the city's general fund goes for personnel costs, and capital improvement projects are largely dependent on grant money. What is your vision for the La Mesa’s future and how would you sell the austerity to get there?
Alessio – I’m not quite sure I understand the question, but I’ll give it a stab. How would I sell the austerity? Are you talking about budget cuts? I’m not sure we need budget cuts, I think we need a healthy national economy. I think continuing to rely on grants is an excellent way to do things, but I don’t think within the city’s budget we need to be cutting things and doing an austerity program. We have a pretty healthy city. I don’t think we need an austerity program, so I don’t really have a comment on what I would cut, what I would do. We are a well-run little city.
Lothian – Finances are always the biggest challenge for households, cities, counties, states, countries. And my mindset, I’m not a saver, I focus on how to increase revenue. That’s how my mind goes. And I’ve thought about this for La Mesa. I’d like to see revenues increase by making La Mesa the friendliest business city in the county. I’d like to see our process for obtaining a business license go from four-to-eight weeks to four-to-eight days. I know that we need to comply with state and federal regulations, but I’d like to resist adding additional La Mesa regulations that burden new and existing businesses. I think it’d be great if we had a liaison from within that helped people navigate our planning department, our permits, our zones, our business licenses. If we would embrace businesses and had businesses easily expand and open up, we would increase revenue and we wouldn’t have to worry about any cuts.
Dean – As far as I understand it, that’s pretty much a normal state of business for cities, that we pay our employees is a big part of our budget. And I think the people in our capital improvement departments do a really sharp job of getting projects done and coming in under budget. I think [the question] is trying to illicit a response that I really don’t agree with. We don’t need to sell austerity, but we do need to continue to be the well-run city that we are. And the Finance Department is doing an excellent job. When you see that we have 25 percent of our money in reserves, and you look at other cities that are having a hard time, I don’t think we’re ready for big changes right now.
O’Dunn – You see this number of 80 percent going to city employees as if it’s some kind of shocking thing. It’s not. The City of La Mesa offers services: fire, police, public works, community programs, it’s what we do as a city. And the fact that most of the taxpayer dollars goes to pay the people who provide those services is exactly what should be happening. What we do need to do is to make certain that as we look at redeveloping certain undeveloped properties, that we work as good partners with the people who are coming in to provide positive development for those places in an expeditious fashion, so that we can replenish our tax base and continue to provide the services that La Mesans expect.
Sterling – Seventy-five percent of our general fund and that comes from property tax and sales tax. Our capital improvement, that is not all grants. Much of it is, but we have monies that come from the state of California in a very low, revolving state loan, under 3 percent. Our budget, our unfunded projected revenue is $58 million. Our general fund is $38.6 million, and our projected event expenditures are $39 million, so we’re doing quite well, with $10.5 million in reserves.
Is global climate change an issue that should be addressed on the city council, and if so, what can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?
Lothian – Yes and no. I think it could be addressed in a way where you’re teaching good habits to people. I do think though, that’s not a priority for La Mesa. We’re a small city. It’s like for San Diego, you could be the cleanest city possible, but you’ve got sludge coming up from Tijuana. So I think that there’s other priorities for La Mesa. Number one is getting our financial house in order, and I think that’s just too big of a reach for a small town.
Dean – I think it’s imperative that we take that into account with every action that we do. I’d like to see us survive as a species past my grandchildren’s time. And we do that by making small choices. We need to get out of our automobiles, but not everyone wants to do that. I can understand that, so the way we get there is to make sure the choices are there for the people who do want to do that – who do want to get on their bikes or walk and live close to where they work. These are things that we have to consider when we look at these long term goals and we look at the capital improvement projects.
O’Dunn – I’m an earth scientist. I’ve read the data. I don’t think the council should be in the business of trying to determine scientific data. I will tell you that it’s pretty compelling that carbon emissions and global temperatures rise, but I’ll also tell you that it happened 30,000 years ago with no human carbon emissions to speak of. So I don’t it’s a council issue, but there is a happy confluence between sensible environmentalism and the things that we need to do for our families anyway. And the city is on its way to doing this. Walkability of the streets addresses childhood obesity as well as keeping the SUVs in the garage. Safe public transportation is something that we absolutely need to do. One of the things that hasn’t been said is that the city does a tremendous job recycling, and I congratulate us for that. Let’s keep working on those kinds of things and I think we will be doing a service for our city and the planet.
Sterling – La Mesa started a sustainability committee. We have all of our new buildings in the civic center LEED certified. We have shredding events. We can compost now in our yards. And we do have the cars, here in the city, that are cost savings and environmentally futuristic. The public works has gotten involved in all the walkability, sustained walking in La Mesa.
Alessio – I think the federal and state government have enacted plenty of laws that address the effects of global warming, and I don’t think the city needs to enact different laws above what we are already facing. I agree with what’s been said that walkability is important, providing safe biking routes and encouraging mass transit is great. Encouraging green buildings is great. But I don’t think the city should be taking the lead on federal and state issues as to that. We need to encourage alternate transportation. I drive a hybrid, my SUV is gone. But I think these things should just be encouraged, not have the city council force additional regulations on the people.
What should be done about the homeless population overcrowding the La Mesa library during the day and at night?
O’Dunn – Our library is part of a larger system of libraries, it’s not a standalone La Mesa institution, and they deal with this problem in downtown San Diego and a lot of other municipalities. I’m not a librarian, I don’t deal with that, but I would empower our librarians to talk to other municipalities and find out how do we deal with this? Because I think it is an issue for La Mesans who wish to use the library. This library has the highest use per square-foot of any branch in the county. I don’t think it’s an appropriate place to be sheltering the homeless. But I don’t know what the solution is. I know other branches deal with it and hopefully there can be a dialogue to find out how to address it.
Sterling – Police officers responded to 181 calls for transients and they made 181 contacts with transients and the three top spots were Allison Avenue and Parkway Drive as well as Jackson Drive. And so it’s a police issue. They’re called, they deal with it. They try to work with the transients. That number has gone down a little bit from last year. But they come and they go. And that’s one of the thoughts about the streetscape, because there will be bathrooms downtown with the streetscape. So you know, it’s a balancing act. You think about are we going to have more transients go in there and wash up and so on? So these are hard times and we see it in the city in all ways.
Alessio – I think homelessness is going to be a continuous problem for every city in America. It’s not something that’s going to be easy to fix. It’s not something that I think La Mesa needs to build a homeless shelter to fix. I think we need to direct them to resources in the city of El Cajon as a way to go. I also think that the police need to be informed and that the transients need to move. It’s a very sad situation. Some people are mentally ill, and this is where they sleep. And it’s sad, but I think that ‘No Loitering’ signs is the solution, and politely asking them, ‘C’mon we need to move along.’
Lothian – It’s a question you’re asked all the time, and a city manager told me, ‘it’s a trick question. You can’t solve the homeless problem, you can only manage it.’ I love our library. But I think that the homeless problem is too big of a problem for a city to handle. I think it’s best left to a state or even federal issue where a city might ask for resources to help. I do like the idea of if there are facilities, lead them that way. If it is hurting our library, where hundreds of people are using our library to study, research, check out books and movies, and if they are deterring people from using our library – especially if they are combatitive or if they smell very bad, that you do ask them to leave, and if they are resistant to it, you call the police.
Dean – There are no homeless services in La Mesa. And I really don’t think that kicking them down the road to El Cajon or to San Diego is the compassionate, responsible thing to do. For a city that is well-managed and well-run, and has the resources to partner with the county and find a way that we can offer these members of our community that are having a hard time, trying to find a way to work them out of it. But we need to offer them something here. I think one of the things the council can do about it, is to fight the ‘not in my backyard’ attitude that there’s gonna be about it, and we need some people with backbone to stand up and say ‘like it or not, these people are part of our community, and let’s work with them to try to make things better.’ But until we get rid of inequality in this country, we’re not going to get rid of this problem.
How much are you spending on your campaign, and do you have any debt from previous campaigns?
Dean – I have a very small amount. I raised it from friends and family. And I’m knocking on doors when someone seems a little excited, I ask them to throw five or ten bucks at me. So I think that I have about $1,500 or $2,000 budget and I’ll make the best of it. So I’ll direct people to my website, deanforlamesa.com, and at $100 you become a platinum member (laughs).
O’Dunn – No campaign debt as of today, nevermind prior campaigns. I’m not going to go into debt for this campaign, because that’s no way to run a campaign and it’s no way to run a city. I’m doing the best that I can with the resources that I have. I think this is a low five-figure race. I think there’s no doubt that’s what it will take to get the word out. I’ve found that a lot of money in this county is going west toward the mayoral race for San Diego because it’s so polarized. We’re also seeing people hold on to their wallets because of the uncertainty with the national election, whatever side you are on. So the donations aren’t really out there.
Sterling – Campaign funds and my own resources is what I have been using for my campaign. And I would say it would be in the five-to-seven thousand dollars.
Alessio – I also agree that it’s going to be a five-figure campaign to effectively reach the 58,000 residents. Primarily, it’s my parents and my husband supporting my campaign. And I’m very proud of that. I’m not out pounding the pavement. I have no debt today. I’ll have no debt after this. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have by good old dad and my family members. I also feel fortunate to have people who aren’t giving to me financially but are out there with me on the streets walking with me. I have a grassroots campaign. It’s my friends from the PTA Board, from the schools, from the pet therapy program. So when you see people out there walking with me, it’s my friends and my family.
Lothian – I have no debt. It’s gonna be five-figure, about a $10,000 race. I have friends offerings, friends and clients. But it’s very hard for me to ask people for donations. I feel very uncomfortable with it. But what I do have is my signs in different neighborhoods and two Segway knockoffs. That’s what I had to do to entice people to knock on doors with me.
Can you name anything that you feel the current city council is ignoring that you would attempt to correct if elected?
O’Dunn – I really don’t see any big lacunae in what the council is doing. I think they are doing a good job on working with the City Manager on what the city needs in terms of budgeting. I would like to hear a little more in public, as much as it can be said, about what the plans are for redevelopment of properties that the city owns. I’d like to hear more, in public session, about what we might be able to do with the three developable or saleable properties that the city owns that those pressures are bringing to bear on, so that we clarify that. The old police station was partly acquired with housing funds and we have to do something with housing if we’re ever going to redevelop it, or it’s going to be sold. Let’s get that word out so people don’t think that their pockets are full of little goodies that the city’s just sitting on, instead of giving people what they deserve.
Sterling – One of the things the city council will be doing is looking at what we’re going to do with the police station property, and I want to see us bring something there that brings in the most revenue to the city. I’ve had calls about regulations, and I would like to see some of the regulations downplayed a little bit by the city.
Alessio – I think the city council has done a fabulous job working on the issues that face the city. I think we’re going to miss Mr. [Dave] Allan quite a bit. They’ve gotten along. They’ve built consensus. There’s not a burning issue that I want to bring before the council as my hot issue. I’d say continue to work on infrastructure and safety goals. Continue to work on the pension liability as well as the redevelopment. I do think we need to be more business friendly, but I feel like we are more business friendly than people realize. Again, I think it’s very well run. Whoever is on the council needs represent everyone in La Mesa fairly, evenly, with integrity and transparency, and that’s what I’ll do if elected.
Lothian – There is an issue an issue that I saw the council bring up a few months ago, but haven’t seen anything since. We have blight in La Mesa. I don’t mean there’s some weeds and some trash. I mean there are entire empty lots. There’s an ordinance in La Mesa that you’re not supposed to see dumpsters. If you start in Mission Hills on El Cajon Boulevard and you drive east, you won’t see a single dumpster overflowing in front of a single shop, a store, a business a restaurant. Mission Hills, Hillcrest, North Park, South Park, Talmadge, Kensington. It’s not until City Heights and then there they are, all the way into La Mesa. For me it’s a cause. I’d like to see abandoned shopping carts gone in hours, not days or weeks. I’d like to see lot owners in La Mesa and they have high weeds and garbage and hypodermic needles. It’s selfish. Those owners with their neglect are hurting entire neighborhoods. That is my big issue.
Dean – I think the affordable housing really needs to be addressed. There are less than 500 Section 8 houses for a city of more than 58,000 people. To get those you have to get on a waiting list. And in the meantime, we’ve had only one project in the last nine or ten years that deals with affordable housing, and that’s the one down on the trolley off of Fletcher. So I think we can do better there. I’d like to see us to live up to what SANDAG is asking us. Because there are lots of people moving here and we have requirements for this. So we need to get on the ball and work on that.