The race for the two available seats on the La Mesa City Council is officially on following the first of a series of candidate forums, held on Thursday night at the La Mesa Community Center.
Incumbent Ruth Sterling was joined on the panel by four opponents: La Mesa business owner Shannon O'Dunn, realtor Laura Lothian, catering manager Patrick Dean, and attorney and Planning Commission member Kristine Alessio.
After a quick introduction of each of the candidates, moderator Gary Clasen began with the series of questions submitted by audience members, with each candidate having no more than two minutes to answer.
The first question dealt with the issue of councilmembers being part-time positions, and whether the candidates thought they should receive pensions and medical benefits for the position.
"We want to have people devoted to doing a good job," said Dean. "I think we can maintain [current levels of] what we have now. I think giving me a bit of a salary is a good thing."
It was revealed that the salary for councilmembers is about $1,000 a month, "so none of us are doing this to make money," said Lothian.
"If you are working part-time, then I don't think you should get a full-time pensinon" said Alessio. "I've kind of adopted the Jeffersonian idea of public service. I don't even want to take a salary. I believe in serving the public."
Another question that was raised was whether or not the parking meter fees should be increased, and what [theoretically] the candidates would do with that money.
Sterling said that she already thinks the rates are high enough, and that people having to worry about feeding the meter, "hinders consumers from staying longer in stores or restaurants." She said that she would like to see the parking meter money used to stay downtown and help fund a streetscape for the Village.
Lothian, who serves on the city's Parking Commission, agreed with Sterling, saying she'd like to see the parking meter funds used to improve the Village.
"The parking meters collect about $300,000 per year," she said. "I've seen businesses open and close. I've seen stained sidewalks, and trash on the streets of the Village. Why not use that money to help maintain the Village and make it a place where people want to come?"
O'Dunn had an alternative idea.
"I don't think we should raise the parking rates. We need a parking structure," she said. "The city already has the land for it. People can come and park safely and when they leave, they pay for what they owe."
The next question dealt with the most talked about and debated issue in the city: The La Mesa Village PBID. Each candidate was asked to give their thoughts on the issue.
Sterling: "It came to the council once in a while for review what’s been going on. When it finally came to the council and we saw the whole picture, I feel like it’s too large. They included the schools and churches and the school administration building, I just think the PBID is too large. It’s too expensive, it costs a lot of money annually, and a lot of it was for administration and marketing, and I think they should be for what it started to be – to help the downtown merchants and partner with the city, and to work with us, the city, on the streetscape to keep it clean and that’s what it was all about to begin with, but it got out of hand."
O’Dunn: "I was one of the people on the PBID formation committee and I spent a lot of time looking at the variables that were there. The short version, and sort of the 'countrified' version that settled in my soul was, ‘That dog had fleas… but that dog could hunt.’ And I think it’s a shame that the city has gone through two iterations of a bid and a PBID and can’t seem to get this done. And I don’t mean city with a ‘capital C’, but I really thought that to focus on creating an identity in an essential corridor between development that’s going to happen in the west and the redevelopment of Grossmont Center to the east would pay dividends in the long run.
And I think when you see Grossmont Center demoed (demolished) and you see 25 percent of your sales tax revenue go away, you’ll be very glad that you have a vibrant revitalized downtown. That said, lots of people didn’t agree – lots of good people didn’t agree. So here we are."
Lothian: I would actually be the perfect person on a jury for the PBID. My office is downtown, my home is downtown. I’ve had people tugging on my from both sides, and seriously, I think there are components of it that would help the Village. I think we do need the maintenance part. But it is too big. It grew to be almost $400,000 per year in raised property taxes. It became controversial and it became very bloated. I’m on the Parking Commission that has seen parking meter revenues of $300,000 and I have to ask myself ‘Why not try using that for at least the maintenance part that was part of the PBID?’
We should use money that’s already there and not try to raise money from property owners or from someone else. So my take is to use meter money, and if it worked fantastic, and if it didn’t go back to the drawing board. And it’s important to not bloat the administrative costs, which were almost $100,000 a year. That $100,000 would completely transform the Village."
Dean: "I don’t think that we should be raising revenues from the school district or from the churches, and in some ways from taxpayers to pay for the marketing plan for a downtown business owners. I think that’s the basic flaw. It was a bit of an overreach and we should be the deliberative well-run city that we are... and make sure that we make the right decision. I think we do need a maintenance district, combined with the Streetscape, and I think the new downtown that I can see with more people living close the streets down there, it’s gonna be an exciting place to be. So I think we need to go back to the drawing board and find something that works, and not have my kids and their schools have to give $7,000 a year that they could use on books or technology."
Alessio: "I think the idea behind the PBID in whatever form it is, is good. But there were flaws that existed, that have been presented here tonight. I also was not exactly pleased, just as a citizen of the transparency of the PBID process. When they were talking before the council, I would have liked to have known what percentage of the property owners were already signed on. That’s something we didn’t know. I don’t like the idea of the city telling the property owners, ‘we’re going to tax you this X, Y and Z.' I think the property owners should be the ones making the decisions. They’re the ones that work there and own the businesses, and they are the ones that need to come together to create a solution."
Another issue raised by an audience member was that of the City of La Mesa's $31 million in unfunded liability, which costs roughly $2.3 million in interest alone. The candidates were asked what they would do to help the problem.
Alessio: "I plan to win the Mega Millions and pay it off. No, but that is something that everyone on the council is going to have to face. I do think there is a need for pension reform, but it needs to be a gradual thing. You can’t wave a magic wand and make it go away. It took a long time to be developed, it’s going to take a long time to pay if off. I don’t think you should be raising taxes to take care of it. I’m adamantly opposed to the idea of floating a bond to take care of it. When you see cities that have gone bankrupt recently, it’s partly because they tried to pay for their pension debt with bonds and got hurt in the bond market."
Sterling: "Each March when we have our workshop, we discuss the $31M CalPERS unfunded liability. We pay $500,000 each fiscal year, 2012 and 2013. That brings it down to $30M but nevertheless it’s a big chunk, but we are making payments on it and we will continue to do so. We are saving in other ways. We saved over $1M in pension reform in 2009. We saved over $200,000 in fire constant staffing."
O’Dunn: "One of the things I don’t like in pension discussions is when I hear someone say, ‘somebody doesn’t deserve that.’ I’m not the judge of that. If you have the choice of being a geologist, or a peace officer, or a fireman, or a secretary and you make that choice, I’m not going to make a judgment on that. But as a councilperson I need to make sure that it’s a sustainable pension for the city, and not run us into debt or any further debt. There are a number of things we need to look at. Age of retirement, years of service, percentage of employee compensation, the cap on vestiture. There’s no stock answer for this. We have three different employee groups we have to deal with. But at the end of the day, no spiking. We need to put all of these measures in place so that we can tell the taxpayers of La Mesa, ‘these pensions are sustainable,’ and keep our city solvent in the meantime."
Lothian: "Short of bankruptcy, there’s nothing you can do to diminish that debt. It’s there. It’s like the household that has $20,000 on their credit card. You can lament it all you want, but the only way to get rid of it is to pay it off. So I think that if the city is saving $200,000 there, $40,000 here, $80,000 there, I think that money should be chunked away toward that pension to pay it off sooner.
The question becomes how does the City of La Mesa raise its revenues without raising taxes and how does it cut its costs? The city has a list of the vacancies on its website. There are 450,000 square-feet of retail, industrial and office space available. We need to fill ‘em. On that page, there should be a link to where businesses can say, ‘I’d like to own the old Kentucky Fried Chicken building.’ So we should bring in more businesses to increase the revenue. I think the city should hunker down and anywhere where they can pay it, pay it down like you would a credit card. Not $500,000 a year, a million, two million. And I think it can be done."
Dean: "I think we can all agree that providing a stable retirement for the people that have worked so hard for the city, going out and fighting fires or working as a police officer keeping the streets safe, we don’t begrudge them that. I think that we have a great City Manager in Dave Witt and a great financial director Sarah Waller-Bullock. I think we should defer to them on these issues, because they have a plan. They have been paying down half a million dollars a year to get this down. So, I think we’re gonna get there and we should defer to our fine city staff, and to determine whether we agree with it as a staff."
Other issues that the candidates discussed included the proposed development at Park Station, rising Helix Water District rates, and what to do about the homeless situation. These and other issues are sure to be discussed again in future candidate forums, the next one of which is scheduled for in the La Mesa City Council chambers.
Each candidate then got two minutes for a closing statement.
Alessio: I welcome to contact me personally via my website, my home phone number or my email. I’d be more than happy to talk to you. My position is that I am here for you, the citizens of La Mesa, not for any special interest or any one group. I hate to say it but I am an attorney, and I do believe that that aspect adds something to my candidacy through the legalese. I understand that. I do own a business. My father and I have owned a real estate development company for years. We’ve suffered through the cyclical recession and I’ve learned a thing about money management from that. I want to be open and honest and transparent, at all times, and I’d love to have your vote.
Dean: Everyone wants to have their voices heard by their local government. Let me tell you what I think my vision for the city council is. I want to look out for working families to make sure they have affordable housing options. I will not give up on the old police station. We need to convert that into a vibrant part of the city center, but it’s gonna require some real effort. I will work to improve our relationship with the schools, I especially want to work on our relationship with the [LM-SV] District, and parents, you have my ear. I want to improve the choices we have on how we get around. I know that bike lanes, walkability and better transit will reduce traffic, improve our economy and make a more vibrant city. Let’s make La Mesa a leader in East County. Vote for me for a better recipe for La Mesa.
Lothian: I think we all have to look at what we would do for the city through the prism of our profession. Whether you’re geologist, art gallery owner, incumbent, restaurants, attorney, my profession as a real estate agent has my driving the streets of La Mesa every single day of my life. I deal with people moving to the city and away from the city. And I see first hand people pulling in and seeing an abandoned lot, and broken sign and litter and I see people go, ‘No, next.’ So I want to help our neighborhoods get better. Beautiful neighborhoods also decrease crime. We have a lot of crime in the city and have for a long time. I also want to help businesses. I want to be a friend to the neighborhoods and a friend to the city.
O’Dunn: I see this event as a job interview. You are going to be hiring two people, and so I approach this event as a job. I’ve worked all my life I’m still working, and I’d like to work from you. As a fiscal conservative, what that means to me is ‘if you ain’t got it, you shouldn’t spend it. I think we can make this city solvent and keep it solvent going forward. I’m the only candidate to receive an endorsement from the Lincoln Club of San Diego because apparently they think I can do that. I’m the only candidate in the race who ever had sway, signature, authority over direct millions of dollars every year and over 100 public employees year after year that I manage, I bring that to the table. And in the end, I’m a person who loves this city and I know you do too. I’m number two on the ballot, make the your number one choice.
Sterling: Seventy-five percent of the sales tax and property tax is in the general fund. Seventy-five percent is where that general fund comes from. So it’s important to buy La Mesa and to keep our homes rented and out there. I have been with you for 20 years. And I’d be honored to serve you for another four years. I’m healthy and vibrant and active. I only serve you, I don’t have anything to sell. I keep in touch with the folks whenever calls me. I represent them, and sometimes in council meetings maybe I voted it’s like a 4-1. And I got a letter from a gentleman the other day and he said, ‘we didn’t win the appeal, but it felt so good because one voice out there, government did hear us.’ That is why it makes me feel so good to help folks. And I’d like to keep my job. Please vote for me on November 6th.