By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
Kristine Alessio is running for her third term on La Mesa’s City Council. Although she began her tenure in 2012 as a Republican, she left the party in 2017 citing what she described as an unwillingness by the GOP to call out President Trump’s use of insults and threats and its unwillingness to confront racism and prejudice. Her experience on the Council and her status as an independent is one she hopes voters will view as an asset.
“I’ve enjoyed serving the residents of La Mesa. I’m from no political party. I think that you need a candidate that can bridge these polarized camps and I’m probably the best person to do it,” she said.
Alessio was born and raised in La Mesa. She currently works as an attorney in her family’s real estate development business. Before being elected to the City Council in 2012, Alessio served on the La Mesa Planning Commission for 10 years, a natural fit for her, she said, because her law practice mostly deals with land use issues.
She ran for City Council in 2012, she said, because Dave Allen stepped off the council and asked her to run for his seat.
“I saw it as a logical extension of the Planning Commission because so much of what La Mesa deals with are land use issues and how we’re going to grow, what we’re going to do with housing, maintenance of single-family neighborhoods, all the above,” she said.
Alessio was re-elected in 2016 and hopes to serve a third term if elected this year — a final term, she pointed out, because she helped institute term limits for the city before she was even elected to office.
ADUs and housing
In March 2019, Alessio voted in favor of new ordinances for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Although there was some pushback against the ordinances, which streamlined the process for building and loosened the restrictions on ADUs, she stands by her vote, explaining that ADUs are good for homeowners, good for the housing crisis and provide a housing alternative for an aging population.
Alessio said the resistance to the ADU ordinance was because there wasn’t enough public education about the issue.
“I think a lot of the worry about the ADUs was lack of understanding, and that’s a valid criticism of the Council,” she said. “We should have done a better job explaining the ordinance, explaining how ADUs are allowed, what happens with ADUs, all of that.”
Alessio said that although the Council could have done a better job at getting the information about the ADU ordinance out to residents, the process in adopting the ordinance was a transparent one.
“Not [enough] information was out there to allow people to digest what the ordinance was, what state law was, what we were doing with it. So I think that criticism is valid. When you feel like something is set upon you and you don’t understand it, you feel disenfranchised,” she said. “I think it was transparent, but it wasn’t explained very well.”
Although some single-family residences will build ADUs, neighborhoods are unlikely to see other kinds of housing built in them. Alessio said the city is currently prepared to meet its housing requirements without endangering single-family neighborhoods, which she attributes to a well-zoned general plan.
“So as we grow, it’s already been determined in our last general plan where that will be and what it will be.,” she said. “We’re built out so it’s unlikely to be single-family homes other than the one Phair company project. It is most likely to be multi-family and all-incomes and there are areas — whether they are mixed-use zone or residential business zone — that are already zoned for that and good to go.”
She added that La Mesa is fortunate for having good planning, which brings security for neighborhoods because there aren’t arguments over changing zoning.
When the Friday Night Farmers Market moved from the Civic Center parking lot to La Mesa Boulevard, Alessio was the most outspoken critic of the move, although she said she was only opposed to the day and time of the market, not the market itself.
Supported farmers market for years.
“I like the idea of it,” she said, adding that her preference would be a Sunday morning market in the Village. “It was primarily the restaurants who were in opposition to it and I thought, ‘They’re investing in our neighborhood with employees, with this with that, they need to have a voice.’”
Alessio stands by her vote, even thought there was a lot of public support for keeping the market going. Alessio added she was dismayed by people who reacted to businesses that were opposed to the market by posting fake Yelp reviews and urging boycotts.
“That’s not right. That kind of mob intimidation,” she said.
In the wake of the protests that turned into riots, Alessio was an early member of a group called La Mesa Civil Defense, which some critics described as vigilantism. Alessio defended the group and others that formed in the wake of the riots as a normal reaction to the kind of destruction the city experienced.
“I think when something really tragic happens in your city and people are frightened, they form into groups and they want to do what they feel the police are unable to do due to lack of manpower,” she said.
Alessio pointed to the example of Jeremiah Ellison, a Black Minneapolis City Council member, who led an armed group of residents in the open carry city and protected 10 blocks during the George Floyd protests.
“I admire that in a person,” she said. “Of course, you don’t want to be aligned with people who say weird things like ‘BLM are terrorists,’ but in any group you’re going to have some nutballs. I think I can be criticized for it but I think under the circumstances it was normal and reasonable.”
Alessio said that the groups formed in reaction to the La Mesa protests have gone on to do other work like rescuing people and animals during the recent wildfires, and added that people on both sides are too caught up in painting the other side as all bad and themselves as all good.
“And it’s just not that way,” she said. “If you’re afraid and you’re afraid that your business or home is going to be burned — arson and everything — and you’ve experienced what we experienced in La Mesa, I can see why people want to form [a group] just in case the police can’t handle it.”
At the Sept. 15 City Council meeting, Alessio voted against adopting the proposed citizen oversight plan presented by a task force that wrote it. She said she was worried the Police Officers Association would sue the city because the task force did not “meet and confer” with them when creating the plan.
“I support the idea of an oversight board. I would have rather of had it worked out in advance with the Police Officers Association than now lawyers being involved and now potential lawsuits because this is the last thing the city needs,” Alessio said. “We also don’t want to be a city where the police feel there is no confidence in the elected officials and they don’t have a say. It’s a difficult thing to go through. You want accountability for the police. You want some form of independent review of actions that they take, but you don’t want to demoralize the police force by ignoring their voice. And that was my main problem about how it was handled.”
Besides, the risk of lawsuit and the process in creating the oversight plan, which Alessio said “alienated” police, another issue she has with the plan is that it has too broad a scope for people to make complaints about officer conduct.
“I do believe [oversight] should be for use of force, for discharge of weapons, any allegations of racism, but there needs to be some happy medium for who’s going to take reports from someone saying ‘I’m mad just because I got a ticket,’” she said.
Alessio said she plans to introduce tweaks to the plan at the second reading before it goes to a final vote, and if the issues aren’t resolved with the plan now, there are other avenues to change it later.
“Because it has not gone on the ballot, if you had a whole new City Council, you could get rid of it completely,” she said.
Alessio said the city has done a good job to responding to the needs of people, residents and business owners during the pandemic — her one critique being that the city was a little slow to open up sidewalks for outdoor dining. Moving forward, she said the council needs to give the city manager leeway to do things quickly, rather than wait for council votes to act.
The next major action the city should take, she said, is mortgage relief.
“Because right now you’ve got evictions allegedly stayed by the CDC and they were stayed by the state, but you got landlords that have to pay mortgages and homeowners that have to pay mortgages and as we move forward through this mess, the next group due for some relief may be mortgage holders,” she said, adding that the money for such a program would have to come from the federal CARES Act program.
Alessio added that she prefers to prioritize federal money the city may get for rent-aid programs and supporting local businesses over providing for city programs and employees.
Managing future city budgets, she said, will take a lot of know how because the city already operates on a lean budget that relies heavily on sales tax revenues
“I think it’s going to be an incredible challenge which is one of the reasons I decided to run for reelection,” she said. “The first two years, the way I see it, of the next four are going to be damage control from COVID. That is going to be a difficult challenge that the city is going to need to rise to and we’re going to need consistent, calm leadership with an understanding of the facts on the ground to do that.”
As of now, Alessio said, none of the city’s programs will be put on hold.
“Lots of things, like the MacArthur Park Plan, are already funded. The money is in separate pots, you just can’t take one to another,” she said.
But if the economic fallout from the pandemic persists, managing the budget will be a “tremendous challenge” requiring hard choices. Alessio said her priorities would be to continue funding safety as well as infrastructure and maintenance.
If the economy rebounds quickly, Alessio said the city should concentrate on building parks; creating a Downtown specific plan and a Civic Center plan that includes a library with a joint use performance area and meeting space. She also said the city should fund El Cajon and University Boulevard corridors revitalization and make La Mesa less “Village-centric” by promoting events in other neighborhoods.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.