By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Economic growth, a new library, medical marijuana, climate action, homeless and more were all topics discussed at the Sept. 15 Candidate Forum hosted by the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce.
The event at the La Mesa Community Center brought a few dozen residents and two candidates — incumbent Councilmember Kristine Alessio and candidate Colin Parent. Incumbent Councilmember Ruth Sterling was unable to attend at the last minute due to a slip and fall that broke her arm. In a statement read by Chamber of Commerce president Mary England, Sterling shared her regret for not attending and reminded the audience that she was the first candidate to accept the invitation to attend the event.
The forum, which was moderated by local businessman and Chamber board member Bill Hammett, began with Alessio and Parent giving opening statements. Alessio said when she first ran for office in 2012, her priorities and goals were to maintain La Mesa’s fiscal health, make public safety a top priority, improve transparency in government, ensure La Mesa retains its character and maintain programs for seniors.
“All of them, I’m proud to say have been achieved,” she said, listing recent actions by the City Council that included cutting the city’s pension liability, reaching a deal to pay police and fire competitively, and construction on Collier Park.
“On top of that, La Mesa is becoming a hot, new place to move to,” she said.
Parent shared his resume of experience in public policy — working at the East County Economic Development Council while in high school; campaigning for Gov. Jerry Brown and then working in Brown’s administration for two years on affordable housing and economic development policy; and his current job as a transit safety advocate at Circulate San Diego.
Parent then shared the top priorities of his campaign.
“The first is public safety. Crime is actually going up in La Mesa,” he said, pointing to a recent report that shows a 30 percent uptick in violent and property crime. Parent said the city should try to offer police longer contracts to retain good officers.
Improving quality of life was Parent’s second priority and he said he would support new growth and new businesses in the downtown area.
Referencing the City Council’s process to hire a new city manager, Parent said transparency would be the final priority of his campaign.
“It was just announced at the [City Council] meeting that the outgoing city manager was retiring and a new person was coming in. And I think that’s just the absolute wrong approach,” he said. “I’m not saying the person they hired isn’t qualified. I’m sure she’ll do a fine job; but a City Council of our size does two important things — they pass a budget and hire a city manager. It’s really important that we have an open process for that.”
The first question for the candidates was about the Proposition L sales tax and what their preferred plans to replace it would be, when it sunsets in 13 years.
Councilmember Alessio said the city has been sustained by Prop L money in recent years and she is worried that the SANDAG half cent sales tax increase on this November’s ballot will make it difficult for the city to propose a future replacement for Prop L. She continued her criticism of the SANDAG proposal, saying that it leaves almost nothing to La Mesa.
“If we are going to sustain La Mesa’s fiscal health, we need to be in control of our own destiny regarding taxation,” she said.
Parent agreed that Prop L is crucial for the success of La Mesa’s budget but that it is too early to predict the city’s needs to replace it.
Unlike Alessio, Parent said he supports the SANDAG sales tax increase because it has “very clear explanations on how that money will be spent.”
La Mesa will get $1.5 million for local transportation improvements and included in the measure are improvements to the 94 and 125 connections, he said, adding that the SANDAG proposal also has funds for grants that could be used to change the trolley interaction at Spring Street.
“That is the kind of proactive approach that that measure is going to enable La Mesa to take,” he said.
Funding local events
A question on the funding of local events, like the car show and Oktoberfest, found the candidates in agreement that the city did the right thing by stepping in to keep them going after the Village Merchants Association went defunct.
“I voted to support these events and the way I look at it, there are certain things that when there’s a void, government needs to jump in there and take care of,” Alessio said.
Moving on to the next question regarding how La Mesa can lure new businesses to the city, Alessio said the council has been successful; she then pointed to a decision to hire a marketing consultant to promote the city that she voted for.
“You can see that its worked. La Mesa is booming,” she said. “We have 20, 30 new projects. We have new restaurants coming. We have new housing. It’s not just downtown either, it’s all over the city.”
Parent agreed that promoting small business is a key responsibility of City Council and added that projects like the downtown streetscape was “the right kind of approach.” But he added some criticism that the project took longer than expected and some businesses were not able to survive the disruption.
He also questioned the effectiveness of the city’s marketing strategy.
“Hiring a marketing consultant was perhaps the right choice given how far behind La Mesa was. I think we had a Facebook page as of this year,” he said. “I don’t know that we needed a marketing consultant to do that. I probably could have introduced you to a high school intern who could have set that up for the city.”
Parent said that events in La Mesa are the biggest drivers of attention and marketing, and having an active business association would be more effective in promoting the city. He added that changing antiquated rules and a “culture of hesitancy” in approving new projects would help empower staff to encourage development in the city.
On whether La Mesa should build a new library or not, the two candidates agreed that they’d like to see one, but had different takes on the feasibility of getting it done.
“My view on this is that if the City of La Mesa is going to invest in a new city center, … if we’re going to do a big project like that, one of my conditions is that it has to have more space for the library,” Parent said, describing libraries as “very important.”
If the library were to be built into a new civic center, financing could come from a couple of different options, including a paid parking lot and adding housing or commercial space to the project, he added.
Alessio said funding the library would more likely have to come from a bond measure.
“Part of problem for getting funding for a new library is that we have a new library already,” she said, adding that there are other options to increase the size of the current library.
And if the civic center redo is planned with a new library?
“I’m all for it,” she said.
The candidates had different approaches when it came to dealing with homelessness in the city.
“Having experience with a family member who was homeless at one time, I understand this issue,” Alessio said. “It’s a difficult bind. Government can’t solve it all, but we are doing a lot of things through our police force; the councilors directing to service; and pressuring the county for money to help.”
Alessio said the police department, city manager and city attorney meet weekly to address the issue and the city also has the support of many faith-based organizations to help the homeless.
“La Mesa is not going to solve the problem of homelessness,” she said. “It goes to mental health. It goes to the county needing to cut loose some money to treat people who want help. What we can do is take care of people here and make our residents feel safe.”
Parent said he worked on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing with the Brown Administration at the Department of Housing and Community Development, as well as the City of San Diego’s Housing Commission.
“Yes we have to have services for the homeless, but what the homeless really need is housing,” he said. “That’s why they’re homeless and that needs to be the focus.”
Parent said La Mesa needs to be more aggressive in getting resources from the county, which receives federal dollars and vouchers specifically earmarked for affordable housing projects.
“We need to go to these guys and say, ‘Maybe homelessness wasn’t a big deal in East County five, 10 years ago when you wrote these policies, but it’s a big deal now,” he said.
Community choice energy
The candidates gave similar responses to a question of whether La Mesa should pursue a community choice energy plan.
Parent said the city should study community choice energy and look at whether it will cost more for consumers, be effective, and whether it can be done efficiently and competently in La Mesa.
“I’m not persuaded that we can run our own utility in La Mesa by ourselves, but perhaps part of a [Joint Powers Authority] or a regional agency, so we’d have the economy of scale to do that,” he said.
Alessio agreed that it would be a difficult program for the city to do on its own but that she thinks the city should investigate the feasibility of community choice energy.
“I’m always in favor of giving consumers choice,” she said.
Medical marijuana dispensaries
The candidates also had differing positions on medical marijuana dispensaries — Parent said he is not entirely against them and Alessio does not want them in the community at all.
Parent believes that voters will overturn the current ban on marijuana dispensaries this November.
“I think we have to be prepared for that situation,” he said, adding that the city needs to be strict about rules and shut down any illegal dispensaries even though the cost to do so is about $10,000 to $12,000 for each illegal operation.
“I think that’s a reasonable investment to make to preserve the safety and the tranquility of people in their neighborhoods,” he said.
Alessio said the illegal marijuana dispensaries are a problem.
“The city doesn’t just sit there and let them operate,” she said. “There’s a very complex legal process that we have to go through to get them shut down. If the landlords won’t cooperate with us, then we have to go to court.”
She said La Mesa has increased funds to the city attorney by $75,000 just to address illegal dispensaries.
Alessio said she hopes voters don’t pass the ballot measure to allow legal dispensaries in La Mesa, but if the measure does pass, the city has already begun researching how to regulate them and where to put them — away from schools and residents.
The candidates then gave their closing remarks, touting their strengths and making pitches for votes.
Alessio again listed her accomplishments on the City Council and cited La Mesa’s strong growth over the last four years.
“I am your neighbor. Your concerns are my concerns,” she said.
Parent listed his own accomplishments and added that, if elected, he’s be the only Democrat on the council.
“I think it is important to have some different views representing the city,” he said.
The next chance for voters to listen to the candidates talk about these issues will be Sept. 28 when the La Mesa First United Methodist Church, 4690 Palm Ave., will hold its public forum for City Council candidates.
The event begins at 6:30 p.m. with a chance to meet the candidates and the forum starts at 7 p.m.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.