By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
On Jan. 29, the Grossmont-Mount Helix Improvement Association (GMIA) held a forum for candidates running for the District 2 County Board of Supervisors seat. The forum, held at Murdock Elementary School in La Mesa, was moderated by the League of Women Voters.
“The role of county supervisor is critical to our unincorporated region,” GMIA President Kathleen Hedberg said, adding that with no city council, unincorporated areas like parts of La Mesa and Spring Valley are governed by the Board of Supervisors, “which may have a very tremendous impact on our area.”
In his introduction, District 2 candidate and current Poway Mayor Steve Vaus touted that his city is consistently the safest in the county and his “conservative fiscal approach to everything we do.”
“I think it’s a great blueprint for the rest of District 2,” he said and added that he is endorsed by current District 2 Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who is leaving the seat after 28 years due to new term limit rules.
Kenya Taylor is a licensed marriage and family therapist running for the seat. She said her profession gives her the experience to monitor the county’s health and human services issues, which are the bulk of the county budget.
Lakeside rancher Brian Sesko said his experience as a home builder in the area for 30 years qualifies him for the seat. “I know something about the housing problem out here,” he said.
Sesko also has served as chair of the Lakeside Planning Group. He vowed to only serve one term in office and to reform the county bureaucracy.
Former state Senator Joel Anderson also expressed disappointment with the county – specifically its homeless problem, roads.
“All these problems have grown and grown, yet 51 years ago, we sent a man to the moon with a slide ruler. Today, we have high-speed computers and we can’t find any political courage to get things done correctly,” he said. Anderson touted his record of working with Democrats in the state Senate while retaining a conservative voting record.
The audience-generated questions mostly dealt with housing and development and issues of dealing with homelessness and mental health in East County.
Housing and development
All the candidates said they would protect rural and open spaces in District 2, while promoting new housing developments.
Vaus pointed to Poway’s recent construction of housing in its downtown area. “At the same time that we approved those 200 homes, we’ve expanded our open space by 342 acres,” he added.
Vaus also said that building affordable units doesn’t have to diminish a city’s character and that low-income housing in Poway hasn’t caused higher crime.
Answering a question about campaign contributions from developers, Vaus stated that owning a home is a piece of the American dream. “That’s only possible thanks to builders,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have a litmus test for who can contribute to his campaign and that no one can buy his vote for a campaign contribution.
Anderson also said he takes contributions from developers but his voting record shows he has voted for and against their interests.
“I remember one time somebody else asked this and I said, ‘Well if you think I can be bought, then why haven’t you donated to me?’” he said.
Anderson said low-income, high-density projects “make zero sense” in backcountry. In Sacramento, he said, he worked on bill to lower cost and streamline approval process to build density projects within a half mile of public transportation.
“SB 35 provided high-density, low-income [housing] near trolley stations,” he said. “[Housing] takes planning and sticking to the plan, but the plan keeps changing [and that] is the problem.”
Taylor, who said she does not take campaign contributions from developers, said she supports a “housing first” approach for lack of affordable housing.
“But it is important for us to remember that everyone doesn’t make less than $30,000 a year or less than $10,000 a year,” she added. “We need to make sure we have a plan for the middle class.”
She said she is against development sprawling into the backcountry because “we need to make sure we’re not the next Paradise, California.” She suggested accessory dwelling units could be a solution to adding housing in East County without taking away open space.
Sesko said housing problems stem from mandates coming from Sacramento that “make no sense for those of us that live in the backcountry.” He said he feared the state will remake all neighborhoods to be more dense and decried affordable housing as “a way for people to look to government to solve the problem.”
“I don’t think every taxpayer wants to be paying every nickel and extra dollars to accommodate all the wishes and pleasures of people that need affordable housing,” he said. He suggested less regulations to lower cost of housing.
All the candidates supported developing around Gillespie Field to spur economic activity in the region.
Homelessness and mental health
While all the candidates acknowledged a growing homelessness problem in East County, they differed on solutions.
“One thing that we can do quickly is give the sheriff the tools so he can start arresting these people, getting them into housing to get them off our streets, to get them out of our parks,” Sesko said. He suggested public housing can be done easily by building military-like housing with cots and storage.
Taylor said her experience as a therapist has taught her that “everyone who is homeless doesn’t have mental health issues,” and stressed that economic issues are a primary factor that impacts mental health and wellness.
She said she would work to expand programs like vouchers for hotels and motels for the recently homeless and added that “housing in jail should not be tolerated. I disagree with that. People deserve dignity and respect.”
Vaus said people have a right to clean and safe streets and parks, but at the same time, there is a “moral obligation” to help people who are struggling. The county increasing short-term housing vouchers and the homeless assistance HART program are “big steps in right direction but we need a lot more big steps,” he said.
Anderson touted a bill he helped work on in the Senate to bring state funding to address homelessness in San Diego County. “It was a pilot program and the county chose not to use that money,” he said. “We need that mental health money to triage the homeless.”
Anderson acknowledged that not all homeless are mentally ill, “but we’ve all seen people talking to themselves. We know that that’s a big portion.” He said it is important to not “warehouse these people, but address their issues.”
He said there are only 100 beds for mental health patients in a county of 3.5 million people and that he would expand beds by working with Supervisor Nathan Fletcher to fix problem.
A question on ambulance response times in East County brought a mix of responses. Sesko and Vaus said the county should find funding for more ambulances. Anderson said that more ambulances are only part of the solution.
“We can get more money for ambulances, but if we don’t preserve our roads, we’re wasting our time. They go hand in hand,” he said.
Taylor said the county needs to invest in programs that bring health care to the backcounty.
“People shouldn’t have to just go to the hospital by ambulance,” she said. “We should have opportunities where we’re invested in apprenticeship programs, so when people are interested in going into EMT or other helping professions, we have resources that are there to protect the backcountry and use prevention and early intervention.”
Jobs and transportation
Other questions issues raised at the forum included jobs and the state Route 94/125 interchange.
On jobs, Anderson pointed to the 70 acres around Gillespie Field as “ripe for good jobs.” Vaus also said infill areas are a good place to look for economic development opportunities.
Taylor said she would push to bring apprenticeship programs back to schools, ease regulations for entrepreneurs and promote jobs for veterans.
Sesko said the problem with jobs is lack of work ethic among workers, that he and his friends can’t find people to “actually show up and work.”
“I use GoStaff when I need somebody to come out and help,” he said. “I love those guys because they come out and they’re willing to work for minimum wage.”
The night’s biggest back and forth came following a question about the 94/125 interchange. Vaus laid blame to the delayed project on the state.
“Those are state routes. That should have been in the plan, should have been fought for in Sacramento,” he said, adding that as SANDAG chair, he got the board to prioritize $90 million to fund highway routes in East County, including the 94 and 125. “And we’re not done yet,” he added.
Anderson countered that it is SANDAG’s fault for taking $120 million in bond money for roads and using it for the trolley system.
Sesko blamed SANDAG’s bloated overhead. “One of the ways we can fund some of these roads is do a little investigation as to how come so many people are getting so much money at the top of the food chain out there,” he said.
Taylor stressed urgency to fix the “nightmare” roads in District 2.
“It’s important regarding the discussion about transportation to include the East County now – not later, now,” she said.
All four candidates will be on the ballot for the March 3 primary. The top two candidates with the most votes will compete for the seat in the November election.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.