By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
In 2016, Colin Parent was the first Democrat to be elected in the city of La Mesa in a long time.
“I’m very proud of that and I also think the fact that I got elected as a Democrat changed a lot of the tenor of the politics in La Mesa for the good,” he said. “I really hope La Mesans continue to want to have a Democrat on the council to push for the values that we together have.”
Parent’s 2016 election victory to the City Council was his first run for public office, although he had been involved in politics for some time.
His first “real job” in politics was working for Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign and following that he worked in the governor’s housing and community development office “While there, I was really focused on affordable housing and economic development policy,” Parent said.
After working in Sacramento, Parent returned to San Diego where he got a job on the San Diego Housing Commission before leaving to join local transportation safety advocate group Circulate San Diego as policy council where he worked on promoting safe routes to school and other safety policies for pedestrians. Parent took over as executive director of Circulate in 2017.
Because of his extensive background pushing for pedestrian-friendly cities and walkability, it is unsurprising that Parent views his vote to bring the La Mesa Farmers Market to the center of the Village, and subsequent votes to keep it there, as one of his accomplishments in his time on the City Council.
“It was a surprise to a lot of voters that it was controversial,” he said. “It was a surprise to me too, because every Friday night I would go out there and see thousands of people having a good time, enjoying their neighborhood and being a part of the La Mesa community.”
Parent said most businesses in the Village supported the market, and only a “relatively small group” was “not happy about it but had influence over some council members.”
The eventual vote that kept the market in the Village was not without controversy, however. The La Mesa Village Association lost its control over the market — and the money it was getting to promote the Village businesses. Parent said he ultimately voted for keeping the market even though it meant the LMVA losing its main funding source because it was “made clear” to him by other council members that the only way to get enough votes to keep the market was to take control away from the Village Association.
“My strong preference was to continue the contract with the Village Association and to keep the business community in the driver’s seat of that event, but I could not get two other votes to do that,” he said.
Because the Council looked for alternatives as a compromise to the Village businesses’ dispute over the market and requested proposals from other market managers to move the market, Parent said he introduced a program — the Village Enhancement Fund — as a way to counter the possibility of the market moving elsewhere.
“At that time when I saw applications that were coming in, I knew there was a very real possibility the Council would not move forward with the Village Association’s bid,” he said. “When I proposed the Village Enhancement Fund, it was to hedge against that possibility to make sure that no matter what happened with the Farmers Market, there would still be some revenue that the business community would have access to put on events and promote the Village.”
Similar to his support the farmers market, Parent sees his support for the city’s Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance as taking a popular position, despite pushback from a minority of critics.
“What we have in La Mesa is a small group of people who want to maintain economic and racial exclusion in their neighborhoods and are extremely incensed that their neighbors might be able to invest in their own property to create a new rental unit,” he said. “It is a weird, troubling thing in La Mesa that you have this small group of really angry people trying to fight against new homes and new opportunities for home owners.”
To Parent, these kinds of blocks to housing are a continuation of the historical practice of red-lining — a practice residential communities have used to exclude minorities.
“Is it true that the people arguing about this are waking up in the morning thinking about how to be racist? No. But is it informing their perspective? Yeah,” he explained.
In the year since the ADU ordinance was adopted by the city, there have been over 100 applications to build, Parent said — a number he points to to prove the program’s popularity.
“When you’re looking at a dozen people who don’t like it versus 100 people who have clearly decided they’re going to benefit from it, that to me is a good indication of a public policy success,” he said, adding that the city’s projections show that 5% of property owners will ultimately take advantage of the ordinance and build an ADU.
“That’s not going to solve the housing crisis, but nor is it going to have any large impact to any neighborhood,” he said.
On Aug. 11, the City Council met with developers who made an offer to purchase the Allison Avenue parking lot. Although by state law, real estate negotiations are required to be held in closed session, any actions by the city has to be reported and nay decisions must be ratified at a public meeting. Despite rumors to the contrary, Parent said it is unlikely that the parking lot will be sold.
“We do need to have more homes in La Mesa — and I think people agree with that — but there are a lot easier places to do that than on public land that is currently being used by a lot of important businesses,” he said, adding that sites like the old police station lot where a housing project is already in motion or the underutilized Civic Center parking lot are much better choices for development.
“Those are areas where we should be having talks,” Parent said. “The Allison Avenue lot which is actually pretty well utilized? That shouldn’t be a priority for new apartments.”
On Sept. 15, Parent voted in favor of adopting a Citizen Public Safety Oversight Commission in La Mesa. The proposed citizen oversight was in response to publicized incidents involving La Mesa Police use of force on Black residents. Before the vote, Parent explained why he supports citizen oversight of police.
“My view is, I’m grateful for members of law enforcement who put themselves at risk trying to defend our communities,” he said. “But I also feel — and think most La Mesans feel — that we should expect some accountability for people that are put in positions of significant responsibility.”
Parent said he hopes the oversight board will help create accountability in a way that is constructive and not “based around demonizing any individuals or departments of city government.” He added that oversight won’t solve all the problems but in an “important piece of the puzzle to rebuilding trust in community around law enforcement.”
To rebuild trust in law enforcement, Parent also sees a need for public engagement in hiring a new police chief. LMPD should also approach its assessment of its actions before and during the Black Lives Matter protests with “humility” and realize that it did things wrong, he said. At the same time, protesters need to respect the law and other people’s property.
“Peaceful protests are good — they’re part of what makes America America. We should protect and cherish those things,” Parent said. “But violence, threats of violence, public disorder, those things are totally unacceptable regardless of who is responsible.”
In describing La Mesa’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Parent said, “We’ve had some ups and downs.”
He pointed to the city being overly cautious in closing down parks earlier in the pandemic.
“In some ways that’s good because we’re learning and we shouldn’t be afraid of changing course if we have new information,” he said.
The city’s biggest mistake, he said, is in its use of CARES Act funds. The city’s initial proposal was to use all the money for city costs or some relief to businesses.
“I think both those things are good to spend money on but we were completely missing any direct support for our most vulnerable residents,” he said.
Parent proposed spending an equal amount on businesses and renters behind on payments, but ultimately only managed to get some money for at-risk residents, with the lion’s share going to local businesses.
“Budgets are really expressions of values and I think La Mesa wants to look after our most vulnerable and we want to prevent people from falling into homelessness and we want to treat people with compassion,” he said “I was able to get a little compassion out of my colleagues but not what I think is a fair amount.”
With the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Parent sees City Council budget discussions on the horizon.
“We’re in a position where we do have pretty substantial operating reserves, so we don’t have to make really hard choices right away, but we do got to look to the future,” he said.
Parent said his spending priorities are public safety and any program that helps get out of the economic troubles from COVID.
“We need to make sure that we’re not cutting our development services so tightly that no one can get a permit application to open a new business,” he added. “We need to make sure that if someone wants to come to the city and create jobs, a tax revenue generating business, we’re in a position to say yes to them.”
Parent said his other priorities if he is elected to the next City Council will be implementing the Climate Action Plan and expanding bike lanes and pedestrian safety.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.