By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
City Council candidate Jack Shu has been a longtime advocate for various causes in La Mesa. He was an early advocate for the city’s wellness campaign; worked to pressure the city to adopt a comprehensive Climate Action Plan; and, most recently, helped spearhead the movement to have the city adopt a citizen oversight committee of the police department.
Shu is now running for City Council — his first attempt at public office — to bring what he sees is lacking to the city — a forward-looking vision.
“Overall, I want to have a much better vision for La Mesa,” he said. “The United States didn’t make it to the moon because someone said to Kennedy, ‘That’s impossible, it’s a pipe dream, we can’t get there.’ We made it to the moon because the president put a vision there and he essentially gave us a goal to get someplace that at the time someone would have said was impossible or unimaginable.”
Shu grew up in Los Angeles, before heading north to attend college at Humboldt State University.
“I wanted to go into something to do with natural resources and ended up with a degree in wildlife management,” he said.
After graduation, he went to work for National Park Service and Forest Service and later California State Parks, eventually becoming a park superintendent at Cuyamaca and Palomar state parks in San Diego in the early ‘80s when his wife was pregnant with their first child.
After heading the local state parks, Shu spearheaded a statewide program to link urban populations with state parks and the outdoors. He also worked with groups to save forests and grasslands and helped form the Cleveland National Forest Foundation 25 years ago.
Shu said the Cleveland National Forest Foundation’s “claim to fame” was suing SANDAG and winning with the help of now vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris who intervened on the side of the foundation when she was Attorney General for California.
“We essentially showed that SANDAG was faulty in their document. It was the first time that a major metropolitan planning agency had to decertify a CEQA document,” he said.
When Shu decided to run, he stepped down as the foundation’s president.
Climate Action Plan advocate
With a background in wildlife and parks and wellness, Shu was a natural fit to advocate for a comprehensive climate action plan (CAP) in La Mesa, where he was a fierce critic of the city’s early attempts at drafting one.
“I thought the city initially started completely on the wrong foot,” he said. “I told Yvonne Garrett, this was when she was assistant city manager, that to accept money from SDG&E to help write the climate action plan was a complete conflict of interest.”
That draft led to delays in the plan, then the city went in “a poor direction with the wrong contractor” on a second draft, according to Shu.
“So our initial climate action plans were not only weak, but they couldn’t even copy a good climate action plan from the city of San Diego and at that time, that was one of the best ones.”
After several drafts that Shu graded as “Fs” or “Ds,” the city eventually adopted a plan that is “much better,” he said.
If he becomes a Council member, Shu would like to add to the city’s CAP a drive through VMT (vehicle miles traveled) that would include measuring pollutants from cars traveling through the La Mesa segments of Interstate 8 and CA 125.
“If I knew what I know now with regards to what car emission causes for pregnant women, I would have second thoughts about living in La Mesa because the incidence of problems for the fetus caused by pollutions form cars is so great,” he said, adding that all three of his children have asthma.
Drive through VMT was left out of city climate action plans because SANDAG wanted control over it, Shu said, but if added to La Mesa’s plan, the City Council representative to SANDAG would have clear direction to influence “better policy” on car pollution from San Diego area freeways.
Most recently, Shu has worked on developing a police oversight committee in La Mesa — a reform to policing he said is long overdue.
“Five years ago, the Grand Jury recommended strongly to several cities including La Mesa to form citizens’ review boards. The police chief came out against it, said we don’t need one. City Council did nothing,” he said.
Then the 2018 Helix High School incident happened, where a La Mesa police officer was filmed throwing a Black female student to the ground. The city conducted an independent investigation that took a year to complete and cost over $20,000 and “essentially told us nothing” because the investigation contract was written by the city attorney and city manager, Shu said.
“Their job is to protect the city. That’s their job, I have no problems with that,” he added. “But if that’s their job, you can imagine what the contract is going to look like. It’s going to ask questions as to if the city did anything wrong in a very narrow, specific way. It doesn’t talk about what the police department should have done to prevent that incident, it only asks whether the policy was broken.”
That was when Shu and several others began pressuring the city to adopt citizen oversight of police. The City Council agreed and tasked the police department to come up with a plan — one that when it was presented to City Council, Shu said was inadequate.
“The City Council realized it was a bad proposal because a number of us were quite upset, so they formed the task force,” he added.
Shu volunteered for the task force but recently stepped down to avoid any conflicts of interest while running for City Council. He said that the work the task force is finishing will be presented to the city soon and is written by the “best attorneys in the state who work on these ordinances.”
“So we’ve come a long ways,” he said. “Unfortunately, in between, we’ve had a riot and two banks burned. That should not be the way we do things.
“Some might say, had we done some work five years ago, the event at the trolley station would not have happened,” he continued. “If we had a better system in the city to address these issues, perhaps that officer either would have had to leave the department or would have gone through some other training or something would have helped to prevent that whole thing.”
With the announcement by Chief Walt Vasquez that he will be retiring at the end of the month, Shu said he hopes the city hires an interim police chief from outside the department so that candidates from all over the state or country will have equal footing with candidates from inside the department.
Shu said the new police chief should look at La Mesa arrest data to see if racial profiling is happening and have a plan to address it if it is, because “policing depends on community.”
“It is the community that empowers the police to do their work. If the police do not have the support of they community they really are powerless and that’s why I got into this in the first place,” he added. “I’m not trying to hurt law enforcement, I have 22 years experience being a supervising police officer, teaching community policing. I know our police officers need the trust of the community if they are going to get better and when that trust is being eroded, that’s when police officers lose their authority and power.”
A citizens’ review board is one of the things that can help, he said.
In addition to dealing with the fallout from police incidents and the protests and riots that followed, the next City Council will also be dealing with budget shortfalls and economic recovery from the cornavirus pandemic.
“We know we’re going to have a very hard time with our budget, so there’s not a whole lot we can do, but I think we can be a lot smarter and make La Mesa different in some other respects,” Shu said.
One thing to help the city would be to promote La Mesa as a friendly place to live and shop and dine in to “help our businesses attract customers as they recover.”
When it comes to the city’s housing needs, Shu said he prefers infill developments near transit over high rise buildings. He said that through his work on wellness initiatives, he read studies that show that people who live in buildings over five stories high stop going out to walk around their cities.
“I want people to be walking and when they walk, they start supporting businesses,” he said. “So the ideal situation may be the first story is for commerce, for businesses, and then the next three or four stories up is for residential. If you look at other successful urban communities throughout the world, that works.”
Whether it is housing, climate or policing, Shu said his overall goal for La Mesa is one of compassion and fairness.
“I have a vision that La Mesa is a vibrant community from one end of the city to the other, that we leave no one behind, that we use our hearts as our jewel,” he said. “Our jewel is not a muscle or strength, our jewel is our heart and the heart of La Mesa is going to be big and its going to help build this vibrant community.”
For more information about City Council candidate Jack Shu, visit www.jackshu.com.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.