2013: Prologue To A Key Political Year

By Chris Lavin

La Mesa Today Editor

LA MESA -- John Steinbeck knew the truth about real change. "Men do change,'' he wrote, "and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. Change may be announced by a small ache, so that you think you're catching cold. Or you may feel a faint disgust for something you loved yesterday. It may even take the form of a hunger that peanuts will not satisfy.''

And in many ways, this is how 2013 was a year of change in La Mesa -- subtle, but perhaps profound shifts in the life of this small town.

The big, powerful change, perhaps happily for some, proved elusive. Rather, the signs of an improving national economy trickled down into La Mesa. The massive Park Station project remained mired in a mulling/environmental impact stage, but two new housing projects started, including a KB Homes project  along the 125 and a major project on the former Coleman College site.

Developers also began flirting again with the El Cajon Boulevard corridor with an apartment/in-fill project approved and financed. Other nearby lots beckon in that area.

In La Mesa's heartland, its downtown Village, political wrangling eventually gave way to the precise work of engineers and architects. A major grant from the San Diego Association of Governments was won and as 2013 ended, construction contracts were going out to begin the first major renovation of that time-capsule neighbor in more than a quarter century.

The City of La Mesa's staff also completed a General Plan update, a bureaucratic-sounding accomplishment for sure, but one that clearly put lines and plans on a map, describing the way this city hopes to harness and guide the redevelopment pressures that are building everywhere within this region.

And it is in this context -- a small city, crossed by trolley lines and regional highways, buffeted by regional trends not within its control  -- that La Mesa's 2013 can be seen as prologue to a potentially watershed year in 2014.

For much of the last three decades Art Madrid, a long-time actor on the political stage representing local industry and then as council member and mayor, enters another election year -- this time as an octogenarian under pressure with an increasingly restive and ambitious City Council. At the same time, Dave Witt, a long-serving civil servant is fast approaching a time when retirement beckons and a council that has been increasingly feuding with its mayor will need to attract talent to bolster what is generally considered to be a talented small city staff.

With city finances still running at an annual deficit following the Great Recession, the outcome of the 2014 political season can say a lot about La Mesa's immediate future.

So far, Madrid has given no indication of stepping away. "I'm running,'' is his quick answer to the question. Yet, for much of the last two years, virtually every City Council meeting has become a quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet struggle between Madrid and a shifting coalition of council members. Council member Ernie Ewin and newcomer Kristine Alessio have partnered alternately with Council members Ruth Sterling and Mark Arapostathis to clip the mayor's wings, requiring more collaboration and reporting from the mayor of his activities and representation of the city at regional, state and national government associations.

Bolstered by a local coalition of active citizens, these "rein in Art" efforts have made for pretty low political theater in part because the squabbles can seem petty and untethered to significant local issues voters might understand or care about. Madrid's most active detractors -- members of the La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group in particular -- love to speak at meetings and quote Jefferson, Hamilton and other great political thinkers before accusing Madrid of being a bully or other personal attacks. But none of Madrid's detractors have brought a substantive alternative vision to the fore, outlining what a change in leadership might mean for this city. Some of Madrid's opponents are sponsoring a term-limit initiative that could make it to November's ballot, but, beyond symbolism, that effort won't affect the current leadership questions.

Madrid's detractors, on council and off, did manage to scuttle the mayor's efforts to create a Property Based Improvement District in the city's historic Village, but no one offered an alternative plan for shaping what has become an increasingly thin management of Village promotional efforts. At this time, the key Oktoberfest event is facing re-engineering due to security issues and its long-time management has resigned.

Still, at the same time, in real politics, Madrid can point to the redevelopment projects now underway -- including the downtown Village street scape project -- a rebounding of the city's sales tax revenue and a new General Plan as examples of the city's success under his watch. With the possible exception of Santee, Madrid can also claim a more solid performance than any of his bordering cities in recent years.

Of course La Mesa runs on a "weak mayor" form of government, meaning Madrid holds just one vote among the five council members. But even this poses a challenge to any of the sitting City Council members who might want to challenge Madrid for the mayor's job. Take on Madrid and criticize the city's current policies and performances and you're criticizing your own performance as well. It is hard to praise the police force, firefighters and city staffers, while beating up on the mayor who has had a hand in creating the environment and fiscal support for their efforts.

None of Madrid's four fellow council members have announced plans to take him on, but, given the angst and personal animus exhibited among the city's politically engaged, a race is almost certain and, given the political dynamics, may require someone to take on Madrid's style if not substance. Council members Ewin and Alessio seem the more likely opponents from within the Council, but perhaps someone not currently engaged in city politics will emerge.

In 2010, a relatively unknown local realtor, Laura Lothian, ran against Madrid. Her tactic was to describe the city as trash and graffiti-strewn and to argue that a change in leadership could revivify the city. Though the graffiti and trash approach didn't seem to fit with most people's view of their hometown, Lothian's relatively strong showing in that losing race suggested to some that Madrid was beatable. And Lothian's later poor showing in the 2012 council race further cemented a feeling that Madrid has some strong negatives among the electorate.

Any long-serving politician gathers strong name recognition. At the same time, having lived through many difficult neighborhood issues and other contentious political battles also can build up a growing coterie of detractors for the veteran pol. Voters remember their personal disappointments far more than the good service that is expected from their politicians and the civil servants.

Still, unless death or the ravages of age are going to reshape La Mesa's political future, it will take a candidate who can frame an urgent need for a new voice in handling the pressures -- economic and development issues -- that will have the greatest impact on the Jewel of the Hills in the coming years.

The events of 2013 in La Mesa suggest that redevelopment efforts, like the city's sales tax income, may slowly continue to revive. But will this recovery be strong enough and long-lasting enough to keep La Mesa's civic coffers full enough to pay for services and support a staff talented enough to maintain the look and feel of the city that current residents clearly prefer?

Time, as it always does, will tell.

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Tags: Art Madrid, Dave Witt, Ernie Ewin, Government, Kristine Alessio, La Mesa Citizens Oversight Group, La Mesa City Council, La Mesa Today, La Mesa news, La Mesa newspaper, More…Mark Arapostathis, Ruth Sterling

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Comment by Minh Nguyen on January 3, 2014 at 9:00am

As a newcomer to La Mesa community, I appreciate this article.  In the brief summary, it gave me the broad view of the social, economical and political climate of La Mesa.  My personal experience with the Mayor is that he is very hands on in the support of local businesses thus in turn helping La Mesa to grow.  Looking forward to 2014.  Love the shirt!!

Comment by chris shea on December 27, 2013 at 2:58pm

Well written article capturing the essence of our city's current climate.  A really good job, Chris.  I'm sure comments will further elucidate some of the division we are experiencing, but I see good things coming in 2014.  Call me crazy but I still think that what unites us is far greater than the things that seem to divide us.  

Comment by Mark Cavanaugh on December 27, 2013 at 10:25am

Are you serious Chris?  No mention of the $34 million unfunded pension liability all under Madrid's watch which has in reality bankrupted the City!  No mention of the Mayor's puking on the sidewalk from being drunk at a party while he had another employee drive him home who then lost her job because of it.  No mention of Madrid's many year's of unrestrained travel costing the City thousands which thanks to the Oversight Group got reined in.  No mention of Madrid's bypassing council wishes to promote special interest groups like the Fair Trade Group.  No mention of the many times Madrid has berated citizens for having a voice, calling them names, and bad mouthing them in public.

Madrid championed the Prop L $7.5 million sales tax increase which was supposed to make the City whole and "save" the police and fire departments but instead, we are still in a deficit which will only get worse due to the increase in healthcare costs and pensions. Sales tax rebounded?  Not really.  Let's not forget the $800,000 penalty for the sewer debacle again under the Mayor's watch, a part time Mayor who pretends he is a full time Mayor spending nearly day at City Hall like he is the City Manager.

This is a Mayor who takes credit for every Grant the City ever obtained while having nothing to do with them using this as a reason he should travel to Miami or Las Vegas mainly to promote his green agenda and party with his fiance.  A green agenda he does not live by himself as he drives around in his Mercedes parking in front of city Hall instead of his assigned parking spot in the back.

This is a Mayor who turned his back on business and the local Chamber of Commerce which helps promote the City through the Oktoberfest, Taste of La Mesa and honoring the City's safety employees.  That's right, the Mayor has never attended this event that honors eight Fire, Police RSVP and Paramedic employees for their service nor does he show up for ribbon cuttings.

It is not the responsibilty of the City Council to offer alternatives to the Mayor's PBID offing.  It is the responsibility of the Merchants Association and if they can't get their organization together to do it, then so be it.  Last I checked, the LMVMA has never missed an event whether it be the car show, Antique Street Faire, XMAS in the Village or Octoberfest.  Just because it isn't run how Madrid wants it run doesn't mean it has to change.  That is up the Merchants Association.

The Mayor is a walking billboard for the politics of destruction type of governance and he will lose next November, make no mistake.  This Mayor, a career politician has been on the Council since 1981 and he can take responsibility for the financial mess we are in, the unfilled potholes, the sewer fines, the lack of civility on the Council, the sales tax increase (other cities haven't had to (Santee. Lemon Grove, San Diego) just like he will take credit for all the redevelopment

Comment by Don Wood on December 27, 2013 at 9:10am

Art will be reelected. He will complete the new civic center complex when the new city hall is built, then will ride off into the sunset to the cheers of La Mesa voters.

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